Between hope and fear: The European elections, the swing to the right and the social policy of tomorrow


The European elections are just around the corner: from 6 to 9 June, around 400 million citizens will have the opportunity to have their say on the future of the European Union (EU). Together with the Association for Social Security Policy and Research (GVG), the DSV took this as an opportunity to hold a panel discussion on 21 March entitled "Between hope and fear – the European elections, the shift to the right and the social policy of tomorrow". Around 100 participants accepted the invitation to take a joint look at the future of Europe at the premises of the German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV) in Berlin.

Political forces are shifting throughout Europe. A similar situation is expected in the European elections. Current polls predict gains for populist and anti-democratic parties; in particular, right-wing populist parties could gain seats. In Germany, too, many politicians from various political camps are therefore expressing concern.

Against this backdrop, Ralph Brinkhaus (CDU), Angelika Glöckner (SPD), Dr Anton Hofreiter (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) and Dr Ann-Veruschka Jurisch (FDP), members of the German Bundestag's EU Committee, discussed the upcoming European elections. The discussion, moderated by Ilka Wölfle, Director of the DSV European Representation, centred on the reasons why anti-European and populist parties are gaining strength across Europe, how the shift to the right can be countered and how the election could affect European social policy.

There is a lot at stake in the European elections

In his welcome address, Dr Stefan Hussy, Managing Director of the German Social Accident Insurance, recalled the motto of the EU, "United in diversity". Diversity can also be a challenge, which is why he sees the motto as a lasting mission for everyone. Against this backdrop, social interaction must be characterised by openness, tolerance, respect and non-violence. Gundula Roßbach, President of the German Pension Insurance Association, added that it was important to develop joint strategies and find answers as to how people can once again be inspired by the European idea. She believes that social insurance in Germany also has a responsibility here.

    What are the chances for a policy of the democratic centre?

    In his keynote speech, Manuel Müller, Senior Researcher at the Finnish Institute for International Affairs (FIIA) in Helsinki, focussed on the predicted outcome of the European elections and the resulting changes in the balance of power in the European Parliament. According to the latest polls, the Social Democratic S&D group and the group of the European People's Party (EPP) remained largely stable. In contrast, the far-right groups of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and Identity and Democracy (ID) are expected to make significant gains. In Germany, the AfD belongs to the latter.

    Agreement on key issues among the parties represented

    The panel discussion between the members of the German Bundestag showed: even if the four parties do not always agree on all issues, there was agreement on key issues. This applied, among other things, to the great importance attached to the EU and the European elections. Every vote cast in favour of common European values is a vote for justice, prosperity and the future viability of European societies. "One thing is beyond question: despite all the difficulties, the EU is a successful project that we must preserve for the future," said Ralph Brinkhaus.

    Ideas for bringing the EU closer to its citizens were also discussed and constructive suggestions for improvement were made. Dr Ann-Veruschka Jurisch emphasised: "Europe needs more pragmatism and less bureaucracy as we already have enough of that. The election is an opportunity for us Europeans to give freedom, the rule of law and democracy in the EU a new lease of life."

    The Members of the Bundestag were generally optimistic about the European elections despite the expected shift in power. Although anti-European forces are likely to gain ground, a stable, resilient majority of the democratic and pro-European centre is nonetheless emerging. This is a strength, in contrast to the USA, for example, where this centre no longer holds. Accordingly, good politics is still possible in the EU as long as the European-minded majority finds compromises and works together. This applies, among other things, to climate protection, to which all parties represented on the podium have committed themselves. There are only differences in the choice of ways and means.

    In addition to the expected shift to the right, the future of European social policy was a key topic. In today's conflict-ridden times, social policy measures and corresponding expenditure are often portrayed as being in conflict with expenses to support the economy. Angelika Glöckner emphasised that this either-or approach was not expedient: "In Europe, we must always jointly think about economic success and people's social security. This promotes cohesion and makes us strong enough to overcome the current challenges together." The panellists agreed that the same applies to the area of defence. An important aspect in this context is disinformation campaigns and propaganda, especially from the Russian side, which are exerting a strong influence in Germany in favour of the AfD and the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance (BSW). Defence must be reconciled with social measures, as external defence and security are the prerequisites for social peace within. However, there were differences of opinion regarding the way in which the diverse investment requirements should be dealt with, whether they should be better prioritised or whether the debt brake should be reformed.

    When it came to the further development and possible need for reform of the EU, the Members of the Bundestag were unanimous in their opinion that EU enlargement was challenging, but that it also had geopolitical relevance. In order to maintain the EU's ability to act even with more Member States, a reform is necessary. For example, decisions should increasingly be made by qualified majority instead of unanimity in the Council. Creative solutions for enlargement were also discussed in this context, such as full membership, which would be agreed but would only take effect once the EU has been reformed accordingly and the conditions for more members have been created. Other reform ideas in the context of a common foreign and security policy were also discussed, including the idea of a Commissioner for Defence and strengthening the European Parliament through a comprehensive right of initiative. Dr Anton Hofreiter emphasised accordingly: "A strong European Parliament is needed for democracy and the rule of law in Europe."

    Do good and talk about it

    In her closing remarks, Dr Doris Pfeiffer, Chairwoman of the Board of the National Association of Statutory Health Insurance Funds, emphasised that European unification had become part of people's everyday lives. They study, work or live temporarily or permanently in another EU country and can rely on good social security and healthcare due to European integration. However, self-criticism is needed: Many things that are taken for granted today are achievements of Europe, but this is no longer recognised. She therefore argued in favour of communicating the successes of European cooperation more, and above all in understandable terms, in line with the old adage "Do good and talk about it". 

    Conclusion: A hopeful look at the future of Europe

    Whilst there was an awareness of the shared political responsibility, there were some controversial discussions on the podium about specific political issues, such as compliance with the debt brake or a firewall to the far right at European level. Overall, it was clear: There is a lot at stake in the 2024 election year. Progress that has been built up over decades could be called into question in the wake of increasingly Eurosceptic rhetoric. The fact that many citizens are concerned about these issues was demonstrated not least by the great interest in the event.

    Nonetheless, with a view to the European elections, it became evident that hope takes precedence over fear – in all likelihood, there will continue to be a stable majority of pro-European parties in the European Parliament in the future, so that progressive policies remain possible together.

    The European Representation of the German Social Insurance has been involved the joint shaping of Europe’s social and health dimension for over 30 years. It will continue to campaign for a strong, democratic and social Europe in the future.

    We would like to take this opportunity to thank all contributors for their valuable input and all participants for their interest and participation!