Marius Brede / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0
Marius Brede / Flickr / CC BY-SA 2.0

The European Parliament Elections in Germany

Andreas Thomsen

European Parliament elections generally attract little attention in Germany, and this is reflected in low turnouts. The turnout for the 2014 European elections was just 47.9%, although this was an improvement on 2004 and 2009, when it was around 43% a piece. This compares with 76.2% in 2017 and 71.5% in 2013 for elections to the German federal parliament (Bundestag). In the most recent state parliament (Landtag) elections in Hesse and Bavaria, the turnout was 67.3% and 72.3% respectively.


One measure designed to counter the low level of interest in European elections (something also seen in other Member States) is the introduction of Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidates) for the role of European Commission president. Whether this will actually prove effective remains to be seen. However, German parties are certainly among those trying to turn this mechanism to their advantage. A particularly flagrant example occurred in the 2014 European elections, when the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) and its Spitzenkandidat Martin Schulz put up posters saying that voting for Schulz and the SPD was the only way to get a German as Commission president. Schulz did not become president. In the 2019 elections, the conservative alliance of the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) and the Christian Social Union of Bavaria (CSU), together known as the ‘Union’, have their own European Spitzenkandidat waiting in the wings, even though Manfred Weber is a CSU candidate and will therefore only be on the ballot paper in Bavaria. Weber’s candidacy highlights a number of contradictions within the European People’s Party (EPP). It was his party, the CSU, which had a particular problem disassociating itself from Hungary’s Fidesz party (currently ‘suspended’ as an EPP member) and in particular the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). Distinctly right-wing populist noises on (primarily) the issue of refugees could be heard from the CSU in particular, up until autumn 2018 (the Bavarian state elections were held that October). During the crisis that hit the German federal government in summer 2018, the then CSU leader and German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer very publicly took political sides with the governments of the Visegrád states and the Austrian coalition government comprising the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the FPÖ, putting Chancellor Angela Merkel in a tight corner. It is therefore an interesting and ironic turn of events that a CSU Spitzenkandidat should now be tasked with disassociating the EPP and its group in the European Parliament from right and far-right forces, which are undoubtedly on the rise. It is doubtful whether he will succeed.

The Greens too have a German Spitzenkandidat lined up: Ska Keller is one of the European Green Party’s two lead candidates. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), the European liberal group, has just put forward seven Spitzenkandidaten, among them Nicola Beer of Germany’s Free Democratic Party (FDP).

European Parliament elections – the precursor to more elections

After the 2017 Bundestag election, the most recent major elections in Germany were the state parliament elections in Bavaria and Hesse. The European Parliament elections are held on the same day as the state elections (Bürgerschaftswahl) in Bremen, Germany’s smallest federal state. Key state parliament elections will take place in late summer and autumn in three large states in eastern Germany: Brandenburg, Saxony and Thuringia. Whether all these elections will have implications for national politics will probably only become apparent after the last election of 2019: the Thuringia state parliament election on 27 October. Questions will undoubtedly then arise as to the future of the Grand Coalition, possibly the early departure of Chancellor Merkel, and also whether Andrea Nahles will remain leader of the SPD. The autumn and winter could hold some surprises in store.

SPD and Greens

The results should be particularly interesting for the SPD and the Greens. The Greens polled 10.7% at the 2014 European Parliament elections and 8.9% at the 2017 Bundestag election. After the failure of talks to form a ‘Jamaica’ coalition (comprising the Union, the Greens and the FDP) and the return of the Grand Coalition between the Union and the SPD, the Greens have been very much on the up. Their excellent polling ratings were borne out in autumn 2018, at the state elections in Bavaria and then Hesse in October 2018. They won 17.6% of the vote in Bavaria (up 9 percentage points) and 19.8% in Hesse (up 8.7 percentage points). The Greens became the second largest party in Bavaria, behind the CSU, and came joint second with the SPD in Hesse. By contrast, the SPD fell back 10.9 percentage points in Bavaria, making it only the fifth largest party, while in Hesse it dropped 10.5 percentage points. In other words, the Greens’ current strength seems to be directly correlated to another period of weakness for the SPD. It is highly probable that the SPD will shed 8 to 10 percentage points in the European elections too, with the Greens picking up almost as much. The Greens might even manage to finish second in a nationwide poll for the first time, ahead of the SPD. If these predictions come true in the European elections, and similarly dramatic trends emerge in the three state elections in the autumn, both the Grand Coalition and the SPD leadership will be on very shaky ground by the end of 2019.

The Union

The Union (i.e. the alliance of CDU and CSU) is the primary driving force behind German and European mercantilism. The export focus, policy of monetary stability and thus also the austerity policy that has been largely imposed on the European Union and in particular the eurozone by this political force is a central, perhaps even the central, political problem facing the EU. Recent proposals from Paris aimed at reforming the EU and the eurozone have been given short shrift in Berlin by Chancellor Merkel and also by the new CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. This possibly short-sighted yet consistent policy asserts Germany’s national interests even in relation to its EU neighbours. And when it comes to the blatant assertion of specific interests – whether national, regional or personal – the CSU, the party of EPP Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber, has been no less flagrant than the CDU, its sister party in the rest of Germany. Quite the opposite. Bear in mind that Bavaria, which has been governed uninterruptedly by the CSU for over half a century, is one of the key states for the German export industry. In 2017, Bavaria’s €192 billion of exports accounted for almost 15% of the German total. Bavaria is also by far the biggest arms exporter among Germany’s federal states.

The CDU and CSU suffered major setbacks in the most recent state elections in Hesse and Bavaria. In Bavaria, the CSU polled 37.2%, down 10.5 percentage points, while in Hesse the CDU only managed 27%, an 11.3 percentage point decline. Despite this, both states’ Union-led governments were able to continue, although in Bavaria the CSU, having lost its absolute majority, was forced into a coalition with the Free Voters of Bavaria, a bourgeois/conservative electoral list. The CDU/CSU are likely to suffer only slight losses in the European Parliament elections. The two parties notched up 35.3% in the 2014 European elections, and a result of just over 30% is not unlikely this time round. While the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, polling around 10% or more, is causing the CDU and CSU significant damage nationwide, it is not challenging their position as by far the country’s biggest political force.

The AfD

The AfD fell just short of the 5% threshold at the 2013 Bundestag election and received 7.1% of the vote at the subsequent European Parliament elections in 2014. Having moved significantly to the right since 2013 and 2014, the party is now represented in the parliaments of all German federal states, and entered the Bundestag in 2017 with 12.6% of the vote. In the Bavaria and Hesse state elections, it picked up 10.2% and 13.1% respectively. While still high, these results fell short of expectations. In fact, the European elections can be seen as a test of the conjecture that the AfD has now reached or perhaps even passed its peak. The yardstick has to be its most recent nationwide result, the 2017 Bundestag election. Since the last European elections in 2014, the party’s profile and positions have shifted considerably, and in particular it has moved much further to the right in terms of both its policies and its personnel. If the AfD polls a single-digit percentage in these European elections, it could be seen as evidence that the tide is turning for the party, which would mean a slightly more optimistic outlook for the upcoming state elections in eastern Germany.


At its party congress in Bonn in February 2019, at which its European election programme and candidate list were adopted, DIE LINKE (The Left) achieved two things. Firstly, with its clear and unambiguous criticism of European Commission policy and of the basic foundations of the European Union, the European Treaties, it succeeded in formulating a comprehensible reform agenda for the European Union, which at the same time affirms the principle of European integration. Secondly, its candidate list managed to combine a sense of continuity and renewal. Discussions on both these issues at the congress were overwhelmingly constructive, which was far from a given in view of the dispute over the party’s strategic direction, which flared up in early 2019. However, the European Parliament elections have always posed a problem for the party since it was formed from the merger of PDS and WASG, and this problem has not gone away. Given the consistently low voter turnout, mobilising the support base is a major issue for all parties and DIE LINKE has a particularly hard task in this respect. Its performance in past European elections has fallen short of expectations, lagging behind its results in Bundestag and federal state elections. In the 2014 European elections, the party polled just 7.4%, compared with 8.6% and 9.2% respectively in the 2013 and 2017 Bundestag elections. Opinion polls for the 2019 European Parliament elections currently put the party well below these levels.

FDP and others

After the 2017 Bundestag election, the liberal FDP was involved in talks on forming a ‘Jamaica coalition’ of CDU/CSU, Greens and FDP. It was the FDP that first pulled out of these talks, ending the prospect of this coalition, which would have been the first of its kind at federal level. If state elections in September and October 2019 lead to the collapse of the Grand Coalition at national level and the early resignation of Angela Merkel, talks to form such a coalition would most likely resume. The party polled just 3.4% in the 2014 European elections, but at that time it was still reeling from its heavy defeat in the 2013 Bundestag election and subsequent exit from the Bundestag. Since then, the party’s ratings have stabilised well above the 5% threshold, and it is likely to win just short of 10% of the vote.

In 2013, the Bundestag decided to lower the 5% threshold to 3% for European elections. However, the Federal Constitutional Court also overturned this threshold and there has since been no threshold at all for European elections. This means that in Germany it is possible to win seats in the European Parliament with around 0.5% of the vote. Consequently, in 2019 Germany is likely to again send MEPs to Brussels from a number of small parties and splinter groups. One example is the satirical Die PARTEI (The Party) led by MEP Martin Sonneborn. The same goes for former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, the Spitzenkandidat of the Democracy in Europe splinter group, who in the absence of a percentage threshold has a real chance of winning a seat in the European Parliament. Other small and very small parties, such as the Pirate Party, have a good chance of winning individual seats.


The European elections are unlikely to have any immediate political consequences in Germany, given the importance of the three state elections being held in eastern Germany in September and October 2019 and the novelty of the recently-formed Grand Coalition. Any noticeable, and possibly radical, reactions at the federal level are only to be expected after these elections. At the European level, the performance of the CDU and CSU could be key to securing Manfred Weber’s position as Commission president and painfully prolonging the hegemony of neo-liberal austerity and monetary stability policies. Furthermore, a Commission President Weber is unlikely to take a harder line on the undermining of democracy and civil liberties, especially in Poland and Hungary. If, as is now likely, the SPD suffers a heavy defeat, the probability is all the greater that the election results in the three eastern German states will further exacerbate the crisis faced by the party. If so, the European elections would be one of a series of defeats for the SPD, marking another step towards the end of the Grand Coalition, possibly before the end of the year. It is not unlikely that Angela Merkel will be further and decisively weakened in this way, not primarily by the losses of her own party but by those of its coalition partner, because an end to the coalition would probably mean a premature end to her chancellorship. The AfD’s performance will be one of the more interesting developments in the European elections as it could provide evidence that the mobilisation of right-wing populist forces has peaked, at least for the time being, in Germany (and perhaps other countries too). For DIE LINKE, the state elections in eastern Germany are also of paramount importance (the party is a coalition partner in Brandenburg and leads the government in Thuringia). Even if, in the case of DIE LINKE, the European elections represent an exceptional case, the signal sent out by the election result will not be insignificant. Finally, it should be noted that the German delegation is one of the largest in the left group in the European Parliament. In these difficult times for the European left, a good result and another strong German delegation would certainly be very welcome.