12 April 2019

Polls for the upcoming European elections in Germany reveal a fragmented political landscape, and a German public largely divided on the future direction of the EU. Recent polls suggest that 44% of Germans say they have a strong/very strong interest in the EU elections in contrast to only 22% stating that in March 2014. So, we must expect a higher turnout in German European elections this May than in 2014, when it was 48%, slightly higher than the European average of 43%.

Christian Democrats plough on, Social Democrats in decline

The Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is part of the largest pan-European group, the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and currently has the most MEPs in the European Parliament. The CDU is predicted to suffer a slight decline in its vote share, falling from 35% to around 33% and from 34 seats to 31 or 32. For the first time, it has presented its European manifesto jointly with its conservative Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union(CSU), a reconciliation between the two parties under new CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer.

The CDU seems content with the EU status quo in most areas and displays a lack of appetite to push for changes despite unresolved, ongoing debates on the Eurozone, Defence and migration. On the Eurozone, it notes that fiscal responsibility lies within member states and calls for a banking union with stability mechanisms, whilst on migration, it calls for a fight against illegal immigration and protection of European borders through the European border guard, FRONTEX. Campaign slogans such as “For Germany’s future. Our Europe” and “Making our Europe strong, for security, peace and prosperity” are hardly a rousing cause for reform or change of direction in the EU. Yet, even some 2014 slogans had a slightly more concrete reformist tone calling for the need of a stable Euro, though vaguer “Together successful in Europe” lines were used at the time as well.

The lack of a vision for future European reforms can also be highlighted by Kramp-Karrenbauer’s response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s sweeping agenda for European reform. Franco-German consensus appears restricted to strengthening FRONTEX and advancing a new EU competition policy, spearheaded by German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier and his French counterpart Bruno la Maire. Whereas Macron has described these elections as a fight against the populists, Kramp-Karrenbauer has denounced this binary choice of pro or anti-Europe and suggested the elections should be about “Which Europe?”.

Social Democrats (SPD) have been decimated domestically and the polls predict them to lose almost half of their seats in the European Parliament. The party has been losing votes to the liberal Greens, the Eurosceptic and right-wing Alternative to Germany (AfD) and the far left Die Linke, plunging it into electoral crisis domestically. The SPD is forecasted to poll around 18%, marking an almost 10 point decline from 2014 and a loss of 10 seats. It is likely to be one of major casualties within the pan-European Alliance of Socialist and Democrats(S&D) group along with Italian centre-left Democratic Party (PD). The SPD vision more closely aligns with Macron’s proposals and in some way, the SPD’s plight also speaks to the weakness of Macron’s political capital among the mainstream parties in Germany.

Strengthening of alternatives: The case of the Greens and the AfD

The decline of establishment parties has been accompanied by the rise of both a liberal, pro-immigration alternative through the Green Party and a Eurosceptic alternative through the AfD.

The Greens are predicted to increase their seats from 11 to 18, polling at 18%, a 7% increase compared to 2014. They are bent on replacing the SPD as the second most popular party in the European elections, following their increasing success in regional elections. This reflects the Greens’ repositioning after an internal battle resulting in the victory of the more centrist “realos” over the left-wing fundamentalist “fundis”. They are campaigning on a strong integrationist approach to the EU, under the slogan of an “Ecologic, social and democratic Europe”, proposing a deepening of the economic, monetary and social union, action on climate change and non-militaristic European foreign policy. The growing success of the party has been seen as a centre-left response to both AfD and to the CDU’s shift to the right.

This comes as the Eurosceptic AfD is expected to get 10%, rising from 7,1% of 2014. The party, which sat in the ECR group in 2014, will move to the EFDD group or Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s new group, better reflecting its conversion to a more hardline version of Euroscepticism. The turning point for AfD was the 2015 migration crisis, allowing it to capitalise on anti-immigration sentiment; since 2015, it has entered all regional parliaments in Germany and gained 14% in the last elections. It is now polling higher than 2014 but has seen a declining momentum domestically- the CDU’s shift to the right under its new leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, may have had some role in reducing the possible electoral gains of the AfD although it is still predicted to increase its number of seats from 2014.

In its manifesto, the AfD endorses a Europe of sovereign states and decries “Schengen, Maastricht and Lisbon” as removing the principle of peoples sovereignty. AfD is one of the few parties that has not dropped exiting the EU as an electoral strategy in the wake of Brexit, keeping open the option of a referendum on “DEXIT” as a last resort if the EU does not reform.

Finally, two smaller parties that are forecasted to get about 6 to 7% of the vote each are the free market Free Democratic Party (FDP) that belongs to Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and left-wing The Left (Die Linke) that belongs to the European United Left(GUE-NGL). The FDP proposes a reduction of European Commissioners to make decision-making in areas such as the single market and energy policy more effective. It also promotes strengthening FRONTEX, acting to tackle climate change and an EU future that is both “decentralised and federal.” Meanwhile, Die Linke is campaigning in favour of a “Europe for the millions and against the millionaires”. Its manifesto is largely focused on issues it campaigns on domestically such as fighting against poverty and in favour of pacifism.

How does Germany reflect broader European elections trends?

Overall, although the European dimension is present in campaigns, these European elections are largely a reflection of parties’ domestic agenda and popularity. They are likely to amplify the fragmentation of Germany’s domestic politics, as voters look for alternatives to the mainstream, particularly on the centre-left on this occasion. For now, the CDU vote appears to be holding up relatively well, but the loss of nearly half of SPD voters is emblematic of social democratic parties in decline. The popularity of the Europhile Greens is noteworthy at a time when many are focused on the rise of Euroscepticism. The AfD is predicted to continue consolidating its place in German politics, but it would be significant if the party falls from its high point of third place in 2017.

Taken together, these parties’ popularity indicates that the German electorate is divided, with a sizeable constituency in favour of social liberalism and deepening of European integration and a significant chunk of socially conservative voters believing Germany has already compromised too much on Europe.