We Brits like to think that everyone is as obsessed with Brexit developments as we are. Of course, the truth is that for most of our fellow Europeans outside the Brussels elite, Brexit comes way down the list of priorities. For evidence of this, look no further than last month’s German election campaign: much was said about the EU, but hardly anything about the UK and its decision to leave. Nevertheless, the outcome of the election has shifted the balance of power in Germany, and there can be no doubt that this will impact the ongoing Brexit negotiations.
Overlooking the fact that the snap election in Britain this June was completely unnecessary, and therefore something of a self-inflicted wound, May and Merkel have suffered similar electoral fates. Both returned to government, but with significant losses, in the form of 13 vital seats for May and eight percent of the vote share for Merkel’s CDU/CSU partnership. Two of the main protagonists in the Brexit saga have therefore returned to the stage noticeably less surefooted than before, with their audience increasingly impatient and unforgiving.
Brexiteers and Remainers alike had high hopes for the German election; either that a re-energized Merkel would jump start the faltering Brexit negotiations and pave the way for a trade deal, or that a strong Merkel-Macron partnership would support the softer version of Brexit sought by many in the Remain camp. Safe to say that both these hopes have now been dashed, with Merkel seeking to form a so-called “Jamaica” coalition with two very different parties – the liberal FDP and the leftist Greens.
These coalition negotiations have implications for Brexit because both these parties will demand concessions from Merkel, and both have contrasting views on Europe. While the Greens are likely to support Macron’s grand ambitions for deeper European integration, with a Euro finance minister overseeing a larger budget, a common bank deposit insurance scheme, and even talk of an EU army, the more eurosceptic FDP will oppose any such moves. Merkel will have to move cautiously as a result. Furthermore, while the pro-business FDP might be expected to back a favourable post-Brexit trade deal, the Greens have strongly opposed trade agreements in the past, including TTIP and CETA, and are unlikely to make an exception for Britain. Interestingly, however, both parties have signaled that they would be willing to allow an independent Scotland to rejoin the EU.
In Germany, as in Britain, migration remains a key issue and will shape Merkel’s post-election decisions. The right-wing nationalist party Alternative für Deutschland secured an increase of 8.8 percentage points in the election and, thanks to Germany’s proportional vote system, now has 94 seats in the Bundestag. Commentators are painting this as a direct consequence of Merkel’s controversial open migration policy, which has led to a steep decline in the Chancellor’s popularity. Hoping to regain the confidence of disillusioned voters, Merkel is likely to seek tougher Schengen border controls and a revised refugee distribution system for EU member states. This will not be met with enthusiasm by German’s Eastern European neighbours, namely Hungary and Poland, and will require much of Merkel’s energy and time – time that Theresa May had hoped might be spent leaning on Michel Barnier’s negotiating team in Brussels.
So, it appears that the Chancellor has better things to do than help the Brits out of a self-created mess. And who could blame her? The constant infighting in May’s Conservative Party, fueled by highly-politicised and increasingly aggressive media coverage, means that virtually no progress has been made on Brexit since… well, since the referendum result in June last year. A complete lack of clarity, combined with stubbornness on both sides of the negotiating table, has resulted in the current stalemate situation, which urgently needs to be resolved. But if Britain was hoping for a heroine in the form of the German Chancellor – she’s sort of busy right now
Alice Buckley is a British public affairs professional, with a particular focus on Brexit and political risk. Since the 2015 UK election she has worked at the London-based agency WA Communications, formerly Westminster Advisers, advising businesses and investors on UK and EU political and policy developments. She has taken up a new role in the British civil service in October 2017.