The results from the German Federal Elections were declared yesterday evening. As expected, Angela Merkel’s CDU and its Bavarian sister party the CSU were returned as the largest bloc in the Bundestag, meaning that Merkel will be returned as Chancellor for a fourth successive term.
British observers have had an eye on these elections for some time now. The argument ran that Merkel would sweep to a convincing victory – as opinion polling suggested that she would – and then make an emboldened return to the European Council to break the Brexit impasse with an iron fist.
This was not to be. The CDU/CSU lost 65 seats, with their vote share declining by 8.6%. Their centre-left rival and former coalition partners, the Social Democrats, recorded their worst ever Parliamentary result, returning 153 seats at a loss of 5.2% on their previous vote share.
The headlines were stolen by the radical-right Alternative for Germany (AfD), who swept into the Bundestag with 94 seats and 12.6% of the vote. The AfD advocate a range of nativist policies, including Euroscepticism. The centrist Liberals recorded a modest increase in seats, while the Greens and Leftist Parties remained largely stagnant.
What does this mean for Brexit?
Chancellor Merkel will now have to assemble a coalition before any policy reorientation is possible. Analysts suggest that a ‘Jamaica’ coalition – the black, green and yellow colours of the Conservatives, Greens and Liberals respectively – is the most likely outcome.
However, this process will be lengthy and may consume a great deal of political capital. There are considerable policy differences between the right-wing, left-wing and centrist partners-to-be on social integration and taxation. There is, however, a key point of consensus underlying their association – Europe.
The mainstream German parties generally agree that Europe requires greater reform to shore up the bloc. Campaigning to this end included the completion of the Digital Single Market and consolidation of the Eurozone. Once coalition-wrangling is complete, the long-term future of the EU will be a key priority. The fact that Merkel’s legacy as Chancellor will be at stake in this Parliamentary term adds to the pressure on her to strengthen EU unity.
The surprise result for the AfD is unlikely to affect the Chancellor’s Brexit strategy, but they may slow it down. Commentators on all sides of German politics are already arguing that the AfD’s concerns must not be legitimised or incorporated into policy. Moreover, research shows that AfD voters have a weak identification with their party – supporters are not voting ‘for’ the AfD’s nativist platform, but rather ‘against’ the mainstream consensus, particularly the acceptance of refugees from Europe’s southern shores. This fact, coupled with the notion that domestic politics plays a limited role in day-to-day foreign policy formation, mean that a radically re-oriented Brexit strategy is unlikely.
However, it is self-evident is that Article 50 negotiations are on the backburner for now. The Chancellor is weakened, tasked with assembling a tricky coalition and quelling domestic populism. The idea that Merkel would ride in and impose a Brexit settlement over the head of Barnier and the Council was always far-fetched, given the importance Germany attaches to the need for unity and consensus in EU decision making and her role in setting the Commission’s Brexit mandate.
In the long-term, Merkel may prove to be the ally that the Government hope her to be. In the short term, it is unlikely that her re-election will provide any impetus to the Brexit negotiations. It will be up to David Davis and Michel Barnier to break the deadlock and advance negotiations to the future settlement, though the original timetable for doing so now seems more unlikely than ever.