Germany: Faithful reflection of European electoral tendencies?

, by Théo Boucart, Translated by Juuso Järviniemi

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Germany: Faithful reflection of European electoral tendencies?

The European elections have finally given their much-anticipated verdict: the big currents were confirmed, despite some surprises. Among the different national results, those from Germany could turn around the national political landscape and the functioning of the entire EU.

After weeks of campaigning and mobilisation, and four days of elections, the EU now knows the composition of its next Parliament which will co-decide (with the Council of the EU) on the numerous proposals of the Commission between 2019 and 2024. The pan-European results leave a mixed impression, though much more optimistic than what we could have thought a week ago. The turnout increased spectacularly in almost all European countries, going from 42.5% to 51%. The radical right improved less than predicted, whilst Green and liberal parties got by well, unlike traditional centre-right and centre-left parties. As such, the big electoral currents of Europe were confirmed.

The composition of the future political groups in the European Parliament promises to be complicated. The next steps will no longer flow calmly: with the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) having lost their absolute majority, the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) and the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA) almost find themselves in a ‘kingmaker’ position, and can from now on have more weight in the decision-making of the European Parliament.

When looking into different national results, we find that Germany acts as a laboratory of European politics: almost all continental tendencies can be observed in Europe’s most populous country. How will Germany be able to exercise its influence in the Strasbourg plenary chamber and by extension in all of the Union’s institutions?

The green wave and the red tumble

First a word about the absolutely exceptional participation in these elections: 61.5% of voters cast a ballot, which is… 13.5 percentage points more than in 2014. We need to go back to 1989 (the period before reunification!) to find as high a turnout rate (62.5%). The increase in participation is a common trend for all of the European Union, but it’s even more evident in Germany. It’s truly great news for the health and legitimacy of European democracy, as the citizens took on the issues of these elections, and the results are thereby more representative than for previous European elections.

Like its European equivalent, the Große Koalition suffered losses, particularly the centre-left. The CDU/CSU led by Manfred Weber, was on top with just 29% of the votes. The SPD continued its descent to the netherworld (and that’s not a hyperbole): Katarina Barley’s party tallied fewer than 16% of the votes and is now only the third-biggest force in German politics.

This is a true cataclysm for the Social-Democrats in Germany who are literally bogged down by their spell in government and in a desperate need of a place in the opposition to build up resources. The saying that ‘power wears you down’ has never been as true for the SPD. Nonetheless, just like for the EPP and S&D, the losses remain limited for CDU/CSU and for SPD if we compare these to the defeats of the Spanish conservatives or those of the French socialists.

The big surprise of these elections, in Germany and in the entire EU alike, is the breakthrough of Green parties. The German Greens got a historic score of 20.5%, an increase of almost ten percentage points compared to 2014. The party of Ska Keller and Sven Giegold has certainly been enjoying an excellent dynamic since the federal elections of 2017, but above all they presented a truly European programme, concentrated on future challenges and bearing a message of hope, while still not falling into the trap of idealism. At the European level, the Greens/EFA group also finds itself on the winning side, as issues of the EU’s climate and energy policy had been decisive for many European citizens.

A moderate rise of the liberals and the radical right

The Greens are, however, not the only ones to celebrate. The radical and Eurosceptic – if not Europhobic – right, as well as liberal centrists, can smile after the European elections. In Germany, AfD and FDP made gains, though limited, compared to 2014 (11% and 5.5% respectively). However, the result was a small disappointment for the radical right led into the elections by Jörg Meuthen, as the good post-election dynamic could have given many more additional votes to the AfD. As for the FDP of Nicola Peer, the party pursues its slow healing after its collapse in 2013 when the party had seen its vote share reduced by two thirds and failed to get elected to the Bundestag.

The results of the German radical right and of the liberals are, therefore, similar to European tendencies. The centre, represented by ALDE, made gains, and right-wing populists also recorded moderate wins. When it comes to other parties, some changes can be noted. The radical left of Die Linke lost votes but remained mostly stable at 5.5%. The lead candidates completely unknown to the general public, Martin Schirdewan and Özlem Alev Demirel, weren’t able to surf on their promise of a social and solidary Europe. Die PARTEI, the populist and satirical party founded by MEP Martin Sonneborn, managed a great performance and quadrupled its electorate, reaching 2.4%. The neo-Nazi NPD, for its part, lost its only MEP, which is something we can hardly mourn.

Mixed results for Eurofederalist parties

These European elections were also marked by the media presence of openly federalist parties, the two main ones being DiEM25 and Volt. In Germany, the “Demokratie in Europa – Diem 25” list stood out in the media thanks to the candidacy of the former Greek finance minister and opponent of German ordoliberalism Yanis Varoufakis. The results, however, didn’t meet the expectations: the left-wing federalist party only got 0.3% of the votes. Volt, a mode centrist federalist party, managed the feat of sending their lead candidate, Damian Boeselager, to Strasbourg. Boeselager will be Volt Europa’s only MEP.

K.O. for Manfred Weber

The electoral tendencies observed in Germany are thus the same as at the European level. Despite some surprises, the German political scene has resisted well the disruptions affecting numerous other countries. Now that the results of the elections have been digested, we need to start thinking of the division of top jobs in the Parliament and the European Commission.

While Manfred Weber, the EPP’s designated candidate to become the President of the European Commission, still had all the chances a few months ago, obstacles have piled up on his route to Berlaymont, the seat of the Commission in Brussels. The Bavarian had, however, begun to negotiate with other European political groups to ensure the succession of Jean-Claude Juncker. These negotiations didn’t get the best start, as no agreement has yet been found between political groups to support Weber’s candidacy.

Reinvigorated by the good results of ALDE parties, the competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager made her mark by fustigating the monopoly of the EPP and the S&D in choosing the President of the Commission. The coup de grâce seems to have been given at the meeting of heads of state and government earlier this week, as they agreed not to nominate the EPP lead candidate.

The election of Manfred Weber to the leadership of the European executive would have presented another question: that of German influence in the European institutions. Manfred Weber would, granted, have been the first German President of the Commission since 1967 and the resignation of Walter Hallstein, but the fact remains that Germans are particularly well-represented in the most strategic posts, especially in the European Parliament.

Could the results of the European elections in Germany change all of that? While CDU/CSU, Die Linke and above all the Greens seem set to maintain their preponderance in their respective political groupings, the Social Democrats look like they are losing their dominant role, probably to the Spanish socialists. The FDP will likely be drowned in the mass inside ALDE, especially if French MEPs from La République en Marche confirm their affiliation. In the end, Berlin’s domination of the EU will perhaps be limited.

Towards a detonation of the “GroKo” in Berlin?

This fear is even more exaggerated, considering that Angela Merkel’s government could be drastically weakened by the results from Sunday, thereby impeding the work of the Council of the EU and the European Council. Successive electoral failures, especially for the SPD, could moreover push the party to reconsider its place in the government coalition. A minor partner in a German government coalition always sees its hand forced by the major partner, whilst the SPD has sought to distinguish its European policy from that of CDU/CSU.

The next weeks will, therefore, be decisive for the German government. SPD could change its strategy after this new electoral defeat. If “GroKo” falls, Angela Merkel will fall with it for good, which would temporarily weaken Germany’s position in the European institutions. Even if pragmatism has (almost) always prevailed in Germany’s European policy in the past years, the European elections could be a new starting point.

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