German CEOs warn of far-right threat to economy

By Sarah Marsh and Hakan Ersen

BERLIN/FRANKFURT (Reuters) – The leaders of German companies from chip manufacturer Infineon to chemicals maker Evonik have warned about the threat of far-right extremism to Europe’s largest economy as the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party surges in polls.

Germany’s business leaders typically stay out of party politics given swings in power and have long dodged questions about the rise of the nationalist AfD, which is currently polling second in national surveys.

But a report last week that two senior AfD members participated in a meeting where plans to carry out mass deportations of citizens of foreign origin were discussed has sparked national outrage.

It has also raised fears that Germany’s image as an attractive destination for foreign investment and skilled workers could be tarnished at a time when a shortage of domestic labour is hampering growth.

The AfD has said the proposals discussed at the meeting do not represent party policy, but the country’s domestic spy agency has long warned of extremist strands in the party, which is under security surveillance.

“Hate and exclusion should not have any place in our society,” Infineon chief Jochen Hanebeck posted on LinkedIn on Wednesday. “The idea of so-called remigration is inhumane.”

“Thank you for the clear statement and words, even more special for a foreign working in Munich,” wrote Infineon employee Mariana Cervan under his post.

Tens of thousands of Germans, conscious of the country’s Nazi past, have taken to the streets in protests against the AfD, while politicians considered calling for the party to be banned.

Germany’s main parties have ruled out cooperating with the AfD to keep it out of government but its critics worry that the party is dragging mainstream politics further to the right.

Moreover, the AfD, benefiting from the unpopularity of Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s three-way coalition, is on track to do well in communal elections in June and even to come first in elections in three east German states in September.

Those include the state of Saxony, where Infineon is building a 5 billion euro ($5.44 billion) chip plant, its largest single investment in history.

Duesseldorf airport CEO Lars Redeligx said the deportation plans made it necessary to speak out.

“These thoughts that are a threat to the constitution are poison for Germany as an economic location,” he said. “It threatens our peaceful coexistence, it threatens our prosperity, and sends out a fatal signal to the world.”

Evonik chief Christian Kullmann spoke out as early as November, telling Sueddeutsche Zeitung that “all of those who carry responsibility in this country must take a clear position” on the AfD, which “damages our economy, our society, our future”.

Other companies, like optical electronics group Jenoptik, have created advertising campaigns celebrating diversity and openness.

($1 = 0.9196 euros)

(Reporting by Sarah Marsh and Hakan Ersen; Additional Reporting by Andreas Rinke, Maria Martinez, Ludwig Burger and Ilona Wissenbach; Editing by Miranda Murray, Kirsten Donovan)