Germany in the run-up to the European elections

By Johannes HEUSER – Head of Public Affairs | Germany

European elections: performance review of the traffic light coalition?

Elections of the European Parliament are always highly influenced by domestic political dynamics. The so-called “traffic light coalition” of Social Democrats (SPD), Greens and Liberals (FDP) – in office since winter 2021 – has been criticised for months and its popularity is waning. The most recent illustration of this dynamic were the state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, where all parties suffered severe setbacks at the ballot box.

This is in large part due to the fractures between the coalition partners. While the FDP is often criticised as a blocking party due to its centre-right political orientation, the Greens on the other hand face accusations of overly ideological policies. The SPD, the party of the chancellor, tries to position itself as a mediating third-party, but is currently losing ground in the polls as well.

Winners of this behaviour are the conservative parties: Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU), and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). The internal conflicts within the coalition provide both parties with plenty of tactical ammunition for the upcoming European election campaigns. If the parties of the traffic light fail to develop a positive narrative on their governing polices in the coming months, they can all expect severe losses.

Migration policy – the key underlying debate in German elections

One key political battleground in Germany is migration. The EU is facing an increased volume of migration and the question of how to adequately deal with this development is at the centre of German inner politics, despite the recent agreement on the EU asylum and migration pact.

Some political figures try to use this development to their advantage: proposals for a harsher migration regime, for instance, by Thorsten Frei, whip of the opposition parties CDU/CSU, call for the abolition of the individual right to asylum, and migration is likely to be a central issues of the parties’ election campaigns.

Similarly, the far right-wing AfD has been at a polling at a high for weeks. While the party achieved 10.3% in the federal elections back in September 2021, it is currently polling at more than 20%. The promise of CDU leader Friedrich Merz – “With me there will be a ‘firewall’ to the AfD” – is being questioned by his own party, and this firewall could well crumble in light of the European elections.

Manfred Weber (CSU), head of the EPP (centre-right) European parliamentary group, has publicly described the AfD as his party’s main rival in next year’s European elections. At the same time he has forged close links with Giorgia Meloni, Italian Prime Minister and part of the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR) political group. In Germany, as in many other Member states, the question of liberal vs. illiberal party movements and their identity as regards the EU will keep resurfacing.

Climate policy – an issue that will be dividing German voters

The Green transition remains a perennial issue in German discourse. The European Green Deal aims to make Europe the first continent to become climate-neutral by 2050. Naturally, such a project entails conflicting goals between economy and ecology, which will be fought out between the German parties in the upcoming European election campaign. If past debates (such as the dispute over the phase-out of combustion engines or the reform of the German Climate Protection Act) are anything to go by, the issue will continue to elicit controversial and emotional reactions throughout the election campaigns.

EU enlargement and structural reforms – heralds to state aid and subsidies discussions in the next term

Germany is the largest net contributor to the EU. In view of the discussions about EU enlargement, which could result in the accession of financially weaker countries such as Ukraine or Moldova, there concerns around the potential negative impact on German state finances.

The traffic-light coalition remains split on the issue of structural reforms: While members of the Bundestag from the Greens and the SPD welcomed structural reforms in the monetary policy arena, the FDP categorically rejects the idea of regulating European financial and fiscal policy through majority decisions instead of unanimity. Even though this issue is currently only discussed among expert circles, it might also spill-over on the parties’ stance on state aid and subsidies, leaving Germany even more divided.

Party front runners – No surprises

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) has yet to confirm whether she will seek another term in office after the European elections. Despite past power struggles between von der Leyen and Manfred Weber, CSU member and head of the European People’s Party (EPP), the only thing that seems certain is that if she wants to, she is sure to be nominated by the EPP.

The SPD has announced Katarina Barley, Vice-President of the European Parliament, as its top candidate for the second time. Barley has campaigned for decisive action against violations of the rule of law in the European Union and has been critical of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

The FDP has nominated defence expert Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann as its top candidate, which could indicate the growing importance of security policy issues in the party’s positioning. Strack-Zimmermann gained popularity as an advocate of comprehensive arms aid for Ukraine despite directly criticising her coalition partner Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD).

The Greens will not decide on their top candidate until November; however the odds are on Terry Reintke, co-president of the Greens in the European Parliament.

The AfD has chosen Maximilian Krah as its top candidate, a far-right nationalist.

The Left is led by its party leader Martin Schirdewan, who is currently a co-group leader in the European Parliament. With the announcement of a new leftist party in Germany led by Sarah Wagenknecht the role of the far-left may diminish overall.

While personnel discussion, will be a key part of the constitution of the next European Parliament and the European Commission, Germany as the largest economy in Europe, will remain one of the key power players driving the overall policy agenda in Brussels. If you are looking for in-depth analysis of Germany’s stance on policies and stakeholder, get in touch with our Berlin office.