Political leaders are jostling for space in a crowded field. But German voters appear to be enjoying the show
The battle for the 96 seats in the European Parliament is being taken more seriously in Germany this year, compared to previous European Union election cycles. This has to do with an overall politicisation of EU politics over recent years, but also, and more importantly, with higher stakes for all parties because of the domestic political constellation.
The backdrop to the campaigns ahead of the European election in Germany is a phase of renewal of the political landscape in the Federal Republic. Albeit less marked than in other EU member states for the time being, the German party system is currently going through its own process of change, and parties are trying to (re)shape their distinctive profiles. The European election is an arena in which this development can be observed.
Having said that, elections in three East German federal states – Brandenburg, Saxony, and Thuringia – in the autumn of 2019 will be an even more important event to watch this year. These elections will be key tests of support for Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the party on the far right that entered the Bundestag in the 2017 federal election. The party has its largest potential supporter base in eastern Germany, as does Die Linke (The Left), the party to the left of the Social Democrats (SPD).
Until the early 1980s, only three parties – the CDU/CSU sister parties, the Social Democratic Party (SPD), and the Free Democrats (FDP) – had seats in the German Bundestag.
Until the early 1980s, only three parties – the Christian Democrats/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) sister parties, the SPD, and the Free Democrats (FDP) – had seats in the German Bundestag. In alternating coalitions, together they shaped successive governments of the Federal Republic. In 1983, not only did the Kohl era begin, but a new party emerged, Die Grünen (The Greens). This was the first addition to the left of the political spectrum. Reunification in 1990 then brought the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), with its main constituency in eastern Germany, into the Bundestag. In the aftermath of the labour market reforms of the then-coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, a new left movement emerged that in 2007 merged with the PDS to become Die Linke. This left the German Bundestag with five parties – strictly speaking, six (including the Bavarian regional conservatives) – on the eve of the federal election in 2017.
The arrival of a new party, the AfD, on the very right of the political spectrum has led not only to further fragmentation of the Bundestag, which now includes seven parties. It has also been a shock to the political culture of a country that has shown a great deal of sensitivity about its twentieth century past of National Socialism. The AfD has been the largest opposition group in parliament, occupying 92 of the 709 seats overall. Given the solid majority of the coalition government of CDU/CSU and SPD led by Chancellor Merkel, this number might look not too impressive. But with this status comes the right of the AfD to, for instance, respond first to statements in parliament from the governing parties. One should not underestimate the effect the presence of the AfD in the Bundestag is having on the political culture in Germany at large, and on the political discourse. As ECFR’s José Ignacio Torreblanca and Mark Leonard argued in 2014, the biggest impact of these newly emerging parties “may be on mainstream politics”.
The most visible expression of this impact on the centre-right has been the controversy between the CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, most importantly on migration and asylum policies. The shadow of the 2015-2016 migration management crisis has proven to be long, and the centre-right for quite some time struggled to find a joint direction.
In the spring of 2019 things look to be much more in line again. Alongside the election of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, replacing Angela Merkel as head of the CDU in December 2018, the CDU invested a great deal in developing a more distinct profile again on the centre-right in order to bind in or bring more conservative voters back to the party. Security has been a key theme both domestically and in the European election context, with an emphasis on border security while carefully avoiding yet another debate on migration.
CDU and CSU have positioned themselves as caretakers of the European Union, emphasising their fight for a strong Europe of peace, security, and prosperity.
A second pillar of the restrengthening of the conservative camp has been the pacification of the at times fierce quarrels between the CDU and the CSU over the past few months. In a deliberate demonstration of unity, both parties not only put forward a CSU candidate, Manfred Weber, to run for Commission president, but have also for the first time adopted a joint platform for the European election (for an overview of the party manifestos see the synopsis of the German political parties by the European Movement in Germany/Netzwerk Europäische Bewegung). CDU and CSU have positioned themselves as caretakers of the EU, emphasising their fight for a strong Europe of peace, security, and prosperity.
The SPD, then, has been pushing its social identity by advocating a stronger footprint of social policies at EU level, including minimum wages across Europe as a key pledge in its manifesto. The SPD – pushed into yet another coalition government with the CDU/CSU after the collapse of talks over a so-called “Jamaica coalition” (CDU/CSU, Greens, and Free Democrats) in 2018 – has struggled to demarcate itself from the overall dominance of the conservatives. But it has been more forthcoming lately in confronting its coalition partners on a number of legislative projects.
As for the Greens, their constituency is a relatively easy catch when it comes to the European election, since a lot of its key environmental policies are obvious areas for joint action at EU level. Polls ahead of the European election have shown the party will come either in second place after the CDU/CSU, or on par with the Social Democrats.
The AfD is putting forward the option of Germany leaving the EU if the party does not succeed in mobilizing support for its reform agenda.
Coming in fourth in polls so far is the AfD, which is arguing for the total abolition of the European Parliament
(all other Bundestag parties, meanwhile, want to see the European Parliament receive the right to initiate legislation). But the AfD is also calling for a fundamental reform of the EU that includes a return to a national currency. The party is also proposing that Germany should leave the EU if it does not succeed in mobilising support for its reform agenda.
The FDP has put forward a strong pro-European platform, claiming credibility on liberal economic policies and on a Europe of opportunities for both individuals and companies.
And Die Linke is campaigning on a strongly pacifist and more radical social platform than the SPD, and for a fundamental renegotiation of the EU treaties, which they would then put to a Europe-wide referendum.
Overall, polls suggest that Germans are much more interested in casting their European Parliament vote this time around than they were back in 2014. This speaks for an overall solid acknowledgement of the EU being a key pillar of Germany’s political identity, and a sensitivity to push back against the rise of parties on the extreme margins across Europe. It looks like, while discovering the EU as an arena for battles over respective policies, Germans can also still be mobilised to quite some degree with the fundamental message of Europe as the project of peace and stability.
A recent ECFR report, however, sends a warning to campaigns running on status quo messages. Based on extensive polling, the report argues for middle ground parties across Europe to position themselves as agents of change in order to win (back) electorates, and to hold the political centre. Come election day, we will see to what extent such messaging still proves successful in Germany.
This text originally appeard on 17 May in Clingendael.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.