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'If Britain goes, Europe is lost'

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Hans-Olaf Henkel (r) celebrates the one-year anniversary of the AfD with leader Bernd Lucke. Photo: DPA
17:31 CEST+02:00
In an interview with The Local, one of the leaders of Germany's eurosceptic party talks about Europe's future, why Britain is a model country and why he will not work with UKIP's Nigel Farage.

Hans-Olaf Henkel speaks about when, not if, he will take his place in the European Parliament this spring.

The candidate for Germany's newest political party, and its first eurosceptic one, is almost certain to be one of a group of MEPs from Germany heading to Brussels in May to seek the dissolution of the euro.

The former head of IBM Europe and one-time president of the German Federation of Industries is now the number two candidate on the list for the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party.

In an interview with The Local he set out his party's vision for a reformed European Union which includes a separate currency for the stronger economies of the north.

He pointed to the British Conservatives as the AfD's "preferred partner" in the European Parliament following the elections and rejected any cooperation with Nigel Farage's UKIP.

Britain, he says, is what the rest of Europe should aspire to. "This is the only country left in Brussels where representatives have maintained a certain common sense.”

A ‘frustrated’ liberal

A long time supporter of the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), Henkel says he became "frustrated" by their support of Chancellor Merkel during the euro rescue programmes that saw billion-euro bailouts for crisis-stricken economies in southern Europe.

The businessman and frequent television contributor was among the founding members of the Electoral Alternative 2013, which soon rebranded itself as the Alternative für Deutschland.

The party just failed to clear the five-percent threshold during the national elections last year, receiving 4.7 percent of the popular vote.

But with a recent constitutional court decision having struck down all percentage thresholds for entry into the European Parliament, the AfD is almost certain to get in. Now polling at around six percent, it is expected to send more than a half dozen representatives to Brussels and Strasbourg.

Too weak for us, too strong for them

Sitting on his rooftop terrace facing onto Berlin's Friedrichstrasse, Henkel wants to clear up one common misunderstanding about his new party.

While certainly sceptical of the euro, the party is not "Europe-sceptic."

"We are a party advocating a more democratic but leaner Brussels," he told The Local.

While committed to preserving the European common market and most of the core EU institutions, the AfD opposes what it sees as a wave of centralization sweeping over Brussels as governments try to save the euro at all costs.

Aiming to placate capital markets, the EU has introduced measures like the European Stabilization Mechanism and the Banking Union, while the ECB has pursued a lax monetary policy.

Henkel's party rejects these measures. He calls them a "socialization of debts," requiring German taxpayers to take on the liabilities of the crisis economies.

And at the centre of the problem lies the euro.

The single currency, Henkel says, is too strong for southern economies like Portugal, Spain and Greece, and too weak for Germany.

"It's a crazy system which requires the different economic and fiscal cultures of Europe to change in order to fit the requirements of a single currency. Our proposal is the opposite. We should make currencies fit the cultures which exist rather than the other way around," he says.

He fears the euro rescue policies could destroy Germany's competitive edge.

"In order to save the euro we must reduce the huge differences in productivity between Greece and Germany. Not totally, but somehow... The Greeks are trying to come up, and the Portuguese and the Spanish... but that's not enough. So what happens now? Germany has to come down," he explains.

As examples, he mentions the soon-to-be introduced national minimum wage, as well as French demands for the consolidation of the countries' social security systems.

The end of the euro

The party's platform, which Henkel played a central role in drawing up, puts forward three separate currency proposals. Each would tear apart the eurozone as it exists today.

In the first place, countries like Greece and Portugal should be "allowed" to leave the euro, something that is not currently possible under EU treaties. Henkel concedes that this approach may be fraught with dangers.

"If we take the first course and Greece goes I am worried that this will cause a bank run in Athens, and maybe the next day in Lisbon, and maybe the next day in Madrid," he says.

He prefers another course - splitting the eurozone into a prosperous north and a less competitive south, each of which would have their own currency.

"We should have an agreement between four countries - Germany, Austria, Finland and the Netherlands. They will leave the eurozone and leave the euro where it is," he says.

This would maintain stability, he suggests. "There is no bank run. The Greeks don't need to go. They keep their euro and there is no disturbance."

Failing all of this, Henkel and the AfD see no other option than a unilateral German withdrawal from the euro and a return to the deutschmark.

Shortage of partners

Eurosceptic parties on the right and left are expected to make significant gains in the European Parliament, riding a wave of popular indignation over austerity measures and Brussels bureaucracy.

Henkel predicts that eurosceptic parties may secure 30 percent of the seats this May.

But Henkel sees few suitable partners for the AfD among them.

"I'll tell you what we're not going to do. We're not going to go with UKIP because they want to dissolve the EU, which is not our programme, and their immigration policy looks ridiculous [to us]. We will certainly not team up with Wilders from the Netherlands, Madame Le Pen in France or the FPÖ in Austria," he says.

Geert Wilders of the Party for Freedom and Marine Le Pen of the National Front are seeking to form a pan-European alliance of eurosceptic parties to "explode" EU institutions from the inside out. The parties involved are fervently anti-immigration, anti-Islamic and socially conservative.

The AfD, which does not seek the dissolution of the European Union as a whole, has a relatively moderate immigration policy.

These differences have also led Henkel and leader Bernd Lucke to rule out working with the UK Independence Party (UKIP), though party leader Nigel Farage was invited to speak at a meeting of the AfD's youth wing.

Two high-level members of the AfD also broke with the leadership and travelled to London to meet with Farage. But Henkel insists that these contacts are not signs of budding cooperation between the parties.

"I have met Fidel Castro four times... and no one has ever said I am a leftist revolutionary," he jokes.

In contrast to UKIP, Henkel highlights the similarities his party shares with the British Conservatives, who he regards as "natural allies," though he says that no contacts have yet been established.

"We have heard rumours that Frau Merkel told [British Prime Minister David Cameron] to keep his distance during the elections,” he says.

He thinks that after the elections the British Conservatives might come to him, especially if they lose seats. Henkel also sees a few possible partners outside of the eurozone, especially in Poland, Denmark and the Czech Republic.

A party divided

Henkel admits that the AfD was originally founded as "a one-issue party”.

However, the party's platform adopted in Erfurt last month extends well beyond currencies and bailouts, addressing immigration, trade, education and even electricity sockets.

While this may increase the appeal of the party, it has also revealed a split between the AfD's liberal leadership and a group of social conservatives who have tried to push the party to adopt more populist positions.

Concerned about negative media attention, the party leadership has tried to fight back.

"It took us some months to discover we had these people and to get rid of them. Getting rid of them was not easy... it resulted in a lot of arguments," Henkel said.

But some social conservatives still remain. The party rejects quotas for women in companies and the party's youth wing engaged in a controversial Facebook campaign against feminism.

A self-proclaimed Christian wing has formed in the party, which opposes same-sex marriage and euthanasia and calls for increased home schooling rights for parents.

Perhaps the most prominent representative of these tendencies is Beatrix von Storch, who is fourth on the party list. In the past she has headed a number of civil organizations that have opposed same-sex adoption rights and compulsory sex education in schools.

Henkel claimed von Storch wielded little influence within the party, but she has been able to give the leadership some headaches.

A speech she held to oppose the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), currently being negotiated between the United States and the EU, was greeted with thunderous applause at the party convention.

Story continues below…

The membership narrowly agreed with her and rejected the free-trade deal, much to the chagrin of Henkel and party leader Lucke.

Despite this, Henkel hinted that he would probably support the TTIP as an MEP in Brussels.

He said that the party membership had only rejected the deal because "certain conditions" had not been met, such as guarantees for food safety, environmental protection and cultural policy.

"We will make sure that they are met," he says.

Less Europe here, a little more there

The one thing that unites all of the diverse tendencies that have made their home in the AfD is their opposition to centralizing tendencies in Brussels.

All want to see the EU bureaucracy trimmed down, with more competencies returned to national governments.

"We want to reduce the 50,000-strong EU bureaucracy in Luxembourg, Strasbourg and Brussels by half in seven years," he says.

The party also wants to reduce the number of EU commissioners from 28 to 12, eliminating commissions for research and education, which Henkel calls “ridiculous”.

Still, the party does see some sectors where the EU bureaucracy could actually be expanded, such as the creation of an independent body overseeing the common market.

The AfD also has a few other pet projects that would require EU coordination, including the elimination of summer time.

While Henkel showed some scepticism here, he was more supportive of another party proposal: standardized power sockets throughout the EU, a reform that would hit Britain particularly hard.

"When I go with my iPhone to Britain I would like to be able to put my plug in. So that is what Europe can do," he says.

A committed Anglophile

Despite the plugs, Henkel is a great supporter of the role Britain plays in EU institutions as a champion of decentralization and liberal economics.

This is why he is so afraid of the British referendum on EU membership in 2017.

"For me the idea that Britain could leave the EU is the worst scenario I can think of... If Britain is gone then we are lost, then the whole continent is lost. We will be running toward a EUSSR. This is not a great exaggeration."

And if he is elected in May?

"I would do everything possible to ensure that Britain finds Europe an acceptable place to remain," he says.

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