The German election and the UK’s new irrelevance
The German federal election attracted much international attention after the Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered parliament for the first time. The party is the first radical right party to sit in the German Bundestag for nearly 60 years. At the same time, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) saw a disappointing result and Martin Schulz’ Social Democrats (SPD) performed disastrously, falling to a historic low of just over 20 per cent. The Left Party, the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), however, all increased their share of the vote, with the latter returning to parliament after their dramatic exit in 2013. Coalition negotiations have now begun, with the only available option an alliance between the CDU/CSU, FDP and the Greens – a so-called Jamaica coalition – after the SPD immediately ruled out another grand coalition. But what does this all mean for Brexit? In short, very little. The election does, however, demonstrate clearly that Germany’s priorities lie elsewhere.
Overall, the three likely coalition partners express very few differences on Brexit. In their manifestos, all three parties stated a commitment to maintaining a positive relationship with the UK, and to mitigate the worst effects of Brexit. But they also emphasise the fundamental point that a country cannot cherry-pick what it wants from the EU, continuing to benefit without complying with the rules. The Green Party is most emphatic. Brexit is viewed as part of the same populist phenomenon that saw Donald Trump – a ‘dangerous narcissist’ – elected US president. Reaffirming their commitment to European values in the face of rising nationalism, their priority for Brexit negotiations will be to protect the EU and the cohesion of the EU-27. Both the Greens and the FDP express solidarity with those in Scotland and Northern Ireland – and indeed throughout the UK – who wanted to remain in the EU, and emphasise the inviolability of the four freedoms of the single market.
Reports have suggest the UK government is hopeful about the prospects of the pro-business FDP joining a coalition government. Indeed, they are perhaps most sympathetic to Britain: earlier this year, leading FDP politician Michael Theurer called for a ‘Brexit cabinet’ that would incorporate the interests of German business into the government’s approach. The FDP, and pro-business conservatives more generally, are particularly concerned about the loss of the pro-market UK leaving the EU more “southern European” in its economic approach, as my colleagues and I have argued elsewhere.
But the influence of the FDP is likely to be negligible. Theurer has already told UK ministers that there will be limited room for manoeuvre. Sympathy will likely extend primarily to procedural issues – they do not necessarily approve of Michel Barnier’s hardline approach. If the outcome results in a Jamaica coalition, the FDP’s influence will be counter-balanced by the Green Party, who are placed squarely on the left and favour deeper economic integration at a European level. So far, the exploratory coalition talks have resulted in a joint commitment that the ‘the EU’s four freedoms are indivisible’ and to maintaining a cooperative relationship with the UK as part of their policy on the EU neighbourhood (thus already treating the UK as a third country).
Ultimately, the only party in Germany that explicitly supports Brexit is the AfD, who favour closed borders and a return to a ‘Europe of sovereign states’. They call for Germany to have its own referendum. But its entry into parliament is unlikely to help the UK. Their key issue is the refugee crisis, and the mainstream parties are likely to isolate them.
What is also notable is that there is no position on Brexit in Germany that is good for the left in Britain. The only way the UK can make allies in Germany on this issue is with the economic liberal or far-right parties. Corbyn’s left-wing Euroscepticism is completely out of step with the German left, who are united on the danger of rising nationalism across Europe and beyond. The far-left Die Linke is perhaps the most sympathetic, and indeed has looked at the Labour Party’s recent success as a beacon of hope. But they do not oppose European integration on principle. Rather, they are committed to relaunching the EU as a more social and democratic project and reversing the EU’s ‘neoliberal’ agenda. They oppose integration measures that do not comply with these values.
However, the most striking thing is the absence of attention to Brexit and relations with the UK. Brexit did not feature in the campaign, getting a short paragraph in most manifestos, and was completely absent from the main TV debates. Indeed, Europe in general was not a key issue. If Brexit matters at all, its relevance lies in strengthening the resolve for European integration to tackle what are seen as much greater challenges: migration, stabilising the Eurozone, and the rule of law in Poland and Hungary.
With Europe’s ‘awkward partner’ out of the picture, Brexit is viewed by some politicians and journalists in Germany as an opportunity to deepen European integration. Most parties have strongly emphasised the need to reinvigorate the Franco-German relationship, historically seen as the motor of integration. So far, the latest update on coalition talks has affirmed this commitment, alongside an emphasis on defending common European values and a desire to develop and reform the EU. The election of Emmanuel Macron as French President was seen as a turning point for Europe – a way for the EU to overcome its recent challenges and reanimate the European project. While the FDP in government will likely complicate such plans, Merkel and Macron are hoping to deepen Eurozone integration. Many Germans are worried that Brexit will shift the balance of power in Europe, making their own country too powerful and further entrenching the anti-German sentiment that often drives Euroscepticism abroad.
While the election of Donald Trump and Brexit have reinforced a need for the EU to integrate in matters of security and defence, the election of the AfD will only strengthen calls in Germany for deeper integration in migration and asylum policy. Emphasising the transnational nature of migration, all three parties support European solutions to the refugee crisis. Indeed, in her speech on election night, Merkel stated that ‘we need to bring together all of the EU countries to fight against the causes of migration and to fight illegal immigration’. They call for deeper integration in common foreign and security policy, better protection of the EU’s external borders, and greater information-sharing between countries to fight terrorism. A key priority in the coalition negotiations will be reaching agreement on Germany’s refugee policy; while the CSU want to introduce an upper limit of 200,000 refugees per year, the Greens vehemently oppose this.
Outside of the EU, Britain will play little role in these developments in the EU. Perhaps the greatest lesson for the UK to be drawn from the German election is that the UK is much less relevant than it thinks. Ultimately, Brexit is likely to deepen European integration and strengthen the relationship between its core countries, with an ensuing loss of influence for the UK.
Dr Charlotte Galpin is Lecturer in German and European Politics and Deputy Director of the Institute for German Studies at the University of Birmingham.