We are currently witnessing a new chapter in the politicisation of EU affairs in the German parliament, the Bundestag. German legislators were asked to vote on further aid measures for Greece three times this year, and support within Chancellor Angela Merkel’s and Finance Mininster Wolfgang Schäuble’s own party (the Conservative CDU) has gradually declined. On the 19th August, when the Bundestag ratified the third financial aid package for Greece, 1 in 5 Christian Democrats voted against the government. Who are these dissenters? Can the party leadership expect an increase in defecting voting behaviour?
In mid-August, German parliamentarians were recalled from holidays for an extraordinary session. On the agenda was the ratification of the third aid package for Greece. After more than three hours of debate, the votes were being counted and the looming question was would there be 60 plus dissidents or not? As the the government parties hold 504 of 631 seats in the Bundestag, the government majority was not in danger. So why did it matter so much to the media whether 59 or 61 MPs from the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), would defect from the government? (In a mock vote in the CDU/CSU group the day before, 56 voted no and four abstained.)
It was a significant moment for two reasons:
First, in February, when the second aid package was extended, 29 CDU/CSU delegates voted no and three abstained; and in July, when the Bundestag voted on the government mandate for negotiating a third package, there were 60 no votes and five abstentions (out of a total of 311).
Second, the chair of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, Volker Kauder, who is in charge of party discipline and loyalty to the Chancellor and her ministers, criticised the glorification of dissenters and the lack of “esprit de corps […] that a good troop should have” within his party. Further, he threatened to remove dissidents from important committees and offices:
Those who voted no cannot remain in committees where it is important to retain the majority, such as the Budget or European Affairs Committee. The parliamentary group sends colleagues to the committess in order to represent the position of the group.” (Welt am Sonntag, 9 August 2016)
Kauder’s remarks have caused a stir, and we have seen an internal party quarrel taking place on the media stage: CDU/CSU leaders justified party discipline, whilst prominent dissidents and critical backbenchers publicly defended their (constitutional) right to vote according to their conscience and constituency preferences.
Therefore, the roll-call vote on 19 August was seen as a yardstick for party cohesion, and more than 60 dissenters were considered a serious loss for Merkel, Schäuble and Kauder. The result was higher: 63 Christian Democrats voted against the government and three abstained. (For an overview of the CDU/CSU voting behaviour and the number of dissenters, see Figure 1 and Table 1.)
Who are these dissenters?
During the previous legislative term (2009–2013), a small group of the district ‘rebels’ have found more allies within the party (see Table 1). Among those early dissidents was Klaus-Peter Willsch. He was the chairman of the CDU/CSU group in the Budget Committee but not since the 2013 elections when committee seats were newly distributed by the party leadership. The ratification of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) in June 2012 was the most contested decision in that period.
However, it was not until this year that not only district-MPs but also a few list-MPs defected from government line. Why is this significant? MPs who are elected off the party list, rather than from single-member districts, are more dependent on their party for re-election and, thus, less likely to speak out against their party, let alone vote against party line.
18 percent of MPs in the CDU/CSU group are elected from the federal state of Bavaria, which means that they belong to the CSU, which is generally viewed as more conservative than its bigger sister party. Until recently, the CSU was overrepresented among the dissenters; but now dissent seems to have spread closer to the core of the party. But it is not merely a handful of critical backbenchers. To give an example, the chair and deputy chair of the Budget Committee’s Sub-committee on EU Matters voted against the third ‘bailout’ package for Greece.
The CDU/CSU party leadership could have seen the rebellion coming. When the second package for Greece passed the Bundestag in February this year, the percentage of dissenters had already climbed over 10 percent – but more importantly, 118 Christian Democrats (around 38 percent) delivered so-called ‘explanations of vote’ (EoVs) (see Table 1 and Figure 2).
EoVs are written statements that give one or more MPs the opportunity to explain their voting behaviour on any roll-call vote. They are annexed to the official minutes of the plenary debate, and MPs tend to publish them on their personal websites as well. It is important to bear in mind that access to the plenary floor of the Bundestag is controlled by party leaders (Proksch & Slapin 2012), but every MP may deliver an EoV.
Thus EoVs can be used as a measure of intra-parliamentary mobilisation. We know from a recent study by Ulrich Sieberer (2015) that around half of EoVs are of the yes-but type, meaning that MPs voice their discontent despite voting along party lines. This growing dissent, which became evident in the huge number of EoVs in February, translated into voting behaviour in July and August – when the CDU/CSU voted against further aid measures, reaching 20 percent, despite party leaders’ appeals to close ranks.
The German Bundestag has always been characterised by a solid cross-party pro-European consensus. Therefore, the bigger question is: Does this remain merely a brief episode of dissensus? Or does it, in fact, mark the beginning of a (re)parliamentarisation, as EU issues become more contested and controversial? The latter would carry significant ramifications not only for Germany’s political landscape but also for its role in the EU.
Caroline Werner is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political and Economic Studies, University of Helsinki. She is currently visiting the DEI at the School of Politics and International Relations in UCD. In her doctoral research, which is funded by the Finnish Cultural Foundation, she explores the conccurent politicisation and depoliticisation of EU issues in the German parliament during theeurozone crisis.
Proksch, Sven-Oliver & Slapin, Jonathan B. (2012), “Institutional Foundations of Legislative Speech”, American Journal of Political Science, 56(3), pp. 520–537.
Sieberer, Ulrich (2015), “Using MP Statements to Explain Voting Behaviour in the German Bundestag: An Individual Level Test of the Competing Principals Theory”, Party Politics, 21(2), pp. 284–294.