Großbritanniens Premierministerin May und Frankreichs Präsident Macron haben unlängst ihre Konzepte für die Zeit nach dem Brexit und die Zukunft Europas präsentiert. Jetzt ist Kanzlerin Merkel am Zug – aber wie sprechfähig ist sie, solange es in Berlin keine neue Regierung gibt? Kann Merkel Europas Integration vorantreiben und zugleich die AfD in Schach halten?

Merkel, zwischen May und Macron

Embarking towards Jamaica…
The pace of events these days leaves little room to catch one’s breath, with UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit speech in Florence on September 22nd, followed by the German Federal elections on the 24th and French President Emmanuel Macron’s address at the Paris Sorbonne University on the 26th. In terms of the Prime Minister’s proposals concerning a two-year Brexit transition period and a €20 billion payment to the EU, government officials in Berlin have tight-lippedly referred to the next negotiation round between Michel Barnier and the UK in Brussels as an opportunity for London “to come up with further details”.

Meanwhile, the German election results are clear and unclear at the same time. With almost 13 percent of the vote, the right-wing “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) is significantly shaking up the political landscape in Germany. At the same time, the Free Democrats (FDP) triumphantly return to parliament with close to 11 percent, while the Social Democrats (SPD), decimated to a mere 20 percent, have chosen to seat themselves on the opposition benches. Against these new circumstances, Angela Merkel, whose party lost more than eight percentage points of the vote, will most probably remain Chancellor and embark on her fourth term in office, presumably by the end of this year. That much is clear.

Unclear, however, are the terms under which the 63-year-old will form a so-called “Jamaica” coalition binding together her own party – the Christian Democrats and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (black) –, the Free Democrats (yellow) and the Green party (green, obviously). Policy experts and the media in Germany are feverishly rereading the campaign manifestos to identify areas where the potential new partners may agree, and where, in contrast, conflicts are likely to loom. Besides energy, climate protection and homeland security, Europe may well turn out to be a show-stopper during the coalition talks. Why is this so – and what does it mean for the Brexit negotiations?

Towards a common Eurozone government?
First of all, it is worth noting that neither the future of the European Union nor Brexit have been particularly high-profile topics on the campaign trail in Germany. Rather than debating about a common Eurozone finance minister or going into the details of customs agreements between Britain and the EU, the focus was primarily on migration, refugees’ integration, schools and social justice. Nevertheless, following French President Macron’s Sorbonne speech, Germany is now under pressure to position itself on the future of the EU. Mindful of German sensitivities, the French President did not go as far as calling for a mutualisation of debts. And yet, his plans for a common Eurozone budget, a Eurozone finance minister, a harmonization of corporate taxes by the year 2024 and a coordinated approach to fight youth unemployment represent a challenge to the (self-declared) guardians of austerity this side of the Rhine.

In the French scenario, the Eurozone finance minister would be assigned the power to create and distribute new financial means designed to stimulate growth in the weaker parts of the Eurozone. Much in contrast, from a German standpoint, the main responsibility of a Eurozone finance minister would be to control budget discipline and make sure that all Eurozone members strictly comply with the Maastricht rules.

Now, with the Free Democrats likely to claim the Finance portfolio for themselves in the next Federal government, we can expect the German standpoint concerning the Eurozone to harden further. According to their manifesto, the Free Democrats not only reject Eurobonds but are pushing for an organized state insolvency for those Euro members who fail to meet the Maastricht criteria. It is also noteworthy at this point that the Alternative for Germany was initially created as an outcry against the consecutive bail-outs of Greece. With over 90 AfD Members in the Bundestag now and crucial State elections on the horizon in 2018, no future Federal government can afford to pour any more taxpayers’ money into murky rescue funds.

“Leader of the free world”, no more?
With Europe thus crawling back into the headlines slowly but surely, Brexit for the time being remains rather a topic of the elites. Behind closed doors, business representatives are being briefed by German foreign ministry experts involved in the negotiations. Meanwhile, when talking to a powerful industry federation in Bavaria in July, Merkel said that it was reassuring to hear from Prime Minister May that the UK “will leave the EU but not Europe”. The Chancellor has, however, made clear that the UK should not have any “illusions” with regard to the upcoming negotiations, and that “countries with a third country status cannot and will not have the same or even more rights as a member of the European Union”.

This notwithstanding, Merkel knows perfectly well what is at stake for the German economy: Germany and the UK are tied together by highly integrated industrial value chains, such as in the automotive, mineral oil processing and metal industries. Moreover, around 2,000 German companies are employing no less than 420,000 workers in the UK. In 2016 the German economy exported goods and services worth €86 billion to the UK (i.e. 7.1% of total exports). In an era of just-in-time delivery, German businesses dread scenarios where trucks or trains will have to undergo complicated, hours-long customs procedures in Calais or Rotterdam. Pressure is therefore rising from German business associations to make sure that future trade relations between the two countries will not be hindered by new customs or non-tariff barriers such as standards or bureaucratic requirements. The call for a prompt and precise Brexit road-map, in particular with regard to the question of EU-citizens’ rights in the UK, gets louder every day.

But how will Merkel respond while she is busy forging a new, highly experimental government coalition? What negotiating power will Germany have on an EU scale before the ink has dried on the planned coalition treaty? How will a domestically weakened Merkel be received by her peers at the next EU summit meetings? When close to 60 out of 239 Christian Democratic members of parliament refuse to confirm Merkel’s chosen candidate as head of their parliamentary group (as it happened on September 26th), political dusk is apparently approaching for the woman who had been hailed as the “last leader of the free world” only a few months ago. Theresa May’s Florentine plans lay as heavily on Merkel’s vast table as Emmanuel Macron’s vision towards an ambitious, reinvigorated EU. However, Angela Merkel’s political energies during the next three months will be absorbed by writing her ultimate political narrative. Business representatives in Germany, the UK and elsewhere should seriously start thinking about whom to talk to other than the old and (probably) new German Chancellor.


Dr. Hans Bellstedt

ist Gründer und Geschäftsführender Gesellschafter der Hans Bellstedt Public Affairs GmbH. Bis Ende 2007 leitete er die 1999 von ihm gemeinsam mit Scholz & Friends gegründete Kommunikationsagentur Plato GmbH. Bellstedt war zuvor Mitarbeiter von Karl Lamers, MdB (1990-1991), Büroleiter von DIHT-Präsident Hans-Peter Stihl (1992-1995) sowie Referent für Vorstandspublikationen bei der ABB Asea Brown Boveri AG.