A Changing Climate in Germany: Evidence from RECONNECT pre-election survey

23.05.2019

As part of the RECONNECT project, between April 2 and April 22, 2019 the University of Vienna conducted an online survey with about 2,000 respondents in Germany as well as in 6 other EU countries (Denmark, France, Hungary, Italy, Poland and Spain). The survey included extensive questions about people’s attitudes and behavioral intentions for the upcoming 2019 European Elections. In this short blog, we will look into some of the most interesting aspects of public opinion prior to the European Parliament (EP) election campaign. Our survey will again track these attitudes amongst the same respondents immediately after Election Day to test if voters change their mind after exposure to the ‘heat’ of the European election campaign.

by Julia Partheymüller and James Wilhelm

 

The Campaign in Germany

European election campaigns in Germany are typically ‘second-order’, meaning that they are marked by low levels of coverage, minimal campaign efforts by parties, and a lack of public interest when compared to national election campaigns. A convergence between first- and second-order election campaigns has taken place, if at all, only in the sense that in recent years national elections have also been lacking momentum due to the repeatedly looming Grand Coalitions making national elections less competitive (Partheymüller/Schäfer 2016). Although some have called the 2019 European elections a “Richtungs- bzw. Schicksalswahl”, a vote of direction or fate, this year’s campaign is in many ways similar to those held previously. Despite this, in a comparative perspective, European elections are taken considerably more seriously than in other countries. Germany holds the largest number of seats in the European Parliament, and unlike, for example, the United Kingdom, there is a strong feeling of duty and commitment to European elections.

In terms of issues, the first half of 2019 has been marked by the fading importance of the dominating asylum/migration issue and the rise of climate change as a new issue on the agenda. Greta Thunberg and the Friday-for-Future protests have made headlines that have prompted a shift in the agenda in Germany towards the climate issue. Earlier in the year, the drama of the Brexit negotiations and the votes in the British parliament were highly salient in the German media. However, the extension of the Brexit deadline until October 31 has meant the issue has faded from the agenda for now. A genuine debate on the future of Europe, as suggested by those describing the EP elections as a fateful election, has so far not taken place.

The European Spitzenkandidaten—Manfred Weber and Frans Timmermans—have been quite visible in the German media. For example, both candidates have taken part in a live debate on public television (ARD Wahlarena), discussing various specific issues such as the introduction of a carbon tax, the redistribution of asylum seekers and border security. Yet, as both candidates are very pro-European, a more fundamental debate about the future of the EU has not occurred and is unlikely to do so during the campaign period. National Spitzenkandidaten have been somewhat less visible and are essentially unknown to voters, save perhaps for Katarina Barley (SPD), who has appeared a little more prominently in the campaign.

An emerging country-specific issue is the future of Chancellor Merkel. Some observers have speculated that Merkel might come under pressure to step down after the election, especially if the Christian Democrats perform poorly. Yet, although current polls indicate that the CDU/CSU will lose votes compared to 2014, the party is likely to remain by far the largest German party in the European Parliament. At the same time, Merkel continues to enjoy a very favorable public rating that is more positive than that of any alternative candidate. As a result, the timing of Merkel’s resignation remains uncertain.

Issues of Importance at the Voter Level

Figure 1 provides a breakdown of the most important issues facing Germany today, according to the 2,000 eligible voters in Germany we surveyed prior to the start of the election campaign (interviewed between April 4 and April 16, 2019).[1] On the basis of our results, it is of little surprise that climate change has emerged as a prominent issue during the campaign, as it was already named as most important by 16% of the potential German voters we surveyed before the campaign began, making it the most important issue overall. Perhaps surprisingly, neither immigration (10%) nor asylum rules and policy (11%) were named as the most important issue on their own. Yet one-fifth of the potential voters we surveyed still named one of the two topics as most important, indicating that despite the fading attention devoted to these issues in the campaign, both are still live at the voter level. Meanwhile, as was also apparent in the other EU countries we surveyed with the exception of Hungary, a substantial number of eligible German voters named inequality as most important (12%). Thus, it is also possible that this issue becomes more intensely discussed by parties and the media during the latter stages of the campaign.

The Disposition towards Europe

Figure 2 shows where our sample of German respondents placed themselves on a 0-10 point European unification scale, where 0 indicates that European unification has already gone too far, and 10 that it should be pushed further.[2] Generally speaking, the attitudes of those we surveyed towards European unification is highly positive, with 59% expressing that European unification should be pushed further (i.e. respondents placed themselves at 6 or above on the scale), and 14% of these at the furthest end of this end of the scale (i.e. 10). However, further European unification is not universally popular, with 24% of those we surveyed indicating that it has already gone too far (i.e. respondents placed themselves at 4 or below on the scale), and 7% expressing the most extreme Eurosceptic position possible (i.e. 0). However, the number of respondents indicating a belief that European unification has gone too far falls well short of those holding the opposite view (a difference of 35%). Thus, our results indicate that eligible German voters head into the campaign rather sympathetic to further European integration – a somewhat surprising finding in light of the German- and European-wide campaign narrative that the upcoming election is likely to be a breakthrough election for Eurosceptic parties.

Outlook for the Final Furlong

With Election Day approaching, it seems likely that European politics will become increasingly important in public discourse. In particular, it seems probable that right-wing Eurosceptic parties like the AfD will receive more attention. Also, a broader narrative about the rise of right-wing Eurosceptic parties across Europe seems to be developing in the campaign, centering on the rise of Salvini, Le Pen, and the Brexit Party. Such coverage, however, will most likely focus on the horse-race aspect of this development rather than on substantive issues. A constructive discourse about the future of the European Union post-Brexit seems unlikely as pro-European parties face an incentive to avoid the issue, while the campaign messages of German Eurosceptic parties are likely to be more destructive rather than constructive (i.e. stating what they dislike without presenting any new vision for the future of the EU).

References

Partheymüller, J. & Schäfer, A., 2016. Sind Bundestagswahlen noch Hauptwahlen? Die Wahlkampfexposition im Zeitraum von 2009 bis 2014. In J. Tenscher & U. Rußmann, eds. Vergleichende Wahlkampfforschung: Studien anlässlich der Bundestags- und Europawahlen. Wiesbaden: Springer VS, pp. 177–204.

Footnotes

[1] Question in English: “Now a question about the issues facing Germany today. Among the following, which do you think is the most important one? Please select one.” (Respondents presented the items listed in Figure 1). Question in German: “Bei der nächsten Frage geht es um die Themen, die Deutschland gegenwärtig beschäftigen. Welches der folgenden Themen ist Ihrer Meinung nach am wichtigsten? Wählen Sie bitte eine Antwort aus.”

[2] Question in English: “Some say European unification should be pushed further. Others say it already has gone too far. What is your opinion? Please indicate your views using a scale from 0 to 10, where ‘0’ means unification “has already gone too far” and ’10’ means it “should be pushed further””. Question in German: “Einige sagen, dass die europäische Einigung weiter vorangetrieben werden sollte. Andere sagen, dass sie schon zu weit gegangen ist. Was ist Ihre Meinung? Bitte geben Sie Ihre Ansicht auf einer Skala von 0 bis 10 an, wobei ‘0’ bedeutet dabei, die “europäische Einigung ist schon zu weit gegangen”, und ’10’, “die europäische Einigung sollte weiter vorangetrieben werden.”

 

This blog post has also appeared in the RECONNECT Blog.

 


Dr. Julia Partheymüller works as a Senior Scientist at the Vienna Center for Electoral Research (VieCER). Dr. James Wilhelm (postdoc) is a specialist in the areas of public opinion, political psychology, voting behaviour, European studies, survey design and analysis, and experimental methods.


 

 

 

Figure 1: Most important issues facing Germany today, according to eligible voters in Germany (Notes: Unweighted data. Data collected between 4-16 April 2019. N=2,000.)
Figure 2: Attitudes towards European unification, according to eligible voters in Germany (Notes: Unweighted data. Data collected between 4-16 April 2019. N=2,000.)