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German companies take stand against extremism

Chemical makers are part of pro-democracy coalition formed ahead of European elections

by Laura Howes
May 8, 2024

An AfD election placard fixed to a lamp post in front of greenery. The text calls to "end asylum chaos."
Credit: Associated Press
An election placard from AfD reflecting their anti-immigration and asylum stance is displayed in Düsseldorf, Germany, on April 29, 2024.

More than 30 German companies, including the chemical makers BASF, Merck KGaA, and Bayer, have formed an alliance calling for “an open, diverse and prosperous Europe” ahead of European elections next month. The call by the group, Wir stehen für Werte (We stand for values), comes as the far-right party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is in second place in the polls.

The new group, which is also backed by the Federation of German Industries and the German Trade Union Confederation, is calling on the 1.7 million employees at its member companies to vote and take a stand “against populism and extremism.” The campaign also plans to reach out more widely to the public with a social media campaign, both for the European elections and beyond.

At the end of 2023, Germany had over 1.7 million unfilled jobs, and the shortfall is expected to continue growing in the coming years. In a podcast published in January 2023, Frank Schüller of Germany’s Federal Statistical Office said that the scientific and technical profession is one of the sectors most affected by a shortfall in staff because a large proportion of employees are reaching retirement age.

Immigration is one way to shore up these numbers, but the topic has also become a hot-button issue for the electorate. Anti-immigrant sentiment is a growing concern for German business leaders, who have historically avoided making political statements. But they have begun speaking out.

In a November 2023 interview with the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, for example, Christian Kullman, CEO of the chemical maker Evonik Industries, warned against the rise in right-wing populism, saying that voting for the AfD endangers jobs.

More CEOs became outspoken after January when a journalistic investigation reported that AfD members participated in a secret meeting that discussed the mass deportation of foreigners and those considered not to be integrated into Germany. At the time, Jochen Hanebeck, CEO of the chip manufacturer Infineon Technologies, said on LinkedIn that the “basic values of our peaceful coexistence are non-negotiable.”

The new alliance describes itself as the first such campaign group. “Without diversity, innovation and success in global competition are unimaginable,” BASF’s new CEO, Markus Kamieth, says in a statement accompanying the campaign’s launch. “Openness is one of our core corporate values. Diversity is what makes us strong at BASF and as a society. Therefore, it is clear: There is no room for xenophobia and intolerance at BASF.”

Since the second world war, the German chemical industry has tried to avoid politics. “It is a huge deal that German companies are speaking out,” says Jay Weixelbaum, a historian who has studied corporate collaboration with Nazi Germany. Whether or not the impetus is purely economic, “words matter as a statement of values,” Weixelbaum says.


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