Schulz’ surge in German elections complicates Brexit

by Quentin Peel | 09.03.2017

An extraordinary surge in support for Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), following the nomination of Martin Schulz as candidate for chancellor, has galvanised voters and transformed the German political landscape almost seven months before the September general election.

The implications for the UK government’s Brexit negotiations could be profound. For a start, the revival of the SPD – which is now running neck and neck with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats – has coincided with a slump in support for the eurosceptic and anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD), down from around 15% to below 10% in most polls. The central contest is now likely to be between two strongly pro-European contenders. Anti-Trump sentiment, and widespread fears over the consequences of Brexit, have contributed to a revival of the centre ground.

It would be wrong to write off the influence of the AfD too soon, although the party leadership is now pulling itself apart in a power struggle with extreme right-wingers. It will win seats in the Bundestag for the first time, and greatly complicate the process of forming a new coalition government. But no one will want to govern with them.

The AfD is the one party that is positively sympathetic towards Brexit, although the party is officially anti-euro, not anti-Europe. There are some Eurosceptics in the Bavaria-based Christian Social Union, too – although they don’t want to see the EU disappear. For the overwhelming majority, EU cohesion – and its preservation – is a matter of fundamental German national interest.

Merkel and Schulz both believe their first priority is to preserve the unity of the remaining 27 member states – and the integrity of the internal market. Hence the German twin-pronged attitude to the negotiations with the UK: “No punishment, but no cherry-picking either”.

The SPD would strongly oppose any special deal for the City of London as the worst sort of “cherry-picking”. Schulz also believes, from his time as president of the European Parliament, that national capitals have grown too strong at the expense of EU institutions, and that the British have been the biggest culprits. He will not weep to see the UK go. Merkel would regret it.

A hard-fought election, followed by at least two months of negotiations to form a coalition, means that Berlin will not focus properly on the Brexit negotiations before January 2018. The future coalition could be another grand coalition – although the SPD would try anything to avoid it. It could also be a Merkel-led alliance of Christian Democrats, Greens and liberal Free Democrats. Or a resurgent Schulz might lead a “red-red-green” coalition of SPD, Greens and the far-left Linke. None of them would be very easy to negotiate, or operate. But all would put EU cohesion above making concessions to Theresa May.

For Berlin, according to one senior government official, negotiating Brexit is “a second-tier problem… The chancellor would like to have good relations with the UK, but it is not what keeps her awake at night.

“Our belief is that the Brits will take a long time to figure out what they have done to themselves. That is not our business. We have to figure out how to keep the 27 together.”

Although there is no desire to “punish” the UK, there is a real fear that the process will get poisonous. “The destructive power of the divorce negotiations will be so enormous that the co-operative stuff will be crowded out,” the official says. “You can come back to it afterwards, when you have done all the hard part.”

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    Edited by Hugo Dixon