The Merkel Effect
For more than a decade, Angela Merkel has been the symbol of the long lasting stability the country craved and a steady force in a Europe rocked by the rise of far-right populists, a bold independence movement in Catalonia and the challenges posed by Brexit.
The collapse in a spectacular fashion of Merkel’s attempt to find a far-reaching coalition consensus with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) took everyone by surprise.
As Germany struggles to form a new government, the spectre of an emboldened far-right movement capitalising on anti-immigration sentiment and exploiting the gains of September’s election is agitating the political scene.
Pushed into the drawing board and under pressure from all sides, the social democrat (SPD) leader Martin Schulz is steps away from getting back into bed with Merkel. Weakened by a grand coalition with Merkel’s conservative union which hurt the party’s blue collar base, Schulz led his party to its worst election results in 70 years.
With the SPD likely to abandon their opposition role – certainly the most appealing place for any political party in the current context – the populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which entered parliament for the first time this year, would become the main opposition party.
Founded in 2013 as an anti-euro party, the AfD has grown into a major political force capitalising on the anti-immigration sentiment following Merkel’s 2015 open-door policy which saw more than a million refugees arriving in Germany.
While old alliances are at play in the political centre with all mainstream parties involved in coalition talks, the AfD has an opportunity to push its anti-immigration agenda and shift the debate to the fringe of the political scene.
Mainstream parties also risk handing further gains to the populists if they cannot find a way out of the political impasse and fresh elections are called. This would further cement the AfD’s position in parliament now, the third largest political force in the German Bundestag.
Germany’s political establishment certainly seemed to want to avoid a new ballot since another vote is unlikely to significantly change the political landscape. Yet, with six out of 10 Germans in favour of a new election according to recent poll by infratest dimap, the urge for something new is tangible.
Merkel made it clear she would rather another election than ruling in a minority government. But the need for an alternative to the consensual style of politics is desperately needed in a country which risks falling into deep political apathy.
Georg Kössler, a Green member of the Berlin Parliament, believes trying a minority government would be “good for democracy” in Germany. Yet after a decade of more of the same status quo politics, the wind of change has not yet swept through the country.
Other combinations for an alternative coalition are possible but attract little enthusiasm in the political sphere. A left-wing alliance of the SPD, the Greens and the radical left Die Linke remains a dream for a post-Merkel world.
On the other hand, another grand coalition between Merkel’s conservative alliance and the SPD would be a desperate attempt to rule with a style of politics which over the last few years has failed to convince voters.
In a recent vote, the youth-wing of the SPD voted against the party entering another grand coalition – a clear signal for party leader that the future needs to hold something different. The growing disillusioned experienced by some voters cannot be ignored much longer.
A broad sweeping grand coalition would only diffuse what is likely to be a much more virulent political debate in four years’ time when Merkel is expected to leave the job for good – if she doesn’t before.
In the UK, commentators were quick to speculate over how Merkel’s domestic crisis would play out in the Brexit negotiations.
Brexiteers were quick to turn the situation to their advantage, keen to point the finger to someone else in trouble. Optimist Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg told the Daily Mail Germany’s political weakness would force Merkel to focus on the domestic crisis, giving the upper hand to the UK negotiation position.
Others had no faith the political stalemate in Berlin would bring anything good at all. Writing in The Times, David Charter suggested the pro-business FDP leader Christian Lindner was the UK’s best hope to secure a more generous exit deal with a special access to the single market. With the FDP closing the door on the talks, Charter hoped Merkel will see it in Germany’s interest to stabilise the EU and come to an agreement on the Brexit issue.
Yet, the idea that the current German political deadlock will make a real difference over Brexit has been completely overplayed. To think a depleted Merkel would let the UK get away with a better than fair deal, risking the union’s unity is at best fantasy if not stupidity.
Merkel will not want to give the impression the Brexit negotiations will take a back seat while she focuses on the crisis at home. The Chancellor has made it her mission to respond to each test of strength of the EU with renewed unity and here again, this is what she hopes to do.
Germany may not weigh in as much as in previous negotiation rounds but it will remain a key player at the table with Merkel keen to avoid unsettling the fragile balance between the remaining 27 member states.
The UK will have to convince the EU Council summit, including Germany, that it has made sufficient progress on citizens’ rights, the Irish border and its financial obligation if it wants to move to the second stage of negotiations.
After bowing to its demand on the divorce bill payments which could see the UK paying out £50bn to Brussels, the EU’s hand in the negotiation appears as strong as ever.
In a tweet ahead of the summit, the EU negotiator Michel Barnier posted a picture of him speaking to Merkel and praising the “good discussion” he had had with the Chancellor on the state of play of the Brexit negotiations ahead of the EU Council summit.
The message could not be clearer: Merkel will remain a crucial player in the Brexit negotiations and for the EU, this is business as usual.
If Brexit is largely irrelevant to the coalition talks in Berlin, the future of the European project isn’t. The German political deadlock is directly threatening Macron’s bold political reform to renew the EU with at its core a strengthened Franco-German alliance.
Macron wants to push ahead with his vision of an integrated EU with countries moving at different pace in a multi-speed Europe. His project includes the creation of an economic government for the euro zone with a dedicated budget and overseen by a minister.
Merkel saw with a positive eye initiatives that would create a common project for defence and immigration but she remained more hesitant on the French president’s economic propositions.
In Berlin, the FDP categorically opposed the creation of a common budget for the euro zone criticising Germany’s already generous bailouts to southern European countries. But with the FDP now unlikely to be part of the government in Berlin, Macron may find it easier to convince his German counterpart.
If Macron had planned to use to the EU Council summing to push his vision for Europe, the absence of a stable German ally will oblige him to wait.
Busy keeping social tensions under control in France, a strong and integrated Europe is crucial for Macron to safeguard his place of leader on the world stage and help him boost his popularity at home.
Speaking after the collapse of the talks in Berlin, Macron warned that France had to keep moving the European project forward by setting out an ambitious plan that could be carried out alongside Germany.
Macron needs Merkel and as Dominik Grillmayer, an expert at the Franco-German Institute in Ludwigsburg told Le Parisien, “he cannot orchestrate himself like Europe’s strong man in Merkel’s place”.
In Brussels, time is for optimism. “We are confident that the German constitutional process will provide the basis for the stability and continuity that has been a trademark of German politics and we hope this time will not be different,” said the European Commission’s Margaritis Schinas.
On the geopolitical stage, hope is still for Merkel to remain Europe’s strong and stable player. The EU has relied on the German “Mutti” for more than a decade to nourish, protect and grow the European project. The political crisis of the last few weeks has been a stark reminder that Merkel’s 12-year-rule is starting to show some cracks.