For quite some time, European parliament elections have been considered second-tier elections with little domestic political significance. But the upcoming elections may become a decisive vote on the future of the European Union. The European political landscape has changed over the last few years – quite substantially in some countries – and with it, the composition of national parliaments in EU member states. This is especially true for Germany.
The German general elections in September 2017 brought seven different parties to the national parliament, the Bundestag, for the first time ever. Traditionally, 70 percent or more of the popular vote has gone to the so-called “Volksparteien” (people’s parties): The center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), its Bavarian sister party (CSU) and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). These parties still won a combined 53 percent of the vote in 2017, but compared to the 67 percent in 2013 (and even higher percentages in earlier elections), the result has been interpreted as a strong decrease in voter trust regarding the political establishment.
The splintering of the German political landscape is perhaps most strongly exemplified by the rise of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany) party. Founded in 2013, the AfD was elected into the national parliament for the first time in 2017 and promptly secured more than 12 percent of the seats, making it the third-largest party and the de-facto leader of the opposition. What’s more, after gaining 13 percent of the vote in the most recent state election, which was held in Hesse last October, the party now occupies seats in all 16 state parliaments. Moreover, the governing CDU lost some 400,000 votes in Hesse, a crushing defeat which ultimately sealed Angela Merkel’s fate as party chair.
After the general elections, the political establishment initially struggled to build a lasting governing coalition. First, Chancellor Merkel’s CDU/CSU, the environmental Greens and the Free Democrats, business-friendly liberals, tried to craft a coalition but failed, leaving the people’s parties – the CDU/CSU and the SPD – to form what is known in Germany as a “Grand Coalition”, which began its work in March 2018. Although party officials were able to quickly settle on a coalition agreement, many members of the SPD remain skeptical, with anti-coalition sentiment simmering in the background. The SPD is still reeling from its own election disaster in September 2017 (the party’s worst result since 1949) and many members are fearful that another four years as Angela Merkel’s coalition partner will finish it off for good.
It remains to be seen how stable the coalition will be after a string of upcoming state elections this year that are likely to spell more trouble for both the CDU and SPD. As state elections traditionally have an impact on the federal level, the upcoming votes in Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia will be important tests of support for the AfD. The states are all in former East Germany, where the party has its largest potential supporter base, as does the far-left Die Linke party. Die Linke is currently undergoing yet another round of internal squabbling over its general direction: In 2018, taking a page from the populist playbook, party whip Sahra Wagenknecht co-founded the aufstehen movement, which is inspired by La France Insoumise and the Momentum campaign from British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
After 18 years as leader of the CDU, Angela Merkel stepped down in early December after a year that saw her style of moderate, pragmatic politics failing to resonate with voters. Her successor and former protégé, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, or AKK as she is referred to by colleagues and the media, could potentially shift federal politics in 2019 to the right in order to win back votes from the AfD. If she is unable to do so in time for the 2021 federal elections, conservatives may look to last year’s runner-up in the race for CDU chairmanship, Friedrich Merz, to realign the party with its traditional base.
Germany’s party landscape is undergoing major changes and the EP election will signal how these changes are unfolding. The main political battle in Germany’s EP election is likely to centre on domestic issues such as migration, border control and crime. They will be among the most high-profile topics of debate, largely due to the anti-refugee and anti-immigrant rhetoric of the far right which has seeped into the national conversation in recent years. The campaign is also likely to feature issues such as the euro, trade, climate change and challenges to European security.
This shift in German politics is likely to have a significant effect on the European level: According to the latest polls, the SPD is projected to lose a double-digit number of seats while the Green Party, boosted by improving fortunes at home, is expected to make substantial gains. The Free Democrats, who returned to the Bundestag in 2017, are currently polling in the high single digits, likely improving the ALDE EP group’s seat tally. Although voter support for the Euro-sceptic AfD has leveled off in recent months at 12-14 percent, the party is expected to win at least 13 EP seats. On the far left, Die Linke wants an alternative to NATO with some of its members supporting a softer policy on Russia. Polling at 9 percent, it’s likely to retain its eight EP seats.