In Germany, the elections for the European Parliament on May 26th will take place on the same day as the elections for the regional parliament in the city-state of Bremen and communal elections in ten federal states. Already in 2014, the combination of election days for the EP-elections and the communal elections in five states had had a positive effect on the voter turnout. Therefore, we can again reckon with an increased voter turnout. At the same time, the European election itself meets with greater interest this year than the one in 2014. The reasons for that mostly lie in (I.) the changes the German party system underwent since 2014 and in (II.) the general mood among the eleigible voters which is one also of concern about a “relapse into nationalism”. However, it remains uncertain if and how the parties will be able to make use of this in their campaign strategies (III.)
An Intermediate Stage in the Regrouping of the German Party System
Since the last EP-elections the political landscape in Germany has undergone a major change. The 2014 elections were marked by a breakthrough of AfD, the “Alternative for Germany”. In spite of a clearly lower voter turnout in absolute numbers, they mobilised almost equally as many votes as in the federal elections a few months before with them being able to break into the conservative political camp of voters especially in Southwestern and Eastern Germany. Since autumn 2014, they were extraordinarily successful in a series of elections, mostly double-digit, so that currently they are represented in all 16 regional parliaments and constitute the strongest opposition faction in the federal parliament (Bundestag). In that way the party radicalised itself towards an authoritarian movement and mobilisation party, nationalistic at its core, feeding off the public attention it draws from continuous breaches of taboo in discourse politics and from self-stylising itself as a “persecuted victim” of the political establishment. Their central topics are allegations of the wealth of Germans being endangered because of migration and “foreign infiltration” (islamophobia) and, also, the alleged lack of national / ethnic self-confidence among Germans due to the “cult of guilt” enforced on them by others in the wake of the crushing defeat in 1945.
The question of how to successfully counteract this xenophobic and nationalist mobilisation, which had effects on the followers of almost all the parties with the exception of the Greens, and which at times has led to heated inner-party disputes and loss of voters – this question determined the political debate in the country and party headquarters up to after the German federal elections in 2017. In the meantime all parties have somehow come to terms with the fact that the AfD will not disappear from the parliaments after one legislative period and that now also in Germany like in all the other European countries a right-wing movement party has nested itself in the political system and that the mobilising strategy they use cannot be successfully counteracted by adopting their topics and contents. Most recently, the Bavarian CSU had to painfully experience this in October 2018.
Therefore, the elections for European Parliament are by all parties of the Bundestag considered a testing ground for changed election strategies in a shifting political field with aftereffects that might leave behind new contours.
Among others, these changes include the decline also of the German Social Democracy, which is represented only in one-digit percent rates in some regional parliaments while, at the same time, the Left Party is stagnating; the rise of the Greens, who were seen and elected as a counterpart to the AfD as far as topics, positions and political style were concerned. All in all, the camp of parties left of the CDU has in recent years been weakened further. This is probably an ongoing structural weakness, because there are no social and democratic answers to the big questions of the two decades ahead of us, answers that require a larger than just a European perspective: the restructuring of global relations, the new wave of automation in the working world and climate change. But already at the end of the 1970s it became clear that the ethical and social potentials of the social and democratic policies of (western) European countries relying as they did on cooperation instead of competition will lie in answers to global injustices.
The Greens, in the face of the weakness on the Left, have intensified their search for new coalition options with the CDU. It is part of the change that, in general, the formation of governments on all institutional levels has become clearly more difficult. At times multi-party coalitions across the political camps are enforced in order to prevent participation in government of the AfD or to preclude minority governments that have no tradition in Germany. So far this has not done any good to either the recognizability or the distinguishability of the parties.
The changes in the party-political field cannot simply be classified as a shift to the Right. Underlying them there are multiple polarisations which could lead to a complete restructuring of the party system. They are about hard conflicts between the old, propertied bourgeoisie upholding conservative values and the educated bourgeoisie, steadily increasing in numbers, which in political terms is a struggle over culture and values. A second and deeper line of conflict arises along the German industry-based export model. The people employed in this sector see themselves constantly exposed to the competitive global market and are confronted with severe processes of transformation: trade wars, a new wave of automation, conversion of the German automotive industry. The classical careers, based on intermediate-level education and specialised vocational training, come under pressure of declassification. In addition, the export model comes under pressure, because meanwhile the neglect of the public infrastructure required is becoming obvious while other issues draw political attention. That is why the AfD finds followers among the medium-skilled employed in the industries who are in the second phase of their working life. A third field of conflict is the low-income sector with the evolution of a precariat in the service industries whose everyday life is hardened by insufficient incomes, precarious jobs, day labour and whose access to healthcare services, housing etc. has become more difficult. Questions of material existence connect with questions of status, of social appreciation for jobs such as deliverers of parcels, and for a place in society that provides more for life than “the minimum”.
The AfD manages best of all the parties to establish a connection between these horizontal and vertical, socially, culturally and economically shaped conflicts, with the question of migration appearing in the dress of xenophobia and islamophobia and being given central prominence. Their ethnic nationalism in combination with promises of social improvements for ‘the Germans’ consciously takes up once again the mental and moral undercurrent of the German “people’s ethnic community” of National Socialism.
While the other parties still find it difficult to adapt to the new social conflict situations, answers are provided by civil society organisations and activists that altogether form a diverse picture of a highly re-politicised society. Since last summer alone there was one huge demonstration of 250,000 people against an authoritarian, nationalist conception of society. In Bavaria several massive mobilisations took place against the exacerbation of public order legislation (security bill). The surprising success in Bavaria of a referendum for preserving biodiversity forced the ruling CSU to sharply reverse its policy. Rising rents in the major cities mobilise tens of thousands of people, and, all of a sudden, serious discussions pop up about whether the big housing companies should not better be expropriated. The question of housing brings together people of different social classes and social-moral milieus.
Another aspect that should not be underestimated when it comes to the – distanced – relationship of the younger generation towards the parties represented at the Bundestag are the digital and analogous mobilisations against the reform of the copyright rules just recently adopted by the European Parliament and against the half-hearted measures to stop climate change (“Fridays for Future”).
And last, but not least, the “concern for Europe” has become more wide-spread than it used to be as cooperation within the EU-framework is no longer seen as a matter-of-course to be relied on.
Unused Rooms for Manoeuvre for European Policies?
Among the eligible voters in Germany the slogan of “More Europe” has a high positive potential for mobilisation. Candidates or parties advocating an “intensified cooperation within the EU” meet with clearly higher approval rates than others campaigning for “withdrawal from the EU”. The authors of a broad-based study carried out in summer 2018 even spoke of a “missed chance for mobilisation” of all the parties regarding the German federal elections in 2017 due to the fact that, unlike with the refugee-topic, a counter-mobilisation need not have been feared. This positive effect of “More Europe” is most wide-spread among the supporters of CDU/CSU and the Greens, but also among the voters of FDP and The Left. Only among AfD-voters the slogan of “More Europe” would have a slightly negative resonance. (Robert Vehrkamp/Wolfgang Merkel: Populismusbarometer 2018. Populistische Einstellungen bei Wählern und Nichtwählern in Deutschland 2018, Gütersloh 2018). This positive prevailing mood is also emphasized by a survey, conducted after the election victory of “pro-European” Macron against “anti-European” Le Pen, finding that 55% of Germans could imagine voting for a “Macron Party”, although they do not seem to have considered his positions with regard to economic and social politics.
Three more or less subjective perceptions of looming dangers contributed to this positive prevailing mood: (1) the danger of a possible disintegration of the European Union (“Brexit” and nationalist, “anti-European” governments in Hungary, Italy, Poland); (2) a rise of authoritarian, national-radical forces also in Germany (election successes of the party “Alternative for Germany”); (3) the increase of global tensions caused by Donald Trump’s policies. After his inauguration, all of a sudden, merely one quarter of those interviewed, as compared to two thirds before, believed that the USA were a trustworthy partner for Germany. For more than one year now, China and Russia are considered more trustworthy. Yet, for years in a row nine out of ten interviewed Germans have been considering their neighbouring country France by far as the “partner that can be trusted” the most. The German-French partnership is rated very high among the Germans since the idea of the “construction of a core Europe” seems appealing, politically feasible and meets with great acceptance. At the beginning of the year, around 70% of those interviewed thought of this as a matter they “fully” of “mostly” agreed to. This attitude is based on both the wishes of the majority to intensify and deepen the cooperation within the EU and scepticism that this might be possible in the face of the rising nationalisms in several EU-countries. That is why currently the majority of the population rejects the accession of new countries to the EU.
Since 2010 a majority of up to 50% has been considering the EU-membership as having brought more advantages to Germany, only one sixth thinks that there are more disadvantages. This point-of-view is dominant among the followers of almost all parties represented in the federal government. Merely the supporters of the nationalist AfD see more disadvantages than advantages. In another inquiry that tried to differentiate between affective and rational motives, 56% thought of the EU-membership as a “good thing” for Germany, compared to only 14% who rated it a “bad thing”. Yet, only 37% explicitly said that the EU-membership was “advantageous for Germany”. A “good thing” need not necessarily be connected to “advantages” – which could signify that the obvious difference in the answers lies in a rather high potential among the German population that could be politically mobilised for a politics of economic and social compensation within the EU. Yet, this potential is very unevenly spread among those interviewed. It is strongest among the under 30-year-olds, among old age pensioners and interviewees with higher education levels. It is weakest or non-existent among the group of 40-60-year-olds with intermediate or low formal education levels. This is also the age group with some subgroups convinced that the EU-membership has more disadvantages than advantages.
A majority of Germans, at least 60%, has for some time now been advocating an “intensification” of the cooperation with the EU, rarely more than a quarter thinks that “Germany should act more on its own”. This attitude lies above average among the supporters of the Greens, of CDU/CSU, of The Left and also of the SPD. Among the followers of AfD, on the other hand, two thirds are in favour of German go-it-alones. For both leftist and social democratic politics, a view of the party competences is important: When it is about who defends German interests best, the CDU/CSU is in the lead before all the other parties. When it is about the question of “who best defends the interests of the working population within the EU”, the SPD is in the lead, followed by The Left on a par with CDU/CSU. This shows that the population has different associations with what an “intensification” of cooperation within the EU means.
When asked for the most important tasks they assigned to the EU and the ability of fulfilling them, the interviewees’ expectations considerably differed from reality. The eight expectations differing most widely from perceived reality are the following (listed according to the extent of the difference): “ensuring fairer taxation of international companies”, “equal pay for men and women for the same work”, “protecting citizens against crime”, “fighting terrorism jointly”, “providing effective protection of the environment”, “protecting employees from loss of their jobs”, “preserving peace in Europe” and “restricting immigration”. It is issues of social justice and security where the interviewees see the greatest need on behalf of the EU to catch up. This is reflected in the parties’ positions in their respective election campaigns.
Election Campaign Strategies: Europe?
In Germany the elections for the European Parliament are mostly elections in which both parties and electorate act honestly. The voter turnout allows conclusions as to how far-spread the political interest in the institutional levels of European politics as well as the insight into having to make a decision in the election are. Since unlike with national elections there is no need to form a government coalition after European elections, people vote without considerations for election tactics and merely based on their current party preferences, the more so since, again, like in the last and in future elections, there is no threshold clause. And the parties act honestly in elections for the European Parliament, because they have to decide if they put up topics of European relevance for election rather than their usual national ones.
As far as the election campaigns are already public, most parties will try to be successful with topics also dominant in national politics. Topics and demands that could only be tackled and realized on the European level and by European institutions, will not be given great prominence. But at least the SDP insists that “Europe is the solution!” and not the problem. Merely the small DiEM25 runs as a European party, all the other parties at best do so as members of European party alliances.
That is why from these elections no powerful impulse towards a Europeanisation of German politics can be expected. None of the parties represented at Bundestag seems to have the intention to address and give in their election campaign prominence to either the economic and social imbalances within the EU, the demographic shifts, the differently and hierarchically structured integration of national economies within the European division of labour or the role the EU should be playing in a global situation under permanent change – in short, the intention to bring about the necessary changes of German politics within the EU, to create the preconditions for intensified cooperation the population actually is in favour of. In that way the parties’ election campaigns reflect the shortcomings of past years: no detailed proposals for the creation of new social institutions, European instruments of market and tax regulation and for the transfer of sovereignty rights, no new understanding of German European politics and European solidarity – except at times in the small print.
At the same time, all the parties uphold a positive image of Europe, therewith taking account of the atmosphere among the population. “Our Europe Makes Us Strong”, the CDU/CSU promises in its slogan. Other parties try to recruit people for tasks to be fulfilled: “Renewing the Pledge of Europe” becomes possible together with the Greens, “Making Use of the Chances Europe Offers” can be done with the FDP. The SPD have made an eager “Come Together and Make Europe Strong!” the slogan of their election programme, whereas The Left sets a condition with “Europe Only in Solidarity”. With “A Europe of Nations – Diversity, Not Egalitarianism“, the AfD as the only party formulates demands for a withdrawal from the Euro (and the EU), if their reform proposals are not put into effect. None of the other parties demands a straightforward end to the Euro or withdrawal from the EU.
The CDU/CSU uses the election campaign for the attempt to enthrone within the party the new party chairperson Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as the legitimate successor to Angela Merkel. To achieve this goal, conservative and traditional values and patriarchal positions are supported in the discourse in order to address and get back voters from the AfD. The major topic of the election campaign will be the conservatives’ major focus, i.e., security policy: protection of the exterior borders of the EU, a common European defence policy as the only real concession to Macron’s initiative for a European renewal by common German-French initiatives. Promises of increased security are used to pacify the migration topic and to close a chapter threatening to blow up the CDU/CSU’s European policy: refusing to close the borders in summer 2015 will now be dealt with as part of Angela Merkel’s shortly completed term in office, that is, it will be historicised. In public, the CDU/CSU like the entire German party political spectrum, will try to avoid everything to remind people that closing the border in summer 2005 would have meant to leave Greece alone with the refugees which would have made obsolete the Third Memorandum signed only a short while before, bringing to a collapse the “rescue politics” of years and the Euro. But remaining silent about the return of German austerity politics in Europe in the shape of the “refugee wave” via Greece has fatal consequences. The empathy required for Germany’s European politics, i.e. looking at events also through the partner’s eyes, is, once again, not supported in the German public, which also means that chances are not increasing of a majority in favour of a financial compensation based on the principle of solidarity. Instead, splendid arguments can be proposed regretting the lack of European solidarity on behalf of countries like Hungary, Poland etc., which is the same as taking a position of moral superiority. Rejecting migration and following a common European safety politics and joint acting on the global market – along this newly-found line the CDU/CSU have resolved their dispute and it is on this basis that the Bavarian CSU can suddenly present itself as a resolutely pro-European party – which amounts to a radical turn in their dispute with the AfD. Most recent public opinion trends prognose for the CDU/CSU well over 30%, slightly better than their result in 2014.
For the Social Democratic SPD, the elections for the European Parliament are a first test for their new strategy of making a polarising difference from their CDU/CSU coalition partner by addressing social topics such as basic rent, care, unemployment benefit, social child benefits. It cannot yet be foreseen if their proposals in favour of a European fiscal compensation scheme to be implemented via the instrument of a European labour insurance and minimum wages can play a prominent role. Presumably this will depend on how the mood among the population will develop in the future. Regarding the upcoming elections for the regional parliaments, the SPD is mostly interested in the national importance of the election results, in that it wants to prevent any further losses compared to the all-time low of the last election for Bundestag. The Social Democrats also lack a political spirit of offensive perceiving “Europe as a solution” for that problem. In current prognoses, the SPD lies at 16-18% und thus clearly under the results of the last elections (27.3%).
The party of The Left finds itself in a similar position as the SPD and will have difficulties to reach the results of the last elections (7.4%). As a consequence of the heated inner-party disputes about migration policy, the emergence of the collective movement of “Aufstehen” (“Stand up”), after Sahra Wagenknecht’s withdrawal from leadership positions, the aim is not to lose (too much). With The Left, too, the European elections are not more than a test run for an election strategic orientation, on the one hand addressing the classic social topics and, on the other hand, trying to prevent younger supporters from migrating to the Greens by addressing topics such as climate change and culture. The posters used in the campaign work with topics not of an expressly European character and not linked to a specific European project, such as minimum wages, taxation of companies, rents, peace etc. These are topics that could be used in any other elections either. The only exception is the poster saying “Saving Humans – Creating Safe Havens”.
“Come, Let’s Build the New Europe!” is the slogan repeatedly to be found on the election posters of the Greens. Against nationalism and for environmental regeneration – these are the cornerstones of the campaign, taking up worries and concerns, in particular, of the younger generation. In the end, the Greens want to use the European elections to translate their most recent high in opinion polls (20%) also into votes and to become the second -placed party, which would be a good base for the regional parliamentary elections due in autumn.
The AfD hovers at around 10-12%, the FDP at 7%. Again, a number of smaller parties could gain a seat in the European Parliament as a consequence of a missing threshold clause.
Of course, we can never be sure of surprises and unexpected turns occurring before election day – see, for example, the Brexit, Italy etc. Perhaps this is also the reason why in Germany the election campaigns for the European Parliament are mostly pro-European but are conducted defensively from the point-of-view of democratic and social politics.
Horst Kahrs is a research fellow at the Institute for Social Analysis of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung