The rise of the far-right in many European Union member states, Germany in particular, is a phenomenon that may influence the results of the next European elections.

Even though migration waves are diminishing, xenophobia is spreading – even in areas where there are very few or even no migrants or refugees.

These are issues that Gabi Zimmer, who chairs the Confederal Group of the European United Left – Nordic Green Left (GUE/NGL) in the European Parliament, is thinking about. The former chairwoman of the PDS (2000-2003) who also active as a member of the State Diet (Landtag) of Thuringia, did not mince her words.

In an interview with European Interest Zimmer explains the rise of far-right in Germany. She blames the CDU and SPD for delaying their economic policies which in turn increased the rate of unemployment. In her view, there are other issues– education and pensions – that are more important than migration and that need to be addressed.

Zimmer also said she thinks AfD benefited from the protest vote and the Left needs to understand this and start taking the party seriously.

She also spoke about the rise of AfD in Bavaria and the responsibilities of the CSU, about the new cross-party movement Aufstehen and the challenges posed. She explained why Manfred Weber, an EPP candidate for the presidency of the European Commission, may not be the right politician to build bridges.

In conclusion, Zimmer offered insight into the actual situation of the Left in Europe and its policies in the run up to next year’s European elections.

European Interest: Ms. President, we have been experiencing the rise of the far-right movement in Germany over the past couple of years. Now it seems the situation is becoming worse. The polls in Eastern German states show AfD rising to first place – passing the CDU. How do you explain this? What has Die Linke proposed to address this issue? 

Gabi Zimmer: Many people in the Eastern German “Bundesländer” feel left out by the state and the ruling parties like CDU and SPD. You still have many structural weaknesses resulting from the wrong decisions taken after the reunification – especially in rural areas where many young people leave for the big cities to study or move to western German Länder to work. The economy in these areas is quite weak, many people are unemployed, and, in many villages, only elderly persons remain. Also DIE LINKE – the former PDS in the East – has lost the trust of the people because we were much more active in rural areas one or two decades ago.

Furthermore, we are also perceived nowadays as a party of the establishment and many people want to express their disappointment and anger by voting for a protest party. Currently, that’s the AfD. Xenophobia is a problem that was never adequately addressed in communist times and which the CDU – which has been governing, for example, in Saxony since the fall of the wall – has been playing down for decades.

This is especially the case in areas where almost no migrants live – and where you see a stronger wave of migration. There are many regions in the eastern part of Germany where you have little migration. This dangerous mix of mistrust, disappointment and fear have currently led to big support for AfD. As DIE LINKE., we take this very seriously and we must assume our share of responsibility.

Therefore, we have already decided to re-focus on the eastern Bundesländer with a special regional group of our parliamentary group in the German Bundestag. This region has special needs and problems which we have to re-address again. We speak out strongly against racism and xenophobia, but we know that not all AfD voters are racists. Their fears must be addressed by us more seriously again.

Bavaria will hold elections in less than a month. What worries you the most? Is it fact that the far-right seems to be keeping its force or that the CSU has adopted a strongly conservative agenda?

I would not call CSU´s agenda “strongly conservative” but xenophobic, and it crosses the red lines for all democrats. The CSU local branch in Munich wanted to forbid employees of the national theatre to participate in a demonstration against “hounding”. Their president Horst Seehofer is so afraid of the AfD that he tries to overtake its positions on the right. He even called migration the “mother of all problems”, knowing that the number of migrants coming to Germany has strongly decreased, knowing that for most voters today education, pensions and social issues are much more important. Seehofer even risked breaking up the government coalition before the summer by threatening Merkel that he would close the border – illegally under EU law – if Merkel did not accept an upper limit for migrants. But all these actions do not convince his voters but strengthen the position of the AfD – as you can see in the polls. He does not seem authentic to the voters, but erratic.

The Aufstehen is a new party that came out of the Left movement in Germany. Do you think now’s the right time to divide the Left? Are you concerned about the impact the new party could have on the Leftist voters?

First of all, “Aufstehen” is not a new party but a cross party movement initiated by our DIE LINKE. co-chair in the Bundestag Sarah Wagenknecht. She wants to gather people from different political parties such as Socialdemocrats, Greens and, of course, DIE LINKE. But, under German electoral laws, you are not allowed to be a member of two different parties. This means people joining the movement can cooperate, but not set up an own electoral list. My main concern is the position of the initiators on migration. Left policies are based on human rights and, therefore, you should not start excluding migrants and refugees and follow the narrative of the right. Also, their position that democracy and social welfare can only be preserved on a national basis does not convince me because work and capital flows are organised on a much bigger level. That said, we still don´t know how the movement will develop but there´s a risk that it will lead to a split of DIE LINKE.

In an op-ed published by European Interest on July 10, you warned about the dangers the Austrian Presidency represents concerning policy on asylum seekers, Schengen and labour rights among others. Since the Austrian government shares the same views with at least another five EU governments, do you think a serious threat against European values is on the way? 

It’s a threat for some European values, but it is a definite threat to more cooperation and a more social and democratic Union. Chancellor Sebastian Kurz joins forces with Hungary and Poland whose representatives have an authoritarian approach in how to govern a country. Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has claimed the age of an illiberal democracy, which contradicts democracy as such. He blames NGOs and liberals who do not agree with his policies as being the enemies of the state, he criminalises poor people and migrants. Therefore, in September, the EP decided – for the first time in the history of the EU – to call on the Council to open a procedure against a member state government. With Austria closing the borders, not respecting the Schengen agreement, it leaves some southern European member states such as Greece and Italy alone in receiving people fleeing from wars and extreme poverty. Also, in Italy, we see worrying developments. The right-wing government has passed a law to stop migration and have taken away the permission of residence if a migrant is accused of committing a crime. This way, the presumption of innocence has been turned around and that also violates European values. I call for a strong reaction by the Austrian presidency on this violation.

As regards migration policy, we urgently need a reform of Dublin regulation based on solidarity and a fair distribution of refugees. Instead, the Austrian government has proposed to incarcerate refugees in authoritarian regimes like Egypt, not respecting human rights at all. This spirit of egoism and national interests alone impedes any common EU solution. This threatens the very existence of the EU.

Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, announced his candidature for the post of the President of the European Commission. If he is elected, do you think this (a German politician heading the EC) could provoke a reinforcement of anti-German sentiments in other EU member states? 

I think the nomination of Manfred Weber as a ‘Spitzenkandidat’ of EPP will provoke a lot of opposition – not only because he is German. My main concern is that he represents the CSU, a party that is focussing on an anti-migration policy. The leaders of this party were demanding the closure of internal borders against EU law, they are close to Orbán and other anti-EU populists. Weber himself gave some examples of his own political understanding when he intervened in Greece, discriminating the left government in a way that showed that he is not willing to accept alternative policies. In my opinion, he is not the right politician to build bridges and to bring forward a new step for EU’s future.

How do you imagine the next European Parliament? How strong do you think the far-right will be? Will the far-right be able to block or even influence parliamentary works? Or do you think we will see more cooperation between the far-right and the conservatives like in Austria, Denmark, Bulgaria and Slovakia?

This co-operation has already started on some issues such as the resolution on Hungary in the September plenary. In general, we fear that the far-right will be much stronger in the next term. This will further worsen the spirit of open discussion and exchange between different – also national – views. This discussion is very important to understand each other. The right does not want to exchange views but to show their own electorate how they fight the EU and to impose their own nationalist opinions onto others. This is very dangerous for serious parliamentary work and the cooperation within the EU.

Is European Left at a critical point? What would be its efforts and proposals in the period before the European Elections? Do you think that GUE/NGL Group will keep its power in the new European Parliament?

The left in the EU is challenged by and must face growing extremist right-wing forces. We need to develop our own narrative and gather all our forces and fight this development back. We have to convince people that it´s not migrants responsible for the feeling of insecurity and existing unemployment. It´s the neoliberal policies of the last decades in the EU which have brought about job insecurity, precarious working conditions and stagnant real wages. But, left parties are still discussing too much with each other about the right way to broaden its support while the right keeps growing. At the moment, we have a good chance to get more MEPs in the next EP. We will hold a big meeting in November with our party leaders to discuss how GUE/NGL will further develop and what we have to do to address current challenges.

In Greece, the left is the ruling party. In Portugal, the left is a government partner. In Spain, it seems cooperation is forming between the left and the socialists. Do you think these are national cases or do you think it’s possible for the Socialdemocratic and the Left families in other EU member states to cooperate?

Of course, Greece and other southern EU countries show that more social and fairer policies against the neoliberal mainstream are possible when left parties join forces with others to cooperate. But, all these countries have their specific circumstances and histories. In other EU countries, this would be more difficult. Anyhow, to change the current power relations in the EU we have to take more risks and use all democratic means and possibilities to build up new majorities, on regional, national and European levels. If we want to radically change the EU for the better to put people before profits, then we need allies. This is our responsibility if we want to prevent the far-right from rising further. I do not see how the left will get majorities on its own in the next years. Our electorate wants to also see results – and not only listening to the views of the opposition with nothing to show for.