After Germany’s Elections: Europe Relaunched or on the Defensive?

Kirsty Hughes | 25 September 2017

German Flag, fdecomite, CC-BY-2.0

Germany’s elections have proved more interesting than many expected. Angela Merkel will still be a powerful presence on the EU scene in her fourth term as chancellor. But the CDU and CSU are already debating the causes of their sharp, combined 8% fall in vote share, while the SPD, barely getting over the 20% mark, will need time to see if it can find a way to revive German social democracy.

It will take many months to negotiate the formation of a governing coalition in Germany – especially if it is to be the unprecedented (at federal) level ‘Jamaica’ coalition of CDU/CSU, the ‘liberal’/business-focused FDP and the Greens. Some commentators even wonder if new elections could be the outcome if talks fail – though for now this looks unlikely.

The future German government looks likely to end up shifting rightwards to some extent. And Angela Merkel’s dominance of Germany – and the EU’s – political scene is doubtless somewhat weakened both by the results and by the expectation that this will be her last term in office. But equally this should not be exaggerated.

New strategic direction for the EU27?

While a ‘Jamaica’ coalition may be complicated to form, and to govern with, Germany will remain committed to giving new strategic direction to the EU27. Merkel will want to continue to forge a renewed Franco-German relationship with France’s president Emmanuel Macron. Attention will focus on what sort of Eurozone reforms and further integration Germany will now agree. In the face of ambitious demands from Macron, the FDP’s reluctance to agree a Eurozone budget is one likely stumbling block – and the electoral support for the AfD will make Eurozone reform a more neuralgic issue too.

But the push from Juncker (also now into his end-years as Commission president) for more integration and from Macron, at least for more integration for the Eurozone, means there will still be a political drive for a renewed EU27 strategy – and one that Merkel, in her last term, and post-the UK’s Brexit vote, will want to be leading with Macron.

The German election results, though, mean the chances of the EU moving on from its obsession with the refugee and migration crisis, and securing the EU’s borders, are not good. The shock of the AfD – Alternative für Deutschland – getting seats in the Bundestag and coming third in the popular vote will take time for Germany’s political scene to absorb (even if the farce of the co-leader of the AfD walking away from the group the morning after the election suggests AfD’s lack of coherence and disintegration could rapidly lessen any impact it has).

For the EU, it means the hope that 2017 might represent the year when the populist surge in Europe faded is now lessened. The AfD’s 12.6% of the vote may not look large compared to France’s Le Pen, but it is already creating demands from CSU politicians for not leaving open their right-wing flank. While polls suggest German voters who supported the AfD are concerned about national security, terrorism, pensions, and education as well as, or more than, Germany taking in over a million refugees and immigrants, the overall impact on German politics is likely to be a focus on tougher immigration policies, a security focus, and a push at EU level for more action to secure the EU’s borders.

So a ‘fortress Europe’ strategy for the EU – which has so dominated and warped its politics as it emerged from the Eurocrisis – is not going away any time soon. In November, EU leaders will meet with African Union heads of government at their annual triennial summit on the EU-AU joint strategy. It will focus on youth – but NGOs are vocal in their concerns at how Eurocentric the EU’s Africa strategy has become. The EU wants to stop illegal immigration, lessen or stop refugee flows and while – in EU leaders’ view – the issue remains neuralgic in EU politics, they are unlikely even to establish more open channels for legal immigration, despite the aging profile of the EU’s workforce across its member states.

Brexit a long way down the priority list

Brexit has been perhaps point five or six on the priority list for the EU27 for some time now. The German election will not lift it any higher. Merkel and Macron will not want Brexit to get in the way of their attempts to give a new dynamism to the EU27, however much complicated by the German election results. And they will want to sustain the EU27’s unity on Brexit – which so far has held up better than some anticipated.

Some UK politicians and observers have expressed hopes that Merkel, after the election, might make some offer on freedom of movement that would somehow help cut through the stumbling Brexit talks. But with the Tories, after May’s Florence speech last week, still heading for a hard Brexit – neither in the EU customs or single market – it is unclear how or why Merkel would encourage the EU27 to shift in any of their stances on Brexit. For Merkel, preserving the integrity of the EU’s single market is a priority – her potential coalition partners in the FDP and Greens are unlikely to disagree with that.

Theresa May clearly still hopes that she can somehow negotiate a ‘Canada plus’ trade deal with the EU27 in order to avoid the worst damage to the UK’s services trade with the EU that a basic free trade deal would do. But this, for the EU27, is still a ‘cake and eat it’ approach. If outline trade talks do start with the UK by the end of the year – assuming progress on the divorce bill, citizens’ rights and Northern Ireland – there is likely to be a rude awakening on the type of trade deal the EU can imagine negotiating over the next 4-5 years. It will be one that offers services access on WTO terms or barely more.

With Corbyn’s Labour not even allowing motions against Brexit at its party conference, Labour too is currently focused on a hard Brexit, rejecting free movement of people. Despite polls now showing support for ‘Remain’ in the lead (54% to 46% in a recent Survation poll), there is no political lead from Labour to halt Brexit. And in the absence of that, neither Germany nor any other EU member state is at all likely to start making any concessions to a UK that brought Brexit on itself. Indeed, the political mood between the UK and EU27 has so deteriorated, that a huge political shift in the UK to reverse Brexit would not receive an undiluted or united welcome from the EU27 at present.

The Brexit talks – if they do progress with the deadline for a deal just over a year away – may well need political intervention at some point from the EU27. But if Germany is governed by a ‘Jamaica’ coalition in 2018 that will put more not less constraints on Merkel in agreeing a way through with the EU27 in their negotiations with the UK. Generous compromises do not look like the order of the day.

EU27 will move ahead

The German election results will impact on where the EU27 go next. But with Merkel, somewhat weakened, still at the helm in Germany, there will be no major shift in its EU policies. The biggest impacts look likely to be in tempering Macron’s drive for Eurozone reform and reinforcing the EU’s current emphasis on creating a ‘fortress Europe’.

For Brexit, the real determinant of progress in the talks will be whether the infighting in the Tory cabinet continues to undermine the UK government offering a coherent position for agreeing an outline framework trade deal. And even with a coherent position, a damaging hard Brexit would remain on the cards.

The German election may leave Merkel more focused on domestic issues, but compared to the current ‘Little England’ politics of the UK, Germany will remain a serious EU and global player. Merkel will still surely focus on a revitalised Franco-German partnership, a more dynamic strategy for the EU27 and on ensuring the EU and Germany can project and protect liberal values in the face of global challenges, not least from Trump’s US. The comparison with today’s UK is telling.

Kirsty HughesKirsty Hughes | Twitter

Scottish Centre on European Relations

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.