Revealed: How Germany’s open door to migrants and mad dash to Net Zero has sent it lurching to the Right
Berlin’s famous Friedrichstrasse is a long avenue dotted with glitzy stores, from Galeries Lafayette to Karl Lagerfeld. Last week, it was thronged with shoppers dodging hooting cars driving along under the summer sun.
This busy, traffic-fuelled scene was a welcome novelty for residents of the German capital. Because, for the past three years, Friedrichstrasse has been pedestrian-only, covered with huge flowerpots, wooden tables and chairs occupying the tarmac once reserved for cars.
Although the controversial green zone stretched for only a third of a mile, it was in the centre of the metropolis, near the tourist hotspot of Checkpoint Charlie, the notorious crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War.
The motor ban led to a furious backlash from shop owners, who complained of a sharp drop in customers. Even Germany’s most popular chocolatier, Rausch, situated on a magnificent corner site nearby, was not immune, as streets surrounding the euphemistically named ‘strolling promenade’ became jammed with traffic.
Eventually, Anja Schroder, who has run a wine shop and bar, Planet Wein, for 18 years, decided she’d had enough.
‘My trade dropped by 40 per cent because of the car ban,’ she told the Mail. ‘We lost tourists, but also lots of Berliners who used to pop in after travelling by car from the suburbs. Some other shops, cafes and eateries have gone under.’
Figures depicting Alternative for Germany (AfD) party leader Bjoern Hoecke, CDU and FDP party leaders of Thuringia are pictured during the ‘Rosenmontag’ (Rose Monday) parade in Duesseldorf, Germany in 2020
Anja embarked on a legal battle to bring back the cars and, earlier this month, achieved victory as the Berlin authorities caved in to citizen pressure.
The controversy over Friedrichstrasse has come to symbolise the German people’s fightback against a radical green agenda introduced by the centre-Left coalition led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz. This comes in tandem with a rise in support for hard-Right parties, which is ringing alarm bells.
Once the economic powerhouse of Europe, Germany is at a crossroads. Now officially in recession, it is not only struggling with uncontrolled immigration and high inflation, but the need to keep in step with the European Union’s demands that each of its 27 member states achieve ‘Net Zero’ by 2050.
As a result, the sale of new cars with combustion engines will be banned in Germany by 2035 unless the vehicles are designed to run on e-fuels rather than petrol or diesel.
And purchases of new domestic gas and oil boilers are scheduled to be outlawed from the end of next year. Homeowners have been told to replace them with heat pumps instead, at a cost of thousands of euros per household.
Many ordinary families fear that finding the money to comply with the government’s green diktats will leave them impoverished. One opinion poll found that no less than 80 per cent of Germans disagree with the impending bans.
The EU’s most populous country has been described as a testing ground for some of the most extreme energy policies ever conceived. America’s Wall Street Journal has even dubbed them ‘the most stupid in the world’.
Part of the problem is the success of a decades-long campaign by the Green Party to decommission the country’s nuclear power plants — despite survey after survey showing Germans oppose the ‘ideologically driven’ shutdown.
The last three, which supplied electricity to millions of homes, were closed down in April, and the government has been forced to start firing up coal mines again.
But this is not the only worry on the minds of Germans. Job insecurity is another hot issue. In October last year, blaming high energy costs caused by the war in Ukraine, the chemical giant BASF revealed plans to relocate part of its production to China, with the loss of up to 1,800 jobs.
People protest against the rising cost of living in a demonstration organized by the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party on October 2022
At the same time, 9 per cent of small and medium-sized industrial companies said they would also be moving abroad.
‘There is a real danger of the de-industrialisation of Germany,’ says political scientist Alexander Rahr.
In effect, middle-class Germans are looking at a future without a car, a nice house and two weeks’ holiday a year — staples of their lives for decades. And the result of this turmoil is that citizens are rebelling at the ballot box.
The national coalition government, made up of Scholz’s Social Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats, is wobbling amid the backlash against Net Zero policies and high immigration levels.
No fewer than 1.3 million Syrians (including economic migrants from elsewhere masquerading as citizens of that war-torn country) entered Germany at the invitation of then Chancellor Angela Merkel between 2015 and 2017. There was a slackening off, but now numbers are rising again.
Currently, Germany is experiencing record population growth, with 1.5 million people, including many Ukrainians, arriving last year. They have been joined by 150,000 newcomers in the first three months of 2023 alone.
The impact of this influx has been profound. While the Scholz coalition has long argued that migrants are needed to fill jobs and pay for pensions through their taxes, this year, €36 billion (£30 billion) of taxpayers’ money will be spent on their housing, schooling, integration and benefit payments because many don’t work.
Protesters hold up a ‘Refugees Welcome’ sign in Berlin in 2023
Eight years ago, Syrian migrants arriving in Berlin were greeted with welcome balloons. Now the atmosphere is distinctly cooler.
Local political leaders of all persuasions have told the government they need more money to cope with the never-ending lines at the border. Even the Green Party has joined calls for checks on who is coming in, and why.
‘We need to know at the border who is arriving, where they are coming from and what their probability of staying is,’ said Green MP and agriculture minister Cem Ozdemir as he backed ‘dragnet searches’ at all German borders.
In May, desperate to win back support, Scholz changed tack. His coalition promised tighter controls on all nine of its borders to ‘limit illegal migration’.
But all the signs are it was too little, too late. In a series of extraordinary election results in the past month, it seems German voters are turning to populist parties.
The controversial Alternative for Germany (AfD) — labelled by critics the ‘most successful Right-wing party since the Nazis’ — has won mayoral elections in Raguhn-Jessnitz and Sonnenberg in the east of the country in recent weeks, prompting the Central Council of Jews to say nervously: ‘This is the bursting of a dam.’
Recent polls put the AfD, with its anti-immigration manifesto, at almost 20 per cent. That puts it ahead of Scholz’s own party, which currently stands at 19 per cent, and only 7 per cent behind Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) with its conservative political ally.
As Michael Kretschmer, a CDU leading light, observed: ‘Something is slipping in this country. The energy transition, the heating law, the refugee policy . . . brought victory to the AfD. These issues threaten to tear society apart.’
Germany’s traditional political circles are reeling in shock. Given the nation’s Nazi past, hard-Right politics have been taboo since the end of World War II.
The AfD’s junior wing has been under surveillance by the German secret service, whose officers have stated that they have instructions from the state to make sure the AfD fails as a party.
While it has 79 seats in the national parliament or Bundestag, up to now it has been kept out of government office because none of the other parties will work with it. But the AfD is promising to put its own candidate in the race to become Germany’s next chancellor at the 2025 election.
‘The people are frightened of the future. Government policy is destroying their lives,’ says Beatrix von Storch, a lawyer and AfD’s deputy leader, when I met her at the Bundestag.
She revealed the largest cohort of voters for the party are aged 30 to 59, ‘working to feed their families’, and with a disposable income of £2-3,000 a month — a figure that places them firmly in the middle-class. Polls show that among AfD supporters, uncontrolled migration is the main concern.
In the east, where the AfD won those two mayoralties, one of the party’s local leaders, Siegbert Droese, has a similar story.
He told the Mail: ‘We have not changed our views in ten years. We are the rock in the middle of a fire. The people are coming over to us because they are disgruntled and fed up.’ He showed me a Union flag on a wooden stick, signed by Nigel Farage. The former Ukip leader gave it to him when they met in Berlin a few years ago.
‘Traditional parties are failing,’ says Herr Droese, pointing to the flag proudly. ‘The Germans used to think they lived in a rich country. They could buy a home, get the car, have a holiday. Now they face a future without those things. They are looking for answers wherever they live in Germany. They are changing their politics because they are desperate.’
The resentment stretches across the country into the more liberal and prosperous west. In the country’s smallest state, Bremen, a region scarred by high unemployment and crime, a new political outfit billing itself ‘free conservative’ made an impact in elections last month.
Called ‘Citizens in Anger’, it won nearly one in ten votes by championing family values, questioning Net Zero policies, mass migration and transgender issues.
Its cause was helped when, just before the vote, a local councillor and Green Party member made a serious gaffe. In one area, she scrapped the so-called ‘bread roll button’, which gave locals free parking for just enough time to pop into the High Street bakery without incurring a fine. Such was the backlash, the councillor has now resigned from politics.
Commenting on the shock result in Bremen (run by a coalition of Mr Scholz’s Social Democrats, the Greens and the Left Party), the respected magazine Der Spiegel said: ‘Voters are now scared of change, whether it be in their boiler room or inner-city streets. The Greens are not able to answer these fears or respect the voters.’
The founder of Citizens in Anger, which since the election has morphed into a new outfit called ‘Germany Alliance’, is Jan Timke. He told the Mail from his office in Bremen: ‘Dissatisfaction with traditional parties is increasing fast — particularly in the east of Germany’.
‘Again and again, people say they didn’t take to the streets to fight the old Communist regime to end up in another kind of dictatorship, which we have now.’
All this does not bode well. Even Sahra Wagenknecht, an icon of the German Left, who has been a fixture in the Bundestag for many years, questions the wisdom of uncontrolled migration and forcing heat pumps on to a reluctant population. Ms Wagenknecht told the Mail that she has no sympathy for the ‘populist’ AfD. She believes some elements of the party are Nazi and use language that ‘verges on racist’.
But on some issues they agree, and this has put her at odds with the Left. As a result, she is thinking of forming her own breakaway party, which is predicted to draw voters from the AfD.
She has warned previously that: ‘Green government policy endangers Germany as an industrial location and threatens jobs and prosperity in our country.
She told the Mail: ‘It does not make sense to close our nuclear power stations and spike up coal consumption instead. We also need to find a way to limit migration . . . and not overburden our already struggling communities.’
We live in strange times when the extreme wings of the Left and Right are in some semblance of agreement and yet this is the reality in floundering Germany today.
The facts are stark. Only two weeks ago, Volkswagen scaled back electric vehicle production at one of its plants here, with a workers’ organisation blaming sluggish sales on ‘strong customer reluctance’ to going green.
Back in Friedrichstrasse, a new electric car showroom with models made in Vietnam obviously hasn’t heard the news.
The woman managing the showroom told me she hopes the EVs, costing over £50,000 apiece, will sell fast to Berliners. She may, given people’s hostility to the Green agenda they represent, be very disappointed.
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