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The EP 2019 elections in Germany

08 May 2019 - 14:50
Source: Max Löffler/Die ZEIT
Still a second order election

The outcome of the European elections in Germany will play an important part for the future composition of the European Parliament: Not only do EU citizens in Germany elect the highest number of MEPs (96 seats), but German parliamentarians have also exerted decisive influence in the previous legislature. They currently (co-)preside over four out of eight EP groups – the European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialist’s Group (S&D), the Greens/EFA group and the European Left (GUE/NGL). Two recent studies from VoteWatch.EU and Politico have also put German MEPs high on the list of the most influential EU parliamentarians. But what are the main political themes in the German EP election campaign?

Firstly, the European election campaign is characterized by what could be called an ‘importance paradox’. On the one hand, media outlets as well as lead candidates such as Katherina Barley (SPD) have characterized them as a Schicksalswahl, a key election that will decide the future fate of the European project. Confronted with US President Trump, the difficult Brexit negotiations and the rise of EU-sceptic and/or populist parties across the EU, one of the main political narratives is the necessity to mobilize centrist voters to fight back against populists. Manfred Weber, main candidate of the CDU/CSU in Germany but also EU-wide for the European People’s Party (EPP), is emphatically calling on voters to not let the European project get in the hands of populists.

On the other hand, despite this rhetorical importance attached to the election, the campaigns of the major political parties are so far also an exercise in issue avoidance. The main themes of the campaigns are very general in nature, focusing on the need of a stronger Europe, the EU as a peace project and the need for unity (Zusammenhalt) in the EU. So far, no serious policy debate has taken place in national media between the political parties. Particularly noteworthy is the lack of debate on key issues for the future of the EU such as the development of the Eurozone, EU migration policy, the EU’s budget or the international positioning of the EU vis-à-vis the United States and China.

"The Eurozone crisis has disappeared from the list of major challenges facing Europe from the view of the German electorate."

In contrast, there are clear issues that voters regard as most important for the European elections. In a recent poll conducted by YouGov Germany, environment and climate policy emerged as top issues for 55 % of German voters in the EP elections, followed shortly by migration and asylum policy (54 %). The relation was reversed, however, for voters 45 years and older, who regard migration policy as much more important. Other major issues named by voters were right-wing populism in Europe (28 %), taxation of multinational companies (26 %), Brexit (18 %) and the regulation of the internet (12 %). Most notably, the Eurozone crisis has disappeared from the list of major challenges facing Europe from the view of the German electorate. 

Secondly, it is important to note that the context of European elections in Germany has changed. For the first time, Germany has an established, vocal EU-sceptic party with the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which in its 2019 election manifesto even puts the option of a German EU exit (‘Dexit’) on the table. While the young AfD did contest in the 2014 EP elections – and achieved 7 %of the vote barely a year after its foundation – back then it was mainly critical of the Eurozone policies but supportive of EU membership overall. Paradoxically, however, in 2019 the AfD has not yet made a strong impression on the EP election campaign. Currently it is polling at 10 to 11 %of the vote, which would be less than it achieved during the 2017 German national elections. Its recent major focus, migration policy, has also dropped in importance in the national debate. In contrast, since the Eurozone and migration crisis have to some extent receded, support not only for EU membership but also for the Eurozone and further steps in EU integration have risen to new heights in Germany.

"Even in Germany the link between the European Spitzenkandidaten and voting decisions seems strenuous at best."

The third paradox surrounding the EP elections in Germany is centered around the Spitzenkandidaten (“top candidates”) process. In 2014, German parties and the German media were at the forefront of establishing the Spitzenkandidaten procedure, i.e. that the top candidate of the largest political group would be nominated by the European Council and then elected by the European Parliament as Commission President. In 2019, German parties at least rhetorically also champion the Spitzenkandidaten procedure. In practice, however, the candidates are not (yet) resonating with the electorate. Manfred Weber, Spitzenkandidat of both the EPP Europe-wide and the CDU/CSU in Germany, is known only to 26 % of Germans. The SPD in turn has decided to focus on its national lead candidate Katherina Barley, who, as current Minister for Justice, is the most well known of all German EP elections candidates at 39 %. Her fellow SPD top candidate Udo Bullmann, who leads the S&D group in the European Parliament, is known only to 4 %of Germans. Frans Timmermans, meanwhile, is not employed by the SPD in the election campaign at all, with the notable exception of two TV debates with Manfred Weber in German. While the Greens are polling up to 19 %, Ska Keller, Spitzenkandidat both for the German and the European Greens, is known only to 7 % of Germans. In short, even in Germany the link between the European Spitzenkandidaten and voting decisions seems strenuous at best.

''EP elections are again to be more of a second order contest with voters making their choice along national rather than European political priorities''

Meanwhile, the national political importance of the EP election is high: After Angela Merkel has declared not to run again as Chancellor and stepped down from the CDU party leadership, the EP elections are the first nationwide electoral contest for her successor as CDU leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. The same holds true for Andrea Nahles, SPD leader since 2018. Remarkably, according to polls the EP elections are the first nationwide electoral contest where the Greens could overtake the SPD as the second largest party. Both CDU and SPD have announced to hold a mid-term review of their grand coalition in the second half of 2019, which will be strongly influenced by their respective results in the EP elections. In consequence, despite the declaratory importance attached to the EP elections by policy makers in Germany and the influence of German MEPs on the European Parliament, they are shaping up again to be more of a second order contest with voters making their choice along national rather than European political priorities.