Germany – the EU Parliamentary Elections

Political Background

The Federal Republic of Germany, or ‘West Germany’ as it was informally known, was a founding member of the EU. In part early attempts at European Integration were an attempt to tie down post-war Germany into mutual dependency with the rest of Europe. There was also a motivation of guaranteeing that Germany’s economy remained strong both because Germany’s industry had been an engine of the wider European economy but also to prevent the economic catastrophe which had partially led to Nazism.

Split into four zones of influence by the victorious allies after WWII, the American, British and French zones were merged to form the Federal Republic in 1949, while in the East the Soviets formed the communist German Democratic Republic in their zone. Berlin, in the heart of the East, was also split similarly, leaving it an island of liberal capitalism. Berlin and Germany became a frontline in the Cold War. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was perhaps the key moment in the end of communism in Europe and West Germany unified with the East in 1990.

East Germany had long been considered the wealthiest portion of the Soviet bloc, with the largest and most stable economy, and at times the CIA had even feared that the East might be wealthier than the West. Germany’s sizeable industrial base had been predominantly located in its East. The collapse of communism revealed that East Germany’s prosperity was built on poor foundations. Poor infrastructure, inefficient economic structures and a weak currency due to the legacy of communism left a weakened economy. Huge numbers of East Germans headed to the West en masse, seeking a better life.

Reunification has been a difficult process. A 2009 report concluded that 1.3 trillion Euros had been transferred to East Germany from the West in the first twenty years of reunification. Vast regional inequalities exist between East and West, and unemployment and poverty has been high in the East. Poor economic conditions in the East have bred nostalgia for communism, known as ostalgie, strong support for the former Communist party’s successor party, Die Linke, and, in some areas, limited support for neo-Nazism. Nonetheless, the East now appears to be catching up with the West.

Due to its central European location, its status as one of Europe’s earliest industrial behemoths (Marx famously thought that the revolution would come first to Germany and the UK as they had the most advanced economies), its raw resources and its most populated member state Germany has long been a power behind the European economy. Germany is the wealthiest European state.

Structural weaknesses in the German economy in the early 2000s led the centre-left government of Gerhard Schroeder to pursue the controversial Agenda 2010 programme, which used a combination of tax cuts, big cuts in the welfare state and an increase in labour market flexibility. Schroeder’s reforms are widely seen to have boosted Germany’s long-term prospects, though they increased social inequality and significantly weakened Schroeder’s Social Democratic Party.

Partially due to Agenda 2010, and Germany’s more industrialised, export led-economy, Germany has weathered the economic crisis better than most. Germany has also, ironically, benefitted from the Euro being held down due to the Eurocrisis. The economy dipped in 2009, though not as radically as in other EU states, but quickly began to grow again. Germany has also benefitted from shrinking unemployment. The unemployment rate is now 5.0%, the lowest figure since before reunification. Growth has, however, been rather disappointing, at only 0.4% in 2013.

The German constitution, the Basic Law, and political system, was designed partly to prevent the rise of extremist groups after Nazism. As such the German political system is unusually sensitive to extremism. For instance the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (there are also Land equivalents), the Verfassungsschutz, monitors extremist parties for threats to the constitutional order.

As the EU’s largest economy Germany has historically tended to be its bankroller, being the EU’s largest contributor. The Eurocrisis has sharply brought this into view as Germany has ended up as the largest member of an informal group of, principally Northern European, ‘creditor’ nations, helping to provide economic aid to, principally Southern European, ‘debtor’ nations. Germany, and its tough chancellor, Angela Merkel, have made its support conditional on tough austerity conditions.

Germany has traditionally tended to be very pro-European, but in the wake of the Eurocrisis a small but notable portion of the public has become more Eurosceptic. Around a quarter of the population would like to scrap the Euro and return to the Deutschmark.

Germany’s constitutional court is well known throughout Europe for often making its influence felt in Europe by declaring on the constitutionality of European treaties. The court has increasingly been criticised as an unaccountable, Eurosceptic institution hiding behind judicial impartiality to make political points. Supporters argue that it is a defender of the nation-state.

From a very stable two and a half party system between the 1950s and 1980s, the German political system has seen the rapid rise, and in several cases, fall of several parties in recent years. Due to the fringe status of Die Linke, in particular, government formation has become more difficult. Germany has seen two grand coalitions formed in the last 10 years as a result, whereas previously there had only been one grand coalition (which ruled between 1966 and 1969). Grand coalitions seem set to become a regular feature of German political life without a substantial shift in the party system.

As Germany is a populated and wealthy nation its political parties are often of high European as well as national importance, acting as ideological leaders for similar parties across Europe. For instance, both the Social Democrats and Greens have played a role in the foundation and support of sister parties.

Electoral System

As Europe’s most populous country, Germany will elect 96 MEPs, down from 99 in 2009, the most of any EU country.

Germany elects its MEPs using a closed-list system. Voters vote for parties and seats are apportioned to parties using the Hare-Niemeyer method, which tends to slightly advantage smaller parties.

Parties may run a single national list, or they may run separate candidate lists in each of the 16 German Lander (States). In the latter scenario seats are apportioned to candidates depending on how many votes the party wins in each Land. If a party’s national vote apportions it 10 seats, for instance, and it wins a fifth of its vote in Bavaria, then its top two candidates in Bavaria will be elected.

In practice, only the Christian Democratic Union takes advantage of this latter provision.

Historically Germany has maintained a 5% threshold in European elections, the same as in national elections. The threshold has long been maintained as a way of preventing extremist parties from maintaining a foothold in German politics. However the constitutional court struck down this threshold in a decision in 2011, ruling that it was not needed for reasons of governance because, unlike the Bundestag, the European Parliament does not form a government and that the threshold violated the German constitution’s requirement for proportionality. The German parties implemented a lower 3% threshold in response, but this, too, was struck down.

By my calculations, this results in an effective threshold for parties of around 0.77% (though parties may be able to gain a seat with less, or need more, in practice, depending on how votes divide). This is the lowest vote required for a seat of any EU member state by far.

2009 Election Result

Party European Political Party Votes Seats
Christian Democratic Union (CDU) European People’s Party 30.7% 34
Social Democratic Party (SPD) Socialists and Democrats 20.8% 23
Alliance ‘90/The Greens European Green Party 12.1% 14
Free Democratic Party (FDP) Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe 11.0% 12
Die Linke European United Left 7.5% 8
Christian Social Union in Bavaria European People’s Party 7.2% 8

Other notable parties in this election:

Alternative for Germany

Pirate Party

Various minor parties that stand a decent chance of winning a seat thanks to the super-low electoral threshold.

Likely results

The CDU/CSU are, together, polling slightly up from 2009, on around 40% together. The SPD are also polling better at 26%, but the two may perform worse on the day as the new government’s honeymoon comes to an end. Die Linke is polling slightly up, and the Greens slightly down. The AfD is likely to receive a significant number of voters, between 5% and 8%. The FDP significantly down at around 3-4%, the party is likely to be left with only around 4 MEPs, and will be saved by the lack of threshold.

Due to the lower number of MEPs (3 down from 1999 and because micro-parties will take some seats due to the lack of threshold, parties may still lose seats even if they gain votes.

It is difficult to predict the exact distribution of seats amongst micro-parties winning in the region of 1% of the vote, but it is certain that at least a few will receive representation for the first time. The likelihood of a NPD seat will make most Germans extremely uncomfortable.