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Tackle what strengthens the far right, German finance minister says

German liberal party FDP holds its traditional annual Epiphany meeting in Stuttgart

By Victoria Waldersee

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) -The rise in popularity of the far-right in Germany is best fought by confronting the problems that boost their support, German finance minister Christian Lindner said in an interview with Reuters on Thursday.

"The best way to make right-wing populists who have become big small again is to make the problems that strengthened the party small," Lindner said, listing foreign policy failings, overly detailed bureaucracy, and unaffordable energy prices.

"Many people who are reachable for parties of the democratic centre are concerned about uncontrolled migration to Germany," Lindner said, adding: "We need a new 'Realpolitik' that preserves the cosmopolitan character of our country but prevents illegal migration into our welfare state."

Alarm is growing in Germany and the European Union at the strong performance of Germany's far right party Alternative for Germany (AfD) ahead of EU and regional elections in the final quarter of this year.

The party is polling second in nationwide surveys and first in three states in east Germany holding elections in September, as public infighting has made Chancellor Olaf Scholz's government one of the least popular in modern German history.

All mainstream parties have been criticised for focusing on AfD's themes such as promising to deal more toughly with illegal immigration despite warnings from experts that this only legitimises their discourse.

Lindner, leader of the Free Democrat Party (FDP), warned that the AfD's proposal to take Germany out of the EU was more dangerous for the country than Brexit and expressed concern that a group fueled by resentment was rising in the polls.

The AfD has stoked deep division in the country, with tens of thousands taking to the streets in recent weeks after media outlet 'Correctiv' reported that senior party members took part in a meeting on a plan for the mass deportation of citizens of foreign origin.

MID-TERM GROWTH

Lindner forecast a higher level of growth in the mid-term in Germany, after the economy contracted by 0.3% last year amid persistent inflation, high energy prices and weak foreign demand.

Still, economists have said the recent drags on growth would still be around in the first months of 2024 and could, in some cases, have an even stronger impact.

The president of German business association BDI warned earlier this week the German economy was at a "standstill" and "falling further behind" other major industrialised countries.

Lindner welcomed the German parliament's decision earlier in the day that the country does not need to suspend its brake on raising debt, and said he could currently not envisage a situation where that would be necessary.

(Reporting by Victoria Waldersee, Additional reporting by Christian Kraemer, Maria Martinez, Alexander RatzEditing by Mark Potter, Lisa Shumaker and Sandra Maler)