“Please don’t go!” headlined the German magazine Der Spiegel just before the Brexit referendum, expressing the desire of a German majority for Britain to stay in the European Union. Only 7% of the German population supported the UK’s exit. This does not come as a surprise, as the German population perceives the UK just after France and just before the US as their most important partner for collaboration.
Political Berliners were particularly shocked by the result of the British referendum, which was seen by all parties as a very regrettable drawback for the European unification process. In response, they put forth a range of demands to accelerate integration, including the transfer of more sovereignty and competencies to the EU level, as well as overdue reform to EU institutions.
Merkel stays strong, and the Germans even stronger?
Immediately after the results were announced, Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted on ‘working to analyse the situation calmly,’ in her signature, even-keeled manner. Five days later, she explained in an official statement at the German Bundestag that while the UK’s decision to vote leave should be respected, the UK must still explain their desired alternative for a relationship with the EU. She underlined the bilateral relationship between Germany and the UK, their close alliance in NATO, and their sharing global leadership responsibilities, alongside the United States.
The desire for deepened bilateral ties between Germany and the UK was underscored by the Chancellor during Prime Minister May’s first visit to Berlin on July 20th. Only two weeks prior, on July 7th, the German government installed an interdepartmental UK Task Force in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to address the technical and political questions connected with Brexit. On the other hand, it will not be the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but the German Chancellery, as well as the party and parliamentary party groups of the CDU/CSU and SPD who will have to manage the
German population’s rejection of concessions: 86% of the German people are of the opinion that the EU member states should not make any large concessions (49%) or make no concessions at all (39%) to the UK, only 10% of the people are for concessions.
A political puzzle
What became obvious in the weeks after the referendum was the growing rift between the suddenly united Christian Democrats (CDU and CSU) on one side and the SPD on the other.
Their disagreement, however, is not about Brexit itself. Both are willing to give the UK its due time to prepare for negotiations before initiating the Article 50 process; and both aim for a result that clearly differentiates between membership status and the UK’s future relations to the EU. Both also acknowledge the importance of the UK in security matters, and they appear willing to cede economic concessions in order to keep the European Union together.
Where both sides clearly disagree is over the future of the European Union itself. The SPD views Brexit as an opportunity to deepen European integration, mainly in security competencies. Secondly, they desire European funding for economic growth and labor markets, particularly in the south. Frank- Walter Steinmeier, Minister of Foreign Affairs, published a joint paper with his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault focusing (not exclusively) on security and immigration policy, as did Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel with EP-President Martin Schulz with regard to economic policy. The CDU/CSU very much opposes SPD’s proposals for deeper economic integration. They agree that the common market needs strengthening, but vehemently oppose the SPD’s calls for harmonizing economic, social and labor policies as a means to do so.
Federal Minister of Finance Wolfgang Schaeuble of the CDU and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel of the SPD stand particularly divided about fiscal policy. While the SPD supports a counter-cyclical growth policy and calls for reorganization of the EU institutions, the CDU/ CSU coalition opposes further monetary easing and EU centralization. Media outlets such as Der Spiegel have called the debate the unofficial start of the election campaign.
Schaeuble was committed to strict fiscal austerity, but recently swayed the Commission to forgive Spain and Portugal’s burgeoning budget deficits that unquestionably surpass EU limits. Schaeuble’s intervention was definitely out of character, but may be explained by his overall political strategy. After all, Schaeuble understands that the EU can only solve its problems “promptly and pragmatically” and has advocated for more intergovernmental decision making, without the Commission leading negotiations. The Commission’s sanctions against Spain and Portugal would have faced approval by EU finance ministers, and Schaeuble stood to lose in either case: their rejecting the Commission’s decision would have cost Schaeuble political face, while approved sanctions would have likely cost Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, Schaeuble’s conservative ally, his already-precarious government. Without a strong conservative front, Left-led France and Italy could outstep Germany’s CDU-led coalition in future EU-level negotiations.
Meanwhile, Gabriel has always called for more EU solidarity and budget flexibility to allow EU leaders more room for maneuver, especially for crisis-stricken countries. Gabriel can count on the support of French President Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Renzi, whose countries could benefit from these arrangements. Although Schaeuble proved he is too pragmatic to be too dogmatic about austerity, it does not seem as if the CDU/ CSU parliamentary group will move away from its budget policy. Behind closed doors, Chancellor Merkel apparently strongly opposes any change of the Stability Pact. In her opinion, the EU’s budget is large enough; it should just be more efficiently distributed.
At the same time, the SPD appears tired of their Chairman and most likely his candidacy for the chancellery. Many members of the party are disappointed with Gabriel’s crude criticism of Merkel as solely responsible for Brexit. There will be no immediate change, but with state elections in Berlin and other German Laender taking place in September, retaining SPD seats may prove vital for Gabriel going forward.
Towing a federalist line, with trepidation
In light of the recent terrorist attacks in Germany, the coup in Turkey and increasing criticism of her refugee policy, Chancellor Angela Merkel suffered a substantial loss of confidence in recent weeks: Currently only 47% of the population express satisfaction with her work, which is the second lowest rating in this legislature. Likewise, the satisfaction with the work of the federal cabinet has fallen. Currently Merkel’s cabinet has only a 44% approval rating.
Still, the overall political mood in Germany is to a large extent stable. If federal elections were to be held next Sunday, the CDU/CSU would receive a 34% share of vote; the SPD would receive 22%; the Green Party, 13%; and the Left Part, 9%. While the FDP (Liberal Democrats) could re-enter the next German parliament with a possible share of 5%, the national conservative AfD would for the first time after World War II be to the right of the CDU/CSU in the parliament with 12%.
The Chancellor is tracking the current fragmentation of the German political landscape closely. More so than all chancellors and CDU party leaders before her, Merkel makes use of opinion polls and observes medium-term and long-term trends in her considerations. With an eye to Germany’s internal politics and the upcoming state elections, she will therefore act cautiously, pragmatically, and free of ideology in talks about the reform of the EU and the Brexit, in order to avoid aiding and abetting the AfD or a theoretically possible alliance between the Left Party, the Green Party and the SPD.
In Brussels, Berlin will moderate European processes even more clearly than in the past, integrating the interests of smaller EU countries in order to prevent a further disintegration of the EU. British PM Theresa May will be able to rely on the decades-old tacit alliance between the UK and Germany. However, as long as Germany continues to pursue deeper European integration and the long-term objective of a political union in Europe, the idea of an alliance between Germany and UK, mooted by David Marsh at the end of July in “Der Spiegel”, is more an academically appealing debate than a real political option.