Robert Habeck: ‘We have to be more pragmatic and less bureaucratic’

The Vice-Chancellor of Germany, Robert Habeck, discusses the upcoming European elections, economic decline, gaps in the job market and higher defence spending on the Global Conversation.

Germany aims to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2045, despite being one of Europe’s biggest polluters.

The powerhouse economy is also the third largest in the world after the US and China, however, Gross Domestic Profit shrank 0.3 per cent in 2023.

According to the German government, real GDP is forecast to increase just 0.2 per cent in 2024 and 1.2 per cent in 2025. 

Following a period of sluggish growth, the country fought to keep inflation down but can the Bundestag balance economic and climate policies? 

Euronews reporter, Olivia Stroud, spoke with Germany’s Vice-Chancellor and Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Protection, Robert Hack, to find out more.

To watch this episode of theGlobal Conversation, click on the video in the media player above or read the full interview below.

Euronews: What is at stake for Germany in the European elections in June?

Habeck: For Germany, it is important that Europe commits to being European, that we grow together. The internal market is extremely important for the German economy. The internal energy market, which has been created in recent years, is a part of this. This is the German perspective as an economic and energy-providing country in Europe.

As a European, I must say, that it is extremely important that Europe becomes a political, noticeable entity. At the moment, Russia, the US and China are at odds on the world stage. It remains to be seen if Europe has a role to play there.

If we divide, if we do not act united, then major geopolitical decisions will be made over our heads. Since Europe is fundamentally a continent of liberal democracy, decisions will be made against or at least without consideration of our values.

Therefore, our economic, energy policy and climate policy interests, are all valid and important. Ultimately, this is about keeping Europe – as a union of liberal democracies – strong within the global community.

The future of the world will not be decided by the competition that exists between Germany and France, Denmark and the Netherlands, or Sweden and Finland. The future of the world will be decided in the competition between the USA, China, and Europe – and potentially India and Russia.

EU member states must recognise that their role is in Europe and affirm it. The European rules, the subsidies, regulations for economic support, approval procedures, foreign policies, and the ability – as difficult as it is for me to say – to create a European arms industry.

We must face this realisation. If we understand Europe as a loose alliance of 27 states and do not equip it properly, saying that European integration must continue, then we will not be competitive globally.

Stuck in an economic rut

Euronews: Germany is facing an economic crisis, and people’s purchasing power has decreased. How do we get out of this?

Habeck: For Germany, it must be said that the country has been particularly hard hit for two reasons. We had this heavy dependence on Russian energy. Gas is over 50 per cent, 55 per cent, coal, but also oil, it comes from Russia.

And so it’s no wonder that the German economy has been hit particularly hard. All of our contracts had to be renegotiated. It was different in the likes of Spain, the UK or Denmark. And Germany is an export-oriented country.

So we rely on the global market, and the global economy is weak. China also has economic problems – which subsequently affect Germany much more than other countries.

But we’re fighting our way out of it. We have ensured energy security, we have now reduced energy prices, inflation is coming down, interest rates will soon fall again, and then investment will resume. And the global economy will pick up again. And then the country will have weathered this period of weakness.

Too many jobs, too few workers

Euronews: How can the labour shortage in Germany be addressed?

Habeck: Firstly, we need immigration. This is absolutely not a new insight. But for too long, conservative political parties have said, ‘No, no, we don’t need any of that.’ Secondly, we need to better integrate those with potential – the people who are already here – into the labour market.

This particularly concerns young people who do not have vocational qualifications or lack professional qualifications. This has to do with the education system, with the further education system.

To put it in numbers, there are 2.6 million Germans between the ages of 20 and 35 here, who do not have vocational qualifications. And that’s a political problem. It’s not an individual problem where you say, ‘You just have to try harder.’ Too many people fall through the cracks because they may have dyslexia or problems with math. But still, they might be good craftsmen, talented in nursing.

The same goes for female workforce participation. It’s worse in German-speaking countries – Switzerland, Austria, Germany – than the European average. Much worse than in Scandinavia. There is still a lack of childcare infrastructure so that one can balance family with work – also a political task.

And thirdly, I would say, in an ageing society, we need to work longer. Those who want to work longer should be allowed to do so.

Record high defence spending

Euronews: Military spending in Europe has increased significantly. What are the consequences for the economy?

Habeck: Either we didn’t see it or we didn’t want to see what Putin was doing, how he steadily built up his armies there.

I don’t like to spend money on armies and armaments. I can imagine it would be better for education, for research, for further education, and for climate protection and sustainability criteria. But we have to do it.

The time for not wanting to is over. Therefore, we have to increase military spending to be able to protect ourselves, for guaranteed European protection. We can’t rely on the Americans as the guarantors, but we have to become less dependent. Military spending has increased in the last two years because we have supported Ukraine so strongly.

In my opinion, however, it must be stabilised, also for… You almost have to say, the repair of the European and at least the German army in order to be able to do something.

Preparing for a carbon-neutral future

Euronews: According to a report by the European Environment Agency, the EU is not prepared for climate change and heatwaves. What do you plan to do to change this?

Habeck: Now, first and foremost, the aim is to limit global warming as much as possible. It’s solely about slowing down, containing the curve in a way that allows people to adapt, to withstand this significant change.

When you look at this from a biological and social perspective – relating to social cohesion and our communities, we must make our cities more resistant to heat and rain. We must make agriculture more sustainable. 

We need water reservoirs in arid regions. We must review water management. We need coastal protection measures along the coasts and significant investments.

Euronews: More speed in the energy transition in Europe: What needs to be done? And what does that mean for industry and people?

Habeck: In the next term of the European Commission, there needs to be less bureaucracy in the expansion of renewables. We are making our lives unnecessarily difficult in some ways when you read The Renewable Energy Directive, I don’t know if all of that needs to be so meticulously and extensively regulated.

So if we really want to make progress, we need to be more pragmatic and less bureaucratic.

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Germany’s Olaf Scholz has become a major problem for Ukraine

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Between leaked recordings, loose-lipped press conferences and confused policy, the German chancellor is in serious trouble.


After months of what appeared to be an effective stalemate, a new narrative of the Ukrainian conflict is setting in: unless the West both expands and speeds up its support for the Ukrainian military, Russia could soon have a major window of opportunity.

And with the US House of Representatives still yet to clear a new package of American military aid, European NATO allies are moving to ramp up their contributions to the war effort. But not all of them are on the same page – and the continent’s largest economy is suddenly looking like a major political and strategic problem for both Ukraine and NATO as a whole.

Germany has been on a long journey since the Russian invasion in February 2022. The then-relatively new government led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz oversaw a major change in German defence policy by announcing the country would provide Ukraine with military hardware, a move that helped prove how seriously the West as a whole was taking the conflict.

Since then, however, the Germans’ part in the war has been somewhat muddled. On the one hand, German Euros and materiel have been reaching Ukraine, albeit on a stop-start basis. The country’s defence ministry clearly acknowledges the seriousness of the conflict: it has increasingly urged Europe to anticipate a larger Russian threat to countries beyond Ukraine, and is deploying combat-ready battalions to Lithuania, meaning German troops will be stationed just 100km away from the Russian border.

But on the other hand, Scholz’s government has lately been resisting pressure to share one of its most powerful military assets with the Ukrainians just when they need it most. 

The item in question is the Taurus missile, a stealth missile with a 500km range – twice the range of the British Storm Shadow and French Scalp missiles, both of which have been used by Ukraine to hit major Russian military targets.

The Ukrainians have been asking for the Taurus system for months, but Scholz has so far refused. The chancellor has claimed that the missiles cannot be sent to Ukraine because it would entail putting German troops on the ground to programme them, a move that he claimed could threaten a dangerous escalation.

Scholz made a major diplomatic misstep at a recent summit when he implied that French and British forces are operating cruise missiles that are ostensibly under Ukrainian control – something neither country admits is happening. The head of the UK House of Commons’s Foreign Affairs Committee called the remarks “wrong, irresponsible and a slap in the face to allies”. 

But worse than Scholz’s refusal to send Tauruses to Ukraine was the recent leak of a recording in which German air force officers could be heard directly contradicting Scholz’s argument, instead confirming that the missile would not in fact require the deployment of German manpower inside Ukraine.

The recording was revealed in Russian media, with Moscow threatening “dire consequences” for Germany if Taurus is deployed in Ukraine.

Former president Dmitry Medvedev, who has voiced some of the Kremlin’s most extreme rhetoric since the invasion, responded with a pair of nationalistic tirades in response via the messaging app Telegram, sharing a Second World War-era poem entitled “Kill Him!” and writing, “The call of the Great Patriotic War has become relevant again: “DEATH TO THE GERMAN-NAZI OCCUPIERS!”

Caught out

That such a sensitive conversation could be recorded and leaked at all, not least by the Russians, has horrified many in Germany and NATO more widely. But the revelation that Scholz’s public pretext for withholding the Taurus is baseless has caused deep anger.

According to Benjamin Tallis, Senior Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, the recording shows that the chancellor is not truly committed to a Ukrainian victory.

“Holding back like this risks a Ukrainian defeat, which would put all of Europe at great risk” he told Euronews. “Scholz’s arguments have been dismantled one by one and revealed to be excuses. Allies have sent similar weapons and faced no retaliation. All Scholz is doing is projecting weakness and making Germany more of a target.

“Following the Taurus leak, it seems that what Scholz is really afraid of is the weapon’s effectiveness. This betrays his position of not wanting Ukraine to win – and it’s an approach that lets down all Europeans by making us less safe.”

The saga of the Taurus missile and the leaked recording comes at an extremely inopportune moment in the Ukrainian conflict.

Recent Russian advances in the east of the country have owed a lot to a shortage of ammunition on the Ukrainian side, which Kyiv and some of its allies have attributed to certain Western countries’ slowness to resupply the war effort.

Aside from continuing to inflict major casualties on the Russian military – which Kyiv claims has lost well over 400,000 troops since February 2022 – the Ukrainian Armed Forces are currently focusing on destroying high-value military assets that the Russians will struggle to replace, among them a high-tech Russian patrol ship that was hit by a sea drone on 4 March.

These strikes have multiple benefits: aside from costing nothing in Ukrainian lives, they both undermine Russia’s tactical abilities and challenge the idea that its enormous resources offer anything like a guarantee of victory. The same goes for missile and drone strikes within Russian territory, particularly in the border region of Belgorod, which Ukraine has targeted multiple times.


But without enough Western hardware to continue these efforts, and with ever more reports of troops retreating from positions with depleted ammunition, Ukraine will struggle to keep its closest allies’ hopes alive.

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Germany wants pro-life activists to stay away from abortion clinics

As the number of pro-life vigils in front of Germany’s family planning centres and clinics grows, the country is trying to prevent these places from becoming the stage of a US-style war for abortion rights.


It was March 2017 when Claudia Hohmann, director of the Pro Familia family planning centre in Frankfurt, saw anti-abortion demonstrators show up with signs and flyers outside the door of her workplace for the very first time.

“The pro-life movement calls them vigils, as their purpose is to prevent people from having abortions and ‘save’ children,” she told Euronews. “Since then, the vigils in front of our centre take place twice a year for forty days.”

The Pro Familia centre headed by for the past nine years Hohmann sits in a quiet, wealthy area of west Frankfurt, near the city’s botanical garden. Photos of the most recent vigil held in front of the centre in September shows a pro-life group holding pictures of foetuses and the Virgin Mary, an odd sight in the peaceful neighbourhood.

While anti-abortion demonstrations are common in the US, in recent years vigils like the one held by the Euro Pro Life association in Frankfurt for 40 days in October and November last year, have become more common across Europe and in Germany.

That’s why on 24 January, Germany’s family minister Lisa Paus announced a draft law that would prevent anti-abortion demonstrators from approaching or harassing visitors within a 100-miles radius of abortion clinics and family planning centres in the country.

Anti-abortion flyers and posters will also be forbidden within the same distance of these institutions. Anyone found in violation of this law, if passed, could be punished with a fine of up to €5,000.

Paus, a member of the Green Party, said that the legislation was necessary to avoid women being faced with “hatred and agitation” while seeking advice during a potentially delicate and difficult moment. She told German broadcaster ZDF that the draft struck a balance between freedom of expression and the right of assembly.

The growing influence of the pro-life movement in Europe

While a small group of demonstrators standing in front of a family planning centre for 40 days might seem like a small problem, especially for a country as big as Germany, Hohmann said that the influence of anti-abortion organisations is growing in the country.

“​​The anti-abortion scene is very active and connected with extreme right politics and the anti-queer and anti-sex-education movement,” Hohmann said. “[In recent years] we had vigils taking place in Wiesbaden, Pforzheim and Munich, 1000-Cross-Marches in Berlin and other cities, as well as demonstrations of so-called ‘worried parents’.”

The idea of holding a demonstration for 40 days, which is what Germany’s anti-abortion association Euro Pro-Life has been doing for years in Frankfurt now, is not really an original one. It’s coming, in fact, from the US

“40 Days For Life” is a grassroots movement that was started in 2004 in Texas and has since expanded to more than 60 countries across the world, many of which are in Europe, including Germany, Spain, Ireland, the UK, Italy, Croatia, Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic.

The movement’s tactic is to stand outside abortion clinics and family planning centres for 40 days in an attempt to raise awareness of what it considers “the tragic reality of abortion” and to call for “repentance” for those who work at the facilities.

Thanks to the fact that the movement works like a franchise, getting funds from members across the world who pay for materials, support and training, 40 Days For Life has been able to reach as far as it has now, bringing the US culture wars to Europe.

Punishment, shame and guilt

In Germany, a pregnant person cannot get an abortion before visiting one of those centres. That’s because abortion is technically illegal in Germany, but it’s possible up to 12 weeks after conception if the pregnant person obtains a counselling certificate at least 3 days before the procedure.

Pro Familia, which has centres all across Germany, is certified to issue such certificates. That’s why it has become a target for anti-abortion activists.

Tomislav Čunović of 40 Days For Life told Euronews that the law proposed by the German government is “unconstitutional” should it be passed the way it is now. “It is anti-freedom and anti-democratic. It’s a shame for the German international reputation,” Čunović said.

The anti-abortion activist defended the vigils organised by his organisation saying they are “a prayer for the unborn children who are dying or threatened with death through abortion, and also for their relatives” and claiming their motivation is “peaceful and legitimate.”

But that’s not what those who work at the family planning centres say.


“The demonstrators watch our clients, sing, pray and show pictures – for example of babies, pregnant bellies or with expressions like: ‘Thanks, Mum, for letting me live’ or ‘Abortion is no solution’,” Hohmann said, adding how this can deeply hurt people seeking to terminate their pregnancies.

“People with an unwanted pregnancy feel shame and guilt anyway, and need an understanding, trustful and comforting setting,” she explained.

“This is important to be able to listen carefully and to understand the information given by the counsellor. The feeling of anonymity is also important. The people in front of the centre disturb this setting by purpose and damage the trust in the legally prescripted counselling,” Hohmann said. “Research has made clear that the psychic problems in connection with an abortion go back to the punishment-shame-and guilt-context in society.”

“The regular presence of anti-abortion protesters outside the counselling centre is a psychological burden for our staff,” Beate Martin, head of the Pro Familia advice centre in Münster, said.

“The counselling itself is also disrupted,” added her colleague, pregnancy counsellor Barbara Wittel. “Unwanted pregnant women and others seeking help on the way to a counselling session perceive the presence as disturbing and unpleasant. They cannot avoid being influenced and confronted by anti-abortion activists. It is then no longer possible to speak of a neutral counselling situation, as women are legally entitled to.”


For Hohmann and Pro Familia, it’s necessary to have a country-wide solution to forbid this sort of action.

“Local solutions have been overturned many times,” she told Euronews. “But the law has to be clear and strict and must interdict all actions that want to defame and unsettle pregnant people, doctors and counsellors and thereby improve the access to the best possible counselling and medical care.”

“It is the task of federal policy to protect the personal rights of those seeking counselling, and to do so nationwide,” said Pro Familia Federal Chairwoman Monika Börding.

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Willkommenskultur: Has Germany turned its back on welcoming migrants?

After two electoral defeats for his coalition, Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz is now taking a tougher stance on migration, trying to ramp up efforts to deport those illegally in the country.


Amid the widespread panic shared by European countries during the migrant crisis of 2015-2016, Germany represented a beacon of light and optimism under the leadership of then-chancellor Angela Merkel, who famously opened her country up to huge numbers of migrants.

Under Merkel’s leadership and her “welcome culture” policy, the country took in more than 1.2 million refugees and asylum seekers between 2015 and 2016.

But as levels of illegal migration in Europe are once again on the rise, Germany now finds itself in a very different position, forced to turn its back on the “welcome culture” – or “Willkommenskultur” – which it once prided itself on.

“We are limiting irregular migration to Germany. Too many people are coming,” Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in a recent interview with newspaper Der Spiegel. “We have to deport people more often and faster.”

Germany needs to ramp up the expulsions of migrants who are not allowed to stay in the country, Scholz said. Only days later, the German Cabinet granted its approval to a legislative proposal aiming at streamlining the deportation process of unsuccessful asylum-seekers.

It’s a huge change for Germany and Scholz, who might have been expected to continue the legacy of his predecessor. 

“There’s a notable change in rhetoric and policy with the clear objective to bring migration numbers down,” Michael Bröning, a political scientist and a member of the SPD Basic Value Commission, told Euronews.

“Suggested steps include facilitating deportations, more severe sanctions for human traffickers, the reinstallation of temporary border controls, further bilateral agreements with countries of origin and an extension of the list of countries deemed safe. In sum, this is a drastic shift in policy that signals an end to Germany’s unique ‘welcome culture’ as witnessed in 2015,” he added.

A stark change in policy after electoral woes

During a three-day visit to Nigeria earlier this week, Scholz asked the African country’s President Bola Tinubu for help tackling soaring migration, suggesting a partnership somewhat similar to the one that Italy’s Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni struck with Tunisia earlier this year.

The idea is to expand migration centres in Nigeria, where those deported from Germany could find shelter, health care and job opportunities.

The initiative is part of the increasingly tough approach Scholz and his government are showing towards illegal migration after his three-party coalition performed badly in two regional elections earlier this month. Both state races were won by mainstream conservatives, while the far-right made significant gains.

Bröning said that “it’s impossible to say if this change will directly translate into greater support for the government” in future elections.

“But it is important to realise that the German public does want the government to act,” he continued. “Furthermore, it is important to see that the shift in policy does not happen in a vacuum but rather against the backdrop of a growing challenge from Germany’s far right.”

In recent months, the AfD has surged in the polls and scored significant electoral successes in Bavaria and Hesse.

“I think this development is not untypical of trends one can witness in other left and/or social democratic parties, which have for years been facing a dilemma regarding how to respond to the challenges from the populist radical right,” Dr Kurt Richard Luther, Professor Emeritus of Comparative Politics at Keele University in the UK, told Euronews.

“While the rise of the AfD is fuelled by a wide range of grievances – some imagined and some real, concern about what is seen as uncontrolled immigration has long been a main driving force of right-wing populism,” said Bröning.

Scholz is now under significant pressure to bring down the rising numbers of asylum seekers in the country, as dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the refugee situation is growing. 

A recent ARD DeutschlandTrend survey found that 44% of Germans currently consider illegal immigration the most important political problem in Germany that politicians should prioritise.


“Addressing the issue is clearly the order of the day,” said Bröning.

“The challenge will be to manage the crisis without jeopardising either the stability of the coalition government or intra-party cohesion. Clearly, not every social democrat or German green voter is happy with the proposed changes. so I assume it’s fair to say that we are at the beginning of a debate, not at the end of it.”

Has the way Germans feel about migrants changed?

While many countries across Europe were tightening border control back in 2015, it was common to see cheering crowds of Germans greeting thousands of migrants arriving in the country after a long trek across the Middle East and Europe.

What happened to that enthusiasm for Germany’s newcomers?

Despite what Scholz’s shift in policy would suggest, “many Germans are still in favour of welcoming people in need and there is widespread support for accepting humanitarian responsibility – not denying it,” Bröning said.


“However, numbers have had an effect and the mood from 2015 has drastically changed,” he added.

Today, there’s widespread conviction among the German public that numbers must come down “and reactions to the current escalation in the Middle East have come to play an important – and unexpected – part in this transformation of the debate,” Bröning said.

“Pro-Palestinian rallies, a wave of antisemitic incidents, and the celebration of the Hamas attack in some high immigration neighbourhoods have been stark reminders that not all is well with regards to migration and integration. In many ways, this has opened up the discourse for a more nuanced discussion.”

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Vienna seeks to calm Selmayr ‘blood money’ furor

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Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg signaled his government was de-escalating a row with the EU’s senior representative in the country, Martin Selmayr, who last week accused Vienna of paying “blood money” to Moscow by continuing to purchase large quantities of Russian gas.

“Everything has already been said about this,” Schallenberg said over the weekend in a written response to questions from POLITICO on the affair. “We are working hard to drastically reduce our energy dependency on Russia and we will continue to do so.”

Austrian officials insist that the country’s continued reliance on Russian gas is only temporary and that it will wean itself off by 2027 (over the past 18 months, the share of Russian gas in Austria has dropped from 80 percent to an average of 56 percent).

Some experts question the viability of that plan, considering that OMV, the country’s dominant oil and gas company, signed a long-term supply deal with Gazprom under former Chancellor Sebastian Kurz that company executives say is virtually impossible to withdraw from.

Those complications are likely one reason why Vienna — even as its officials point out that Austria is far from the only EU member to continue to rely on Russian gas — doesn’t want to dwell on the substance of Selmayr’s criticism.

“We should rather focus on maintaining our unity and cohesion within the European Union in dealing with Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine,” Schallenberg told POLITICO. “We can only overcome the challenges ahead of us in a united effort.”

Schallenberg’s remarks follow a decision by the European Commission on Friday to summon Selmayr to Brussels to answer for his actions. A spokesman for the EU executive on Friday characterized the envoy’s comments as “not only unnecessary, but also inappropriate.”

Given that the Austrian government is led by a center-right party, which is allied with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s European People’s Party bloc, the sharp reaction from Brussels is not surprising. An official close to the Austrian government said Vienna had not demanded Selmayr’s removal.

Selmayr made the “blood money” comment, by his own account, while defending the Commission chief. He told an Austrian newspaper that he made the remark during a public discussion in Vienna on Wednesday in response to an audience member who accused von der Leyen of “warmongering” in Ukraine and having “blood on her hands.”

“This surprises me, because blood money is sent to Russia every day with the gas bill,” Selmayr told the audience.

Selmayr expressed surprise that there wasn’t more public outcry in Austria over the country’s continued reliance on Russian natural gas, which has accounted for about 56 percent of its purchases so far this year. (A review of a transcript of the event by Austrian daily Die Presse found no mention of the comments Selmayr attributed to the audience member, however.)

Austria’s deep relationship to Russia, which has continued unabated since Moscow’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, has prompted regular criticism from its European peers.

Even so, the EU envoy’s unvarnished assessment caused an immediate uproar in the neutral country, especially on the populist far right, whose leaders called for Selmayr’s immediate dismissal.

Europe Minister Karoline Edtstadler called the remarks “dubious and counterproductive” | Olivier Hoslet/EPA-EFE

Schallenberg’s ministry summoned Selmayr on Thursday to answer for his comments and the country’s Europe Minister, Karoline Edtstadler, called the remarks “dubious and counterproductive.” Some in Vienna also questioned whether Selmayr, who as a senior Commission official helped Germany navigate the shoals of EU bureaucracy to push through the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline — thus increasing Europe’s dependency on Russian gas — was really in a position to criticize Austria.

Nonetheless, Selmayr’s opinion carries considerable weight in Austria, given his history as the Commission’s most senior civil servant and right-hand man to former Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Though Selmayr, who is German, has a record of living up to his country’s reputation for directness and sharp elbows, even his enemies consider him to be one of the EU’s best minds.

His rhetorical gifts have made him a considerable force in Austria, where he arrived in 2019 (after stepping down under a cloud in Brussels). He is a regular presence on television and in print media, weighing in on everything from the euro common currency to security policy.

After Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer recently pledged to anchor a right to pay with euro bills and coins in cash-crazed Austria’s constitution, for example, Selmayr reminded his host country that that right already existed under EU law. What’s more, he wrote, Austrians had agreed to hand control of the common currency to the EU when they voted to join the bloc in 1994.

A few weeks later, he interjected himself into the country’s security debate, arguing that “Europe’s army is NATO,” an unwelcome take in a country clinging on to its neutrality.

Though Selmayr’s interventions tend to rub Austria’s government the wrong way, they’ve generally hit the mark.

The latest controversy and Selmayr’s general approach to the job point to a fundamental divide in the EU over the role of the European Commission’s local representatives. Most governments want the envoys to serve like traditional ambassadors and to carry out their duties, as one Austria official put it to POLITICO recently, “without making noise.”

Yet Selmayr’s tenure suggests that the role is often most effective when structured as a corrective, or reality check, by viewing national political debates through the lens of the broader EU.  

In Austria, where the anti-EU Freedom Party is leading the polls by a comfortable margin ahead of next year’s general election, that perspective is arguably more necessary than ever.

Victor Jack contributed reporting.

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Decline, fear and the AfD in Germany

Mathias Döpfner is chairman and CEO of Axel Springer, POLITICO’s parent company.

In Germany today, the right-wing populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) is maintaining a stable 20 percent in opinion polls — coming in two to four points ahead of the ruling center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and running hard on the heels of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

In some federal states, the AfD is already the strongest party. In Thuringia, for example, it has reached 34 percent, meaning the party has three times as many supporters there as the SPD. And in some administrative districts, around half of those eligible to vote are leaning toward the AfD. According to one Forsa survey in June, the AfD is currently the strongest party in the east of Germany — a worrying trend with elections due this year in Bavaria and Hesse, and next year in Thuringia, Saxony and Brandenburg. And, of course, there are also the European Union elections in 2024.

However, this rapid rise should come as no surprise. The writing has been on the wall for a long time. And more than anything else, the party’s recent advances are a result of an increasing sense among broad swathes of the population that they aren’t being represented by traditional political and media elites.

This disconnect was first accelerated by the refugee crisis of 2015, then increased during the pandemic, and has since escalated in response to the increasing high-handedness of the “woke movement” and climate politics. Just a few weeks ago, a survey by the German Civil Service Association revealed trust in the government’s ability to do its job is at an all-time low, with 69 percent saying it is deeply out of its depth.

Meanwhile, opinion polls show the government fares particularly badly in Germany’s east. A rising number of people — including the otherwise stable but also staid middle classes — now feel enough is enough, and no other party is as good at exploiting this feeling as the AfD.

The problem, however, is the AfD isn’t a normal democratic party.

The regional offices of Germany’s domestic intelligence services in the federal states of Brandenburg, Saxony-Anhalt, Saxony, Lower Saxony and Baden-Württemberg have all classified their local AfD associations as “organizations of interest.”

And the same applies at the federal level. The national office of the domestic intelligence service, the remit of which includes protecting the German constitution, has also classified the national party of the AfD as “of interest.”

These concerns about the party’s commitment to the constitution aren’t unjustified. In a 2018 speech at the national conference of the party’s youth section, Junge Alternative, former AfD chairman Alexander Gauland said that “Hitler and the Nazis are just a speck of bird shit in a thousand years of successful German history.”

When speaking about the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, Björn Höcke, group chairman of the AfD in Thuringia, said on 2017 that “We Germans — and I’m not talking about you patriots who have gathered here today. We Germans, our people, are the only people in the world to place a monument of shame in the heart of our capital city.”

And in a speech in the Bundestag in 2018, party boss Alice Weidel bandied about terms like “headscarf girls” and “knife-wielding men,” while her co-chairman Tino Chrupalla speaks of an “Umvolkung” — that is, an “ethnicity inversion” — which comes straight out of Nazi ideology.

This small sample of public statements leaves no doubt that such utterings aren’t slips of the tongue — they reflect these leaders’ core beliefs.

And while many vote for the AfD out of protest, more than anything else, the party feeds off resentment and fear, exploiting and fueling anger, hate and envy, pushing conspiracy theories to hit out at “those at the top,” as well as foreigners, Jews, the LGTBQ+ community or just about anyone who might be deemed different. And the party leaders’ blatant admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin exposes their reverence for autocracy.

Failure to prevent the AfD’s rise could potentially first corrode, then shatter democracy and rule of law in Germany.

But how can a party like this, which is getting stronger in the polls, be dealt with? Is a ban the right way to go? They are always difficult to deal with, and it isn’t even an option at this stage. What about joining the AfD to form a coalition and temper the party? That is even more difficult, as it is unreasonable to argue that the AfD should be treated like other parties. The Nazis and Adolf Hitler had also been democratically elected when they seized power in 1933.

So, what options remain? Many politicians and journalists say we need to confront the AfD with critical arguments. Sounds good on the face of it. But people have already been doing that for a decade — with scant success.

This is why the only remaining option is to attempt what neither the AfD nor many politicians from established parties have been able to do: Start taking voters’ most important concerns and issues seriously, and seek to find solutions.

The fears that have allowed the AfD to become as big as it is today are clearly identifiable. When a recent survey by Infratest Dimap asked “What topics most influence your decision to vote for the AfD at the moment?” 65 percent said immigration, 47 percent said energy policies and 43 percent named the economy.

And in their handling of all three of these key issues, the older parties have demonstrated moral cowardice and a lack of honesty.

This is especially apparent when it comes to immigration.

Why is it so hard for centrist politicians to just come out and say a few simple truths? Germany is a land of immigration, and it must remain so if it wants to be economically successful. And modern migration policy needs a healthy balance between altruism and self-interest.

According to economists’ most recent estimations, Germany needs to bring in 1 to 1.5 million skilled individuals per year from abroad. What we need is an immigration of excellence and qualified workers. People from war zones and crisis regions should obviously be taken in. But beyond that, we can only take the migrants we need, the ones who will benefit us.

This means the social welfare benefits for immigrants require critical rethinking, with the goal of creating a situation where every immigrant would be able to and would have to actually start working immediately. Then add to this factors that are a matter of course in countries with a successful history of integration: learning the local language and respecting the constitution and the laws. And anyone who doesn’t must leave — and fast.

Germany’s current immigration policy is dysfunctional. Most politicians and journalists are fully aware of this, but they just won’t say it out loud. And all this does is strengthen the AfD, as well as other groups on the left and right that have no true respect for democracy.

Not speaking out about the problem is the biggest problem. Indeed, when issues are taboo, it doesn’t make the issues any smaller, just the demagogues stronger.

We’re seeing the same with energy policy. Everyone knows that in the short term, our energy needs can’t be met by wind and solar power alone. Anyone interested in reality knows decarbonization without nuclear power isn’t going to be feasible any time soon. And they know heat pumps and cutting vacation flights won’t solve the global carbon challenge — it will, however, weaken the German economy.

We need only look at one example: While just over 2 percent of global carbon emissions come from aviation, almost a third are caused by China — an increasing amount of which comes from coal-fired power stations. Ordinary Germans are very much aware the sacrifices they’re being asked to make, and the costs being piled on them, make no sense in the broader scheme of things, and they’re understandably upset.

In some cases, this makes them more likely to vote for the AfD.

This brings us to the third and final reason why people are so agitated. The EU, and above all Germany, has broken its promise about advancing prosperity and growth. Fewer young people now see a future for themselves in Germany; more and more service providers and companies are leaving; and the increasing number of immigrants without means is reducing the average GNP per capita. Germans aren’t becoming more prosperous — they’re becoming poorer.

Traditional politicians and political parties unable to offer change are thus on very shaky ground. They have disconnected themselves from their voters, and they are paving the way for populists who use bogeyman tactics and offer simplistic solutions that solve nothing.

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