Author Mark Richards
Sunday saw the federal elections in Germany – and a weakening of the previously-impregnable position of Chancellor Angela Merkel. What will this mean for the future of Europe and the Brexit negotiations?
The German elections were held at the weekend. You may not have noticed: with no pantomime villain like Geert Wilders in Holland or Marine le Pen in France the elections received a lot less coverage in this country. They were largely seen as rubber-stamping another four years as Chancellor for Angela Merkel: four more years with ‘Mutti’ leading Germany and – by extension – Europe.
Who is Angela Merkel?
She was born Angela Dorothea Kasner in Hamburg in July 1954. She is of mixed Polish and German ancestry and her grandfather was a politician in Danzig. Although she was born in what was then West Germany, she grew up in the East – her father was a Lutheran pastor and when she was three months old her family moved to East Germany. At school, she was proficient in Russian and Mathematics and was educated at the University of Leipzig. Towards the end of her studies she sought an assistant professorship at an engineering school: as a condition for getting the job, she was told she would need to report on her colleagues to the Stasi, the East German secret police. She declined, saying she could not keep secrets well enough to be an effective spy.
She married physics student Ulrich Merkel in 1977 at the age of 23: the marriage subsequently ended in divorce, but she has retained Merkel’s name. Her current husband is quantum chemist Joachim Sauer, whom she married in 1998. Famously she is a football fan, apparently listening to games when debates in the Bundestag get boring. She also has a fear of dogs, after being attacked by one in 1995. At a joint press conference with Vladimir Putin in 2007, Putin brought in his pet labrador. Angela Merkel said, “I understand why he has to do this. He is afraid of his own weakness. He is a man.”
Clearly not afraid of her own weakness Merkel became German Chancellor in November 2005 and is now widely acknowledged as the most powerful woman politician in the world. So did she get another vote of confidence from the German people last Sunday? Emphatically not…
Welcome to Jamaica
Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat party was previously in coalition with the Social Democrats – the so-called ‘grand coalition.’ In the 2013 election, Merkel’s party recorded its best result since 1990, winning 42% of the votes and nearly 50% of the seats in the Bundestag. With their previous coalition partner, the Free Democrats, failing to get over the 5% threshold for parliamentary representation, the ‘grand coalition’ was formed with the main opposition party, the Social Democrats.
But it was all change four years later…
On Sunday the Christian Democrat vote was down nearly 10% to 32.9%: the Social Democrats recorded their worst result since the war, with just 20.5% of the vote, and in third – with 12.9% of the vote – was the right-wing anti-immigration party, Alternative fur Deutschland (AfD).
Where did that leave Merkel? Substantially weaker: the Social Democrats have gone into opposition to lick their wounds, and Merkel is likely to be left to with what is scathingly referred to as ‘the Jamaica Coalition.’ Based on the colours of the respective parties, this is a coalition between the Christian Democrats, the Free Democrats (roughly equivalent to the Liberals in the UK) and the Green Party.
Will it work? There could be months of wrangling, with Greens leader Katrin Goring-Eckardt saying in a TV debate, “Naturally there’s a lot that divides us. I’m not sure that we will succeed.”
Where does the result leave the EU, the UK and Brexit?
Commentators have been quick to analyse the results and ask what it means for Europe and – by extension – the Brexit negotiations and the UK.
First things first: as one commentator put it, “Angela Merkel’s twilight has begun.” She is already facing a barrage of ‘I-told-you-so’ comments from her own party, having ignored the constant warnings on unrestricted immigration.
The German parliament – with maybe seven or eight parties in it, including the fiercely-combative AfD – is likely to be a fractious place. It will take enough effort to produce a working government at home, without worrying about Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron has just made a major speech on Europe, seeking to ‘re-invigorate the spirit that first brought Europe together.’ German politicians will not be much interested in Macron’s grand vision as they try to put their own house in order.
Germany is also likely to be tougher with countries like Hungary and Poland who have so far refused to take their share of Middle Eastern refugees. German patience is likely to wear thin, with many in Merkel’s party blaming this refusal for their poor showing at the polls.
Whichever way you look at it, Germany is going to be ‘muddling through’ for the foreseeable future. The AfD will be the official opposition and they are “committed to fighting the foreign invasion.” There will be problems with the Free Democrats in a coalition as they want to throw Greece out of the Eurozone. Emmanuel Macron will undoubtedly try to fill the new vacancy for the de facto leader of Europe and – at least in the opinion of this writer – the Poles and Hungarians will continue refusing to take refugees.
Will this make the job of negotiating Brexit easier? You might think so: Angela Merkel will have enough on her plate domestically and might be more willing to make concessions to the UK. Or perhaps not: if Macron becomes the dominant figure in Europe he seems prepared to put any number of obstacles in the way of Brexit and is already talking of the UK re-joining his vision of a reformed, streamlined Europe.
The potential for chaos – and deals between the smaller parties – is considerable. In their manifesto, the Greens talked of Scotland and Northern Ireland being given a route back into the EU if they decide to split from the UK. The Free Democrats also support Scotland rejoicing the EU. In the same way that the UK has been accused of wanting to ‘cherry pick’ those parts of EU legislation it will comply with after Brexit, so we might now start to see the ruling German coalition try to ‘cherry pick’ parts of the UK.
Could it be the main beneficiary of the Sunday’s German elections and Angela Merkel’s ‘twilight’ will end up being Nicola Sturgeon?