Understanding Germany’s stake in the European elections

We break down what to expect when Europe takes to the polls.

Photo by Sara Kurfeß on Unsplash

A piece for Omnified written by Emma Krupp

On May 26, German voters will head to the polls to elect their representatives for the European Union Parliament — the EU’s only legislative body directly voted on by citizens.

This year’s election, framed by the will-they-won’t-they backdrop of Brexit proceedings, is shaping up to be a litmus test on how European voters are feeling about a number of key issues, including immigration and climate change.

We broke down what you need to know before poll day.

First of all, what does the Parliament do?

The European Union Parliament is one of three entities within the EU charged with the creation of policy (the other two are the Council of the European Union and the European Commission). Its 751 members — aptly called Members of European Parliament, or MEPs — handle tasks largely in partnership with the Council, like passing legislation, voting on international agreements and creating the EU budget.

Each member state is allotted a certain number of elected seats in Parliament, and with 96 seats, Germany has the largest share of any country in the EU. Candidates run on national party tickets and then are merged to roughly analogous groups in the EU with whom they sit by and vote; for instance, members of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) become part of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP). Much like its German equivalent, the EPP currently maintains a majority in Parliament, followed closely by the center-left Progressive Alliance for Democrats & Socialists (S&D).

Similar to many other member states, Germany offers a closed candidate list, meaning you vote for a given party on the ballot rather than individual candidates. Each party submits a ranked list of candidates led by an appointed EU party leader, or Spitzenkandidat — they’re the figures who champion policy and generally garner the most media attention before the election. Since they’re first on the list, they’re also all but assured a place in Parliament.

So who are Germany’s Spitzenkandidaten?

If you don’t know, you’re in good company. A recent survey from YouGov commissioned by the Deutsche Presse Agentur showed that only 45% of German voters say they’re familiar with the Spitzenkandidaten from the nine leading parties. Katarina Barley, the federal minister of justice and consumer protection who’s running at the helm of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), is the best known of the candidates at 39% name recognition. But when it comes to garnering party votes, that kind of individual candidate recognition isn’t necessarily key: Current polls show The Greens claiming two more seats than the SPD, even as Green Party Spitzenkandidat Ska Keller mustered just 7% in the YouGov survey.

Manfred Weber, the Spitzenkandidat of the CSU and current leader of the EPP, is also jockeying for a spot as president of the Commission on a 12-point platform that includes the formation of a European FBI and a unified plan to fight cancer. He’s competing with several other candidates, including incumbent Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, for nomination from other Commission members.

What’s at stake?

Surveys indicate that German voters are most concerned about the environment and immigration, causes championed by the left and right, respectively. Though the EPP is expected to maintain its majority in Parliament, polls also show results leaning toward fractionalization, meaning old guard parties are likely to lose votes overall. In fact, experts project voting trends to mirror what we’ve already seen in EU member states like Germany, where The Greens and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) have made strides in recent regional elections.

Dr. Christoph Nguyen, an assistant professor of European politics at the Freie Universität Berlin, said both regional and EU votes are considered “second-order elections,” where smaller percentages of voters feel emboldened to make riskier voting choices than they would in national elections. (In 2014, turnout for the EU vote was 48.1%, compared to 76.2% for the 2017 Bundestag election.)

“The studies that I know say that if you’re really strongly motivated as a voter by your concern for immigration on the right, or the environment on the left, you do go with the party where you think they have the strongest focus on that,” Nguyen said. That means if you’re a German voter who cares deeply about maintaining tight national borders, you’re more likely to turn out for the AfD even as center-right parties have attempted to pivot to the right on immigration, he said.

In principle, this might seem like those smaller parties have a window to wield more influence, potentially forcing larger parties to make concessions and form voting alliances across ideological lines. But in practice, Nguyen said, large coalitions scoop up seats ranging across the centrist middle, meaning the potential influx of MEPs from both environmental and right-wing populist parties is more likely to cause a change in perception rather than concrete policy.

“In general, at the EU level, the three center groups the social democratic side, the sort of more conservative side and the liberal side they sort of form the center and they mostly actually agree on a lot of things,” Nguyen said. Therefore, even though centrist parties will likely lose seats this election, they would still maintain their voting majority in Parliament, he said.

How do I vote?

If you’re over 18 and a German citizen, or an EU citizen registered to vote in Germany, then you’re eligible to cast a ballot — registered voters will receive a notification telling them how to locate their polling station. You can find a more complete list of information here.

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