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Analysis

Merkel won’t be rushing to rescue May on Brexit

by Quentin Peel | 29.10.2018

Any lingering hopes in Downing Street that Angela Merkel would ride to the rescue of a Brexit fudge in Brussels look set to be dashed by the German chancellor’s decision to stand down as leader of her Christian Democratic Union (CDU).

Merkel still plans to remain as chancellor after her party conference in December, but even that cannot be guaranteed. After two disastrous state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, her centre-left Social Democrat (SPD) partners may walk out of the grand coalition in Berlin. The party is deeply split on that question. Then Merkel will either have to form a new coalition, which could take months, or stagger on as a minority government.

Neither of the traditional centre parties wants an early election in the current climate, with their respective parties suffering from a fragmentation of the voters to left and right. Both lost more than 10 percentage points of the vote in the state of Hesse – seen as a bellwether for any national election.

The election left the SPD with its worst-ever result, with under 20%, level-pegging with the Greens. The CDU slumped from 38% to 27%. If they cling on to power it will be thanks to a resurgence of the Greens, the junior party in their coalition in Hesse.

It was a nightmare result for the partners in the Berlin grand coalition, with the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) getting 12% (9% higher than before) and its first seats in the state parliament. It was worse than the AfD hoped, based on its raucous anti-Islam, anti-immigration policy, but it means the party now has seats in all 16 federal states, and the national parliament.

Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, German politics seem set to be in turmoil. Just as the Brexit negotiations reach a climax in Brussels, there will be dangerously little capacity in Berlin to make big compromises.

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It didn’t sound like that at the last European summit, when Merkel appealed to all sides to be ready to compromise to avoid a disastrous no-deal on Brexit. There is genuine horror in Germany at such a crash-out scenario for the UK, not least in the business community, and also in government.

But Theresa May and her advisers have always overestimated the room for manoeuvre in the German government, and their willingness to compromise on fundamental principles of the EU single market and the legal authority of EU institutions like the European Court of Justice.

German voices arguing for a compromise along the lines of May’s Chequers plan have been almost inaudible. The idea that the UK can stay in a customs union for goods but not for services, while not accepting freedom of movement, is regarded in Germany not merely as “cherry-picking” but as blatantly “unfair”. The integrity of the single market is seen as essential to preserve a level playing-field between competitors, as well as to protect the fundamental cohesion of the EU. It is a moral question, as much as an economic one.

So where does that leave Theresa May? Paying the price of failing to win more friends in the other 27 EU countries. She has failed to pay attention to politics on the continent. Trying to go behind the back of Michel Barnier to Berlin, or by dividing the EU27, simply has not worked.

If she wants a deal with the EU, May will have to compromise on a deal the hardline Brexiters in her own party cannot accept. Or she risks a no-deal Brexit which the UK parliament should roundly reject. The right way forward is for a People’s Vote, with the option to Remain on the ballot paper.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

2 Responses to “Merkel won’t be rushing to rescue May on Brexit”

  • Despite her party’s losses at the regional elections, Merkel’s CDU is still easily the largest party and so any future government would still have to be built around them, The other potential coalition partners are, if anything, more committed to protecting Europe, so will be less inclined to give concessions which allowed the Single Market to be undermined by Brexit. Although deep down mainstream German politicians are disappointed the UK wants to leave, there are quite a few who take the view that maybe 10 years or so in the economic wilderness, might help concentrate the minds of the British about the realities of world trade.

  • 10 years in the economic wilderness might indeed be necessary in order for the ” EU illusion” fabricated by the nationalist Press and the hard line Brexiteers to cease to be believed by so many of the, until now, misinformed English citizens. But what a price will have been paid for such a monumental error on the part of the UK government.

    What is incredible as well is that the UK does not see the incompatibility of what it is proposing to the EU with the whole concept of the EU; they want the EU to abandon core principles underlying the EU in so far as they would apply to the UK while these core principles would continue to apply to the other 27 MS. The UK wants to trade with the EU in goods and agro-goods but then compete with the EU in trade in all other areas. And how would this be beneficial to the UK if they did not undercut the trade agreements already negotiated by the EU ? And to believe that the UK could out compete with the EU in trade is anyway sheer madness.