Berlin’s famous Friedrichstrasse is a long stretch, lined with glittering shops from Galeries Lafayette to Karl Lagerfeld. Last week, shoppers drove under the summer sun.
This busy, traffic-fueled scene was a welcome novelty for residents of the German capital Because, for the past three years, Friedrichstrasse has been pedestrian-only, with huge flower pots, wooden tables and chairs covering the tarmac that was once reserved for cars.
Although the controversial green zone stretched for only a third of a mile, it was in the heart of the metropolis, near the tourist hub of Checkpoint Charlie, the infamous crossing point between East and West Berlin during the Cold War.
The motor ban sparked a backlash from shop owners, who complained of a sharp drop in customers. Even Germany’s most popular chocolatier, Rausch, located on a grand corner site nearby, was not immune, as the streets around the outwardly named ‘strolling promenade’ were jammed with traffic.
Finally, Anja Schroeder, who has run a wine shop and bar called Planet Wine for 18 years, decided she’d had enough.
‘My trade has dropped by 40 per cent because of the car ban,’ he told the Mail. ‘We’ve lost tourists, but also many Berliners who used to pop in after traveling by car from the suburbs. A few more shops, cafes and eateries have gone.’
Bjorn Hoeke, leader of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, leaders of the CDU and Thuringia’s FDP party during the ‘Rosenmontag’ (Roses Monday) parade in Düsseldorf, Germany in 2020
Anja launched a legal battle to get the cars back, and earlier this month, Berlin authorities bowed to citizen pressure and won.
The Friedrichstrasse debate came as a symbol of the German people’s fight against a radical green agenda promoted by the centre-left coalition led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz. This is coupled with a rise in support for hard-right parties, which is ringing alarm bells.
Germany, once the economic superpower of Europe, is now at a crossroads. Now officially in recession, it is not only grappling with uncontrolled immigration and high inflation, but each of the EU’s 27 member states needs to keep pace with its claim to 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-fuel rather than petrol or diesel.
And the purchase of new domestic gas and oil boilers has been outlawed from the end of next year. Homeowners are being asked to replace them with heat pumps at a cost of thousands of euros per household.
Many ordinary families fear that finding the money to comply with the government’s green directives will leave them poor. An opinion poll found that less than 80 percent of Germans disagreed with the impending ban.
The European Union’s most populous country has been described as a testing ground for the most extreme energy policies ever imagined. America’s Wall Street Journal even called them ‘world’s stupidest’.
Part of the problem is the success of a decade-long campaign by the Green Party to dismantle the country’s nuclear power plants – even though poll after poll shows Germans oppose an ‘ideologically driven’ shutdown.
The last three, which supplied electricity to millions of homes, were shut down in April, forcing the government to reopen coal mines.
But this is not the only concern on the minds of Germans Job insecurity is another hot topic. In October last year, chemical giant BASF revealed plans to move part of its production to China, with 1,800 job losses, blamed on high energy costs caused by the war in Ukraine.
People protest against the rising cost of living in a demonstration organized by the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) political party in October 2022.
At the same time, 9 percent of small and medium-sized industrial companies said they would also move abroad.
“There is a real danger of deindustrialization in Germany,” says political scientist Alexander Rahr.
In fact, middle-class Germans are looking into a future without a car, a nice house and two weeks of vacation a year – staples of their lives for decades. And the result of this ruckus is that the citizens are revolting at the ballot box.
The National Coalition government, made up of Scholze’s Social Democrats, the Greens and the Free Democrats, is reeling between a backlash against the Net Zero policy and high immigration levels.
No fewer than 1.3 million Syrians (including economic migrants from elsewhere) entered Germany between 2015 and 2017 at the invitation of then-Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Currently, Germany is experiencing record population growth, with 1.5 million people arriving last year, including many Ukrainians. 150,000 new ones joined them in the first three months of 2023 alone.
The impact of this trend has been profound. While the Scholz coalition has long argued that immigrants need to fill jobs and pay for pensions through their taxes, this year, €36 billion (£30 billion) of taxpayers’ money will be spent on providing them with housing, schooling, integration and benefits. Because many do not work.
Protesters hold a ‘Refugees Welcome’ sign in Berlin in 2023
Eight years ago, Syrian migrants arriving in Berlin were welcomed with balloons. Now the atmosphere is clearly cooler.
Local political leaders of all persuasions have told the government they need more money to deal with the never-ending lines at the border. Even the Green Party has joined the call to look into who is coming and why.
‘We need to know who is coming to the border, where they are coming from and how likely they are to stay,’ Green MP and Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir said as he backed ‘dragonnet searches’ at all German borders.
In May, desperate to regain support, Scholz changed tack. His coalition has promised tighter controls at its nine borders to ‘limit illegal immigration’.
But all signs are that it was too little, too late. Following last month’s extraordinary election results, German voters appear to be leaning towards populist parties.
The controversial Alternative for Germany (AfD) – described by critics as ‘the most successful right-wing party since the Nazis’ – has won mayoral elections in Raghun-Jesnitz and Sonnenberg in the east of the country in recent weeks, boosting the central council. The Jews were alarmed and said: ‘It is a dam burst.’
Recent polls put the AfD, with its anti-immigration manifesto, at around 20 percent. That puts it ahead of Scholes’ own party, which currently stands at 19 percent, and just 7 percent behind Angela Merkel’s conservative political ally, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU).
Michael Kreshmer, a leading light in the CDU, observed: ‘Something is slipping in this country. Energy transition, heating laws, refugee policy. . . AfD won. These issues threaten to tear society apart.’
Germany’s traditional political establishment is in shock Given the country’s Nazi past, hard-right politics have been banned since the end of World War II.
The AfD’s junior wing is under surveillance by the German secret service, whose officers say they have instructions from the state to ensure the AfD fails as a party.
Although it has 79 seats in the Bundestag, it has so far been kept out of public office because no other party will work with it. But the AfD is promising to put its own candidate in the race to become Germany’s next chancellor in the 2025 election.
‘People are afraid of the future. Government policy is destroying their lives,’ said Beatrix von Storch, a lawyer and deputy leader of the AfD, when I met her in the Bundestag.
He revealed that the biggest voters for the party are aged between 30 and 59, ‘working to feed their families’ and with a disposable income of £2-3,000 a month – a figure that puts them firmly in the middle class. Polls show that among AfD supporters, uncontrolled immigration is a major concern.
In the past, where the AfD has won these two mayoral positions, Siegbert Droes, one of the party’s local leaders, has had a similar story.
He told the Mail: ‘We haven’t changed our approach in ten years. We are stones in the midst of fire. People are coming to us because they are dissatisfied 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 during a meeting in Berlin a few years ago.
‘Traditional parties are failing,’ says Herr Droes proudly pointing to the flag. ‘The Germans thought they lived in a rich country. They can buy a house, get a car, take a vacation. Now they face a future without these things. They are looking for answers wherever they are in Germany They are changing their politics because they are desperate.’
Anger extended across the country to the more liberal and prosperous West. In the country’s smallest state, Bremen, an area scarred by high unemployment and crime, a new political party billing itself as ‘free conservative’ swept the election last month.
Called ‘Citizens in Anger’, it championed family values, questioned net zero policies, mass immigration and transgender issues, winning one in ten votes.
Just before the vote, the cause was helped when a local councilor and Green Party member made a serious mistake. In one area, he scrapped the so-called ‘Bread Roll Button’, which gives locals free parking long enough to pop into a high street bakery without being fined. Such a response, this time the councilor resigned from politics.
The respected magazine Der Spiegel in Bremen (run by Mr Scholes’ coalition of Social Democrats, Greens and left parties) commented on the shock result: ‘Voters are now afraid of change, whether in their boiler rooms or in – the city streets. The Greens are unable to answer these fears or respect voters.’
The founder of Citizens in Ager, which has morphed into a new outfit called the ‘Germany Alliance’ since the election, is Jan Timke. He told the Mail from his office in Bremen: ‘Discontent with the traditional parties is growing fast – especially in the east of Germany’.
‘Time and time 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 is what 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 years, questions the wisdom of uncontrolled immigration and forced heat pumps on unwilling populations. Ms Wagenknecht told the Mail she had no sympathy for the ‘populist’ AfD. He believes that some elements of the party are Nazis and use language that is ‘racist’.
But on some issues they agree, and this puts him at odds with the Left. As a result, he is considering forming his own breakaway party, which is predicted to draw voters from the AfD.
He has previously warned that: ‘Green government policies endanger Germany as an industrial location and threaten jobs and prosperity in our country.
He told the Mail: ‘It makes no sense to increase our use of coal by closing our nuclear power stations. We also need to find ways to limit immigration. . . And don’t put extra strain on our already struggling community.’
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 Germany today.
The incident is intense. Just two weeks ago, Volkswagen cut production of electric cars at one of its plants here, with a labor union blaming sluggish sales on ‘strong customer reluctance’ to go green.
Back on Friedrichstrasse, a new electric car showroom with models made in Vietnam apparently hadn’t heard the news
The woman running the showroom told me she expects EVs priced above £50,000 to sell quickly to Berliners. He may be very frustrated by public hostility to the green agenda they represent.