The departure of “mutti”, or “mummy”, as the Germans like to call their head of government, would, you’d imagine, be bad for Europe, and for Germany itself. We have all, after all, come to value Angela Merkel’s calm, rational, near-maternal presence which has seen her country and continent through some traumatic times – successive euro crises, the arrival of one million refugees in Europe and, most recently, Brexit.
And yet her departure may actually be good for Britain, in the narrow sense of opening up the possibility – you’d put it no higher – of a better, more generous deal on Brexit, or, quite conceivably, reforms to the EU that would make Brexit unnecessary (so no Brexit at all). There is also, though, some risk that it could simply make Brexit even worse.
First, the optimistic case. If, as seems increasingly likely, Angela Merkel has to quit as leader of her party in fresh elections, then her successor might just come to take a different view on Brexit than she does. Thus far, she has been true to her European faith, and allowed Michel Barnier and the European Commission to make most of the running in these talks; British hopes for a cosy May-Merkel stitch-up with Berlin over the coffee and petit fours has been thwarted by Merkel’s respect for European institutions, and her adamantine belief that the “four freedoms” of the EU – of capital, services, goods and labour – are, like the Holy Trinity, indivisible.
But what if there were a new leader of her Christian Democrat movement with a more sceptical view of the value of freedom of labour – one who might indeed want to see it reviewed across the whole of the EU? That is after all, what the new German business organisation that wants to keep the UK in the EU is campaigning for, and it was something Tony Blair mysteriously hinted that European leaders were thinking about at a few months ago. If it were ever to happen, then the principal reason for Brexit would be removed at a stroke – and there would be much support for it in other countries too.
If there are to be fresh elections in Germany, then the various parties and groups who are sceptical about migration, and perhaps more sympathetic to the British case, could gain votes and seats, and be a louder voice in any new parliament. The Free Democrats, a pro-business centrist liberal party, could find itself in the position of being the only “respectable” (ie non AfD) and credible (non-Social Democrat or Green) opposition to the Christian Democrats. They could pick up enough seats to be able to govern with the Christian Democrats and without the cranky Greens.
Within the Christian Democrat movement, the Bavarian party, the Christian Social Union, could also gain support in their province, and become a relatively larger component within Merkel’s national grouping if the CDU loses ground elsewhere. If so then we might well see the balance of power within German Christian Democracy shift to the right, again pushing at a reform of EU freedom of movement. That in turn might make the German authorities more sympathetic to the British case, or, more likely, conscious of the effect of losing such a large market for the Bavarian Motor Works (BMW). Munich, not Berlin, is where the engine of politics could really be.
Angela Merkel, it should always be remembered, was the political daughter of Helmut Kohl, the most Europhile of all Germany’s chancellors, symbolised by his decision in the 1990s to sacrifice his country’s cherished hard currency, the Mark, on the altar of European integration and the euro single currency project. Merkel’s successor, from a younger generation, and/or the CDU’s newly revived FDP partners might well be more flexible about Brexit, and more anxious to put the German economic interest ahead of the European political one.
Less palatable would be further progress by the AfD; this might well be good for Brexit, in terms of reaching a deal, but would be bad for civilisation. They would not be part of any government, such is their pariah status, but their euroscepticism would be difficult to entirely ignore or discount politically.
And yet there is another possibility, also perfectly credible: that the next German general election is more or less a rerun of the last one, and that the same arithmetic problems are thrown up once again. A little bumpiness in the support for the various parties would not alter the fundamentals, and the German proportional representation system would faithfully reproduce that mess in the Bundestag.
You see, the voting system that served Germany very well for the first seven decades or so of the Federal Republic’s existence, with two large parties usually alternating after lengthy spells in coalition with a small centre party, is struggling to cope with the fragmentation of its politics. Today Germans are faced with a kaleidoscope of choices – Ex-Communists, Greens, Social Democrats, two brands of Christian Democrats, Free Democrats, plus the neo-fascistic AfD. A renewed deadlock is all too conceivable; and now even the option of a grand coalition between Social Democrats and Christian Democrats might not command a majority. The German political system has pretty much gone kaput.
At the conclusion of fresh elections could be further deadlock, and a further delay to any meaningful resolution of the Brexit talks stalemate, which will certainly not be to Britain’s advantage. Nor will the ascendancy of Emmanuel Macron, once again taking on the traditional role of French political leadership in Europe at a time of unusual German weakness – this (and the effective absence of Spain and Italy with their own political vacuums) merely creates the space for Macron, Barnier, Juncker and their allies to push on with their demands, and maintain a certain insouciance about hard Brexit.
If Merkel manages to survive, or even make some sort of comeback in new elections, then the course of Brexit will have been delayed but not significantly diverted. If she falls, then the uncertainties businesses complain about so much, and which are vexing so many here and across the EU, will merely intensify, in the short run – but it also offers a ray of hope for a brighter future for the UK, inside or outside the EU. In the end, it may be the vagaries of German politics that drive the fate of the British economy and nation as much as what happens in Westminster.
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