European elections: German government wants threshold for fringe parties

Patrick Breyer, the Pirate Party's leading candidate in the 2019 EU elections. [Oliver Franke]

Before the European elections next May, Germany’s grand coalition wants to introduce a 2% threshold to prevent small political parties from entering the European Parliament. The German Federal Constitutional Court has, however, repeatedly ruled out such a possibility. EURACTIV Germany reports.

The German Pirate Party is worried. The small party, primarily committed to data protection and a more transparent policy, fears for its only seat in the European Parliament. It could be taken away by a 2% threshold the grand coalition would like to introduce before the EU elections next May.

A corresponding bill of the interior ministry has been forwarded to the German Bundestag, according to the Stuttgarter Zeitung.

“With a minimum clause, the votes of two million people who vote for small parties would be swept under the carpet in the EU election,” said Patrick Breyer, a lawyer for the Pirate Party.

This would also turn into a benefit for the established parties, Breyer has calculated: According to current election results, and with the 2% threshold clause, all parties represented in the Bundestag would gain at least one additional seat, the CDU even three, he said.

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In order to introduce the threshold, the CDU/CSU in the Bundestag is now apparently trying to convince the SPD, FDP and Greens to get a two-thirds majority for the vote.

Whether this succeeds – and whether the Federal Council gives its consent in the end – cannot yet be foreseen. At least on the part of the FDP, parliamentary undersecretary Stefan Ruppert already signalled the party’s support: He is convinced that such a clause is a “good compromise” to ensure a “working European Parliament”.

Not everyone sees it that way. The Federal Constitutional Court has already twice rejected such a proposal. Seven years ago, the court overturned the previously applicable five-percent clause, before the last election, it also banned a three-percent-threshold. Reason: The European Parliament cannot be compared with the German Bundestag.

In Brussels, which already has more than 150 parties, the formation of a stable majority is not necessary to support a government. However, with the exception of Spain and the United Kingdom, all other major member states have corresponding clauses. Because each member state regulates the EU election according to its national electoral law.

The attempt in the German Bundestag is not completely out of thin air.

In the future, a mandatory minimum clause of at least two and a maximum of five percent should apply in all EU states anyway – something the European Parliament and the Council decided at the beginning of July, with great commitment from the German side.

In the debate in the Parliament, the Greens and Liberals had particularly opposed a  possible clause. For Sven Giegold, spokesperson for the European Greens, there is no need “to curtail the right of voters by denying that their votes for small parties also lead to mandates. The Parliament has proven that it can easily integrate individual MEPs into different groups.”

Breyer agrees with that position. Even if they only represent individual members, the seven parties represented in Brussels would bring new perspectives and promote the competition of good ideas.

“In our fight for copyright reform without internet censorship, our MEP Julia Reda has been extremely active. Even as rapporteur, she was the one who signalled to young people that here in the EU, there is someone who represents your interests against the industry,” he said.

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In addition, excluding marginalised parties is counterproductive, Breyer warned:

“When large parties introduce a clause for their own benefit, they take the alternatives from voters who are disappointed with established politics and drive them into the hands of the populists. You could almost say that CDU/CSU prefers to have the AFD sitting in the Parliament rather than small parties.”

However, he accepts that without a threshold, extreme right parties like the NPD could end up sitting in the European Parliament. “On the other hand, there are better means against that in a democracy. The withdrawal of state funds for the election campaign, for example, as decided against the NPD in June.”

However, a German threshold is unlikely to be in place in time for the election in May.

The scientific service of the Bundestag has recently concluded that even a two-percent-threshold would be rejected by the Federal Constitutional Court, as long as it does not fall under existing EU law.

For it to do so, the decision at the EU level must still be ratified by all member states. And since the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission bans basic electoral law changes in the twelve months leading up to an election, there could only be a Europe-wide threshold for the next election in 2024 anyway.

With this, there is still hope for the German Pirates to have a say in Brussels for another five years.

Breyer, who is the party’s leading candidate for the next election, said: “The top priority of a democracy is not necessarily stability but other important factors, such as freedom of expression and plurality. Our society is becoming more diverse. That should also show when looking at its representatives.”

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