BERLIN — During my month living in the eastern German border city of Görlitz last summer, I was frequently struck by the fact that visiting Poland—with its completely different language, currency, history and culture—meant simply walking a few hundred feet across one of the city’s two bridges over the Neisse river. Görlitz and Zgorzelec, its Polish counterpart, “have served as a sort of model, modern European city with fluid borders allowing for free movement, exchange of people and cultures, and so on,” I wrote at the time. With support for the populist far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) on the rise—including in Görlitz, where the party won 37.8 percent of the vote in last September’s state elections—the city seemed like a textbook example of the open, international Europe AfD politicians say they want to do away with.
Things have suddenly changed in this time of the coronavirus, with new walls going up in Görlitz and across much of the world. Poland closed its borders on March 15, stopping all international flights and allowing only workers with specific reasons through; Germany did the same just a day later and many other European countries (as well as the entire European Union) quickly followed suit.
New metal fences and police cars now divide the pedestrian bridge between Görlitz and Zgorzelec. Traffic jams nearly 40 miles long piled up on the highways that pass through town from Germany into Poland; last Monday, the first workday the restrictions were in place, people waited more than five hours to cross. Some Poles who work on the German side parked their cars there and stood in long lines to cross the border by foot instead.
“The dream of all right-wing populists and isolationists came true yesterday,” the news magazine Der Spiegel wrote last week. “Europe’s bridges are going up. A celebration for the AfD, one could argue.”
These are unprecedented times in far more ways than that. I’ve been writing this dispatch during my ninth, tenth and eleventh days sequestered at home in my Berlin apartment, where I’ve remained full-time apart from a few quick trips to the supermarket across the street. In lieu of meeting friends at bars and restaurants, we gather in our respective living rooms via Skype or Zoom. Being out on the streets, which I traversed thoughtlessly just a few weeks ago, now comes with a low-grade anxiety as I wonder whether I’m walking by anyone who’s been infected.
There are many things we don’t know right now: How long we’ll have to stay home, how widely the virus will still spread and how it will affect politics domestically and internationally are just a few. However, one thing is certain: The coronavirus has indeed made the dreams of populist far-right parties a reality, at least for a time. Borders have gone back up inside a union of countries that prided itself on being borderless, and the concept of European solidarity has taken a hit in a time characterized by fear and protecting one’s own. And in countries like Hungary, where a self-described “illiberal” populist wields power, the pandemic provides ample cover to implement even more authoritarian policies.
Top AfD politicians are declaring victory, suggesting it was open borders that allowed the virus to come here in the first place. But the far right’s celebratory cries—as nearly everything else unrelated to the pandemic—seem comparatively muted and irrelevant. And amid a barrage of information from government officials, warnings from doctors and dispatches from journalists about the rapidly spreading pandemic, the rhetorical gloating doesn’t have the same kind of resonance it may have had in pre-coronavirus Germany.
It’s strange to think that just a month ago, the country was still in the midst of national soul-searching over the rhetorical and political influence of the far right. It began in early February with a taboo-breaking collaboration between two right-leaning parties and the AfD in the eastern German state of Thuringia. That situation—in which Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the liberal Free Democrats voted with the far right to defeat a left-wing governor—led to the resignation of Merkel’s anointed successor Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer and triggered a leadership election within her CDU. Shortly thereafter, a 43-year-old man opened fire on a shisha bar in the city of Hanau, killing nine people of foreign descent and reigniting the debate about racism and right-wing extremism in the country.
The pandemic is already drastically changing how we live, and the effects could be wide-ranging both socially and economically.
It felt then like those topics, which are deeply emotional and visceral in Germany, would dominate the national political discussion for months to come. Now, only a few weeks after Germany had its first case of COVID-19, it’s difficult to feel that anything else can or should find space in the debate. The CDU leadership race is effectively on hold, not least of which because one candidate, Friedrich Merz, tested positive for the virus. Even the news that the AfD’s far-right “Wing,” led by Björn Höcke, has been formally designated a right-wing extremist group by Germany’s domestic intelligence service, and that the party leadership voted to disband the “Wing,” got far less attention than it otherwise would. As of Wednesday, Germany has nearly 35,000 confirmed cases of the virus, more than 1,400 of which are in Berlin. Like residents in many neighboring countries, Germans can now only leave the house for specific reasons such as buying food, going to essential jobs and exercising.
Exploiting fear is typically a powerful tool in the populist far-right playbook: The AfD gained its major political momentum by capitalizing on unease over an influx of refugees into Germany in 2015 and 2016, after all. But this time feels different: Now it’s not about the fear of someone who looks different or comes from elsewhere; now it’s the fear of literally everyone around you. “It’s not anymore a question of borders between states, but between individuals,” Ivan Krastev, a political scientist who has written extensively on the rise of illiberal parties in Central Europe, told The New York Times recently. “It is now the individual you fear: Everyone around you may be a danger, carrying the virus. The person may not know he’s a danger to you, and the only one who isn’t a danger is the one you never meet, the one who stays at home.”
The coronavirus outbreak has also highlighted difficulties with the idea of European solidarity in a time of global crisis and the challenges to an EU-wide response to something like a global pandemic. When the situation began deteriorating rapidly in Italy, first and hardest-hit by the virus in Europe, other EU nations—including Germany—initially moved to ban the export of medical masks and other key medical supplies. That the first shipment of masks and supplies to arrive in Italy came from China, not fellow EU members, did not go unnoticed by Italians and their politicians. It was only under international pressure that Germany eventually agreed to export 1 million masks to Italy.
Those moves make it harder for pro-EU politicians and parties to argue European solidarity is worth the sovereignty states give up to be part of the bloc—and give parties like Italy’s far-right League further ammunition toward their goal of dismantling the EU. Non-league officials in Italy sounded the alarm on that front: In an op-ed for Politico Europe, Italian Ambassador to the EU Maurizio Massari wrote that the virus “is a test of the EU’s cohesiveness and credibility—one that can only be passed through genuine, concrete solidarity… If we are courageous and united, we will win,” he wrote. “If we are selfish and divided, we will lose.”
Perhaps one silver lining in the current situation is that such a fear seems to be leading people to seek stable leadership and guidance from experts and experienced politicians. Merkel gave her first-ever televised address to the nation last week, urging Germans to stay home and calling the virus the country’s biggest challenge since World War II. Merkel’s signature caution has earned her criticism in recent years, but her steady presence throughout the coronavirus outbreak has been comforting and reassuring. (That became more difficult as of Sunday evening, when Merkel entered quarantine after her doctor contracted the virus; she has tested negative for the virus but will continue working from home.)
It’s impossible to say now what the political landscape here or across Europe will look like when the crisis is over. The pandemic is already drastically changing how we live, and the effects could be wide-ranging both socially and economically. Far-right parties are looking toward the uncertain future, arguing that the closed borders are and should be here to stay.
“Euro crisis, migration crisis, pandemic: This is the failure of border-free globalization. The promises of open borders and ‘free movement’ have not been fulfilled,” the AfD official Beatrix von Storch wrote on Twitter shortly after Germany closed its borders. “We are facing the return of nation-states and national borders.” And Björn Höcke, head of the AfD’s far-right, soon-to-be-disbanded “Wing,” echoed that sentiment: “It’s been said that in the globalized world, problems can only be solved globally,” he wrote on Facebook. “It’s now becoming clear that the nation-state is the last protective power for its citizens. Italy, Austria, Spain, Belgium, Denmark, the Czech Republic, Poland, Great Britain, the USA and many other countries are acting: They’ve sealed off the borders and taken drastic measures to combat the illness.”
In places like Hungary, where anti-immigration, nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán controls the government, the danger from such rhetoric extends into concrete government action. The Hungarian parliament is this week considering a bill that would give Orbán emergency powers, effectively allowing him to rule the country by decree indefinitely. The law would also impose prison fines on anyone found to be spreading false information that alarms the public, which critics see as another tool in the prime minister’s quest to eradicate independent media in Hungary.
Despite the uncertainty, it’s already clear the temporary end to a borderless Europe—and questions about the efficacy of the European Union and member states’ commitment to European solidarity—will have an impact on the conversations surrounding those issues going forward. There are at least a few reasons to be encouraged this week: The southwestern states of Baden-Württemberg and Saarland have begun treating patients from across the border in France’s heavily affected Grand Est region, and a small group of critical coronavirus patients from Italy were transported to the eastern German city of Leipzig for care. “This is a very important signal, that we can also help others,” the Saxon premier Michael Kretschmer said. The extent to which the debates could help reinforce populist far-right parties’ worldviews depends a great deal on how national governments and the EU continue to handle the crisis—and how much worse things get before they get better.