German Chancellor Angela Merkel steps down from her party’s leadership: Will her country’s Brexit position soften?
Aaron Burnett (Emerging Voices Group, IIEA)
Less than two weeks before announcing she would not campaign again to lead Germany’s ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Chancellor Merkel appeared before the Bundestag to outline the Brexit position her government would take at October’s European Council Summit. The most noteworthy part of that speech may well be how little her position had moved since she first spoke about it following the 2016 referendum. Merkel appeared to shift in Brussels though, reportedly urging her fellow leaders, including Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, to rethink their approach to the Irish border backstop, long since the most challenging part of Brexit negotiations. However, the next day, an Irish Government source indicated Varadkar and Merkel had “a number of conversations” in the 24 hours since the summit, and that in each one, Merkel emphasized her support for Ireland was “unequivocal.” With the CDU now in the middle of a succession contest, will Berlin’s solidarity with Dublin wobble in order to reach a more accommodating deal with London? The short answer is: probably not.
The consistency in Merkel’s Brexit positions, as stated to the Bundestag over the last two years, allows little room for Berlin to change its current Brexit course in any dramatic way. Both domestic public opinion and party politics further constrain Merkel—or indeed any potential successor—from making major turnarounds in London’s favour.
Between Flexibility and Red Lines—Which is Which?
Merkel’s instinct during negotiations is to seek consensus where possible, without compromising on core principles. Some of those most familiar with Merkel’s political style stress that the best way of discerning those core principles is to simply pay attention to what she tells the Bundestag.
“Merkel’s speeches tend to be more significant than the public generally realizes. She puts more thought, intellectual effort and subtext into a speech than is read into it later,” writes Stefan Kornelius, Süddeutsche Zeitung’s Foreign Editor, in his biography of the Chancellor (p.169). “Merkel also makes her most important statements in front of the democratically elected representatives of the people. She sees parliament as the centre of democracy—and so, for her, that is where her major speeches should be made.”
In her first such Bundestag speech—or Regierungserklärung—after the 2016 referendum, the Chancellor emphasized the primary importance of the remaining 27 states to be “willing and able” to take decisions together. “’Together’ always means all 27—the euro states together with the non-euro ones, the small countries together with the large ones, the old Member States together with the new ones,” she declared, before stating that it was up to the UK to decide what sort of future relationship it wished to have with the EU—but that “cherry-picking” the four freedoms was out of the question.
Merkel’s Regierungserklärung following the triggering of Article 50 nearly a year later was clear in emphasizing the primacy of EU membership over non-membership—however large or important the partner. “A third country, and that will be Britain, cannot and will not have the same rights or be better off than a member of the European Union.” It was a principle she repeated again before the Bundestag ahead of the October European Council Summit. “Even if we want to avoid hardship, in the end the difference between becoming a member of the European Union and partnering with the European Union must always be made clear.” Furthermore, while Merkel’s speeches place primary emphasis on EU27 unity and membership’s value, she describes a close EU-UK post-Brexit relationship as something she “wishes” for—rather than something that “must” happen. Upholding these stated principles requires Merkel to continue standing by Dublin, because even though it is much smaller than its exiting neighbour, Ireland will remain a member and the UK will not. For Merkel and for much of Germany’s political elite, sacrificing a Member State’s interests to those of a non-EU partner would set a dangerous precedent with consequences reaching further than the shortchanged Member State in question.
The Brexit Consensus in German Politics
Though Merkel has given the key government reports to the Bundestag on Brexit, the positions she outlines are not simply her own, but the stance of a government that includes Germany’s Social Democrats (SPD). While nearly all major German parties are Europhile in orientation, the SPD is especially so, as is its main centre-left rival—the German Greens. The SPD’s 2017 challenger to Merkel, former European Parliament President Martin Schulz, once said of Brexit and the Four Freedoms, “I refuse to imagine a Europe where lorries and hedge funds are free to cross borders but citizens cannot.” German Justice Minister Katarina Barley—a dual German-British national and potentially running as the Social Democrat “Spitzenkandidatin” for the 2019 European elections, has suggested the UK should vote again on Brexit.
Merkel has stated her intention to continue serving as Chancellor until her fourth term ends in 2021, even after the CDU votes for a new party leader in December. In her resignation speech, she referred in particular to current foreign policy challenges on which she wished to concentrate her efforts—including Brexit. Yet even if a new CDU leader were to try ousting her from the Chancellery early, there is little chance that person would arrive at the Brexit negotiating table before the UK formally leaves the EU in March. Even if a new German vote were to be called and take place before then, post-election coalition talks in Germany are lengthy affairs that typically last for months. Even as political attention turns to the CDU’s upcoming succession vote, Merkel is likely to remain Germany’s key Brexit decider, while also requiring SPD agreement.
The German Public—Brexit Hardliners
Finally, Germany’s hardline Brexit stance isn’t just an elite position—the public largely supports it too. Polls reveal 59 percent of Germans do not expect a Brexit deal will happen; furthermore, only 13 percent of them are willing to see the government make large concessions in negotiations. One-third are not willing to make any concessions to the UK at all to secure a Brexit deal. Taken together, we can infer that if the German public is presented with a choice between making concessions that will undermine the EU’s freedoms and a “no deal” outcome, it is prepared to accept no deal in order to uphold EU structures as they now stand. Mirroring their political elites, the German public views Brexit as less about the future relationship with one large departing country, but more as an existential moment for the EU itself—and one on which it is not willing to bend.
Aaron Burnett is a member of the Emerging Voices Group within the “Future of the EU27” project at the Institute of International and European Affairs. He is a Berlin-based writer and researcher focusing on EU foreign policy, international security, and German politics.