The German Bundestag and Brexit: Defending Stability or Calling for Change?
Frank Wendler (Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main)
The political debate on Brexit in Germany highlights two major questions: First, how to define the EU’s stance on the terms of the UK’s withdrawal and its future relationship with Europe; and second, how to identify reasons for the departure of a major member state and draw conclusions for the future course of European integration and Germany’s role as a political leader of the remaining EU-27. Particularly the latter aspect often prompts those involved in the debate to draw connections between the departure of the UK and the EU’s other multiple challenges concerning the Euro, migration and the rule of law.
As a consequence, the debate on Brexit reveals a clash between two dynamics of political discourse: On the one hand, Chancellor Merkel’s response has emphasized principles of stability and responsibility to make the case for a version of Brexit that is both principled in rejecting bespoke deals with the UK to maintain the integrity of the EU, and pragmatic in avoiding major disruptions in the economic and political partnership of Britain with the EU. On the other, the UK’s departure adds to an increasing sense of failure of European integration in the German political public, prompting political parties to call for far-reaching political change in the EU. These calls include the recent rise of Eurosceptic claims both on the far-left and populist right ends of the political spectrum, but also renewed demands for fresh initiatives for a relaunch of the EU by mainstream political parties.
The tension between these two forms of discourse – the case for safeguarding entrenched norms and principles of European integration versus the rise of party political claims for their adjustment or disruption – is typical for many aspects of Germany’s current relationship with the EU. However, it has crystallized especially clearly in the debate on Brexit since the UK’s notification of withdrawal. This is best demonstrated by zooming in on debates in a political arena that is central for both the public justification of the Federal Government’s approach to Brexit and its party political contestation: namely, plenary debate in the Bundestag, the lower chamber of parliament.
To preserve or project? Bundestag debates on Brexit and the future of the EU
Like other legislatures of the remaining EU Member States, the Bundestag is involved in Brexit negotiations as a potential veto actor of a possible ‘mixed’ agreement on the future relations between the UK and EU. At least equally important, however, is the obligation by the Federal Government to report to the Bundestag on the current state of negotiations. As a consequence, about a dozen plenary debates have been held on Brexit since the UK’s notification to withdraw, either on a forthcoming EU Council meeting or as a thematic debate. The two main issues at stake – namely, how to conduct bilateral negotiations with the UK and what consequences to draw for the future of the EU – are highlighted especially well in two plenary sessions of the Bundestag in April 2017 and February 2018, both held as debates on an address by the Federal Chancellor to parliament (Regierungserklärung) and analyzed below.
The Bundestag plenary session on 27 April 2017 was the main debate on parliamentary approval of the Federal Government’s stance towards the EU negotiation guidelines on Brexit (BT plenary protocol 18/231). Formally speaking, the session was unremarkable as its main result was the approval of a parliamentary resolution (Entschließungsantrag) tabled by the Grand Coalition parties. The document endorsed both the draft guidelines proposed by Council President Tusk, and the Federal Government’s plea for separating talks on withdrawal and future relations as well as prioritizing the protection of citizens affected by Brexit.
The debate in the plenary, however, showcased the tension between a stability-oriented and party political discourse on Brexit described at the outset: The centerpiece of Chancellor Merkel’s opening speech was her emphasis on the link between rights and obligations of membership, excluding any bespoke deal with the UK compromising the integrity of the four freedoms of the Single Market – an idea described as self-evident but counter to ‘illusions’ held by some in the UK. In this sense, preserving the integrity and cohesion of the EU is held up against any attempt of selective participation in the Single Market, as epitomized in the widely used catchphrase ‘no cherry picking’ (‘keine Rosinenpickerei’), an expression mentioned in the resolution adopted by the Bundestag.
The case for stability and continuity, however, was only one side of the debate. Another was how speakers of all parliamentary parties linked Britain’s vote to leave to perceived flaws in the EU and its policies, using typical party political frames to call for political change for the future course of European integration. Along these lines, contributions to the debate included a call for a stronger emphasis on the subsidiarity principle by CDU caucus leader Kauder (‘protecting borders is a task for Europe, not creating bird habitats’), a plea for stronger restrictions on the alleged abuse of welfare payments resulting from the freedom of movement by CSU group leader Hasselfeldt (‘Brexit also happened because the right of free movement was abused’), and a pledge for a bold new departure of European integration (‘kraftvoller Neubeginn’) through the launch of EU initiatives against youth unemployment and a stronger social dimension of the EU, as proposed by SPD caucus leader Oppermann. Similarly, calls for more ambitious advances in climate change policy by Alliance90/Green group leader Göring-Eckardt, and the demand for full transparency of the European affairs committee in a resolution tabled by the Green group, resonate with established party political positions. So did Left Party group leader Wagenknecht’s demand to counter rising discontent with the EU by ending ratification of CETA, introducing protections against alleged social dumping and changing the EU Treaties to give priority to social rights in relation to free movement of capital and goods.
As this short overview demonstrates, Brexit is considered to be a constitutional challenge to the EU rather than just a policy issue: Major claims in the debate are rather far removed from the technicalities of withdrawal negotiations with the UK, but discussed as general consequences from the perceived disintegration of the EU through the departure of a major member state.
The way in which the UK’s withdrawal from the EU works as a trigger for a broad discussion about the future development of the EU was also highlighted in a second Bundestag debate on 22 February 2018, which was held prior to an informal meeting of the EU-27 (BT plenary protocol 19/14). Here, two quite specific impacts of Brexit on the EU were debated: namely, the EU budget post-2020, and the reform of EU institutions, particularly the European Parliament.
The overall structure of this debate was similar to the previous example but also demonstrated the increased polarization in Germany’s party political discourse after the arrival of the far-right AfD in the Bundestag after the September 2017 election. In this sense, Chancellor Merkel’s statement emphasized the high priority assigned to European integration in the new coalition agreement, and Germany’s readiness to assume its responsibility for an EU budget to support the goal of a competitive and stable Europe with a strong cohesion policy. Overall the Chancellor’s argument aimed at the preservation of European values (‘Wahrung unserer gemeinsamen europäischen Werte’). These arguments were directly countered by AfD caucus leader Weidel, who claimed that the principle of (fiscal) responsibility is turned on its head by the Federal Government’s readiness to fill a budget gap left by the UK’s withdrawal, granted to support EU institutions described as a bloated bureaucracy prone to wasting the taxpayer’s money. A contrary position was taken by SPD caucus leader Nahles, whose call for more decisive action against tax competiton, unemployment and rising wage differentials in the EU Member States suggested deeper political integration and an expansion of the EU budget – steps described as necessary for a ‘clear re-orientation of European policy’ (‘Wir brauchen eine klare Neuausrichtung der Europapolitik’). While the financial implications of Brexit are contentious, so is the reform of institutions: In this context, the argument by FDP group leader Lindner for a downsizing and streamlining of institutions resonates with the market-oriented positions of his party. By contrast, a resolution tabled by the B90/Green caucus proposed the introduction of transnational party lists and a firmer legal basis for the Spitzenkandidaten procedure for the forthcoming 2019 European Parliament election. Overall, reflection on the future of the EU overrides the discussion of the state of bilateral negotiations with the UK – however problematic and potentially consequential the state of that procedure may be.
Germany’s view on Brexit: more a prompt for debate than a policy-making issue
In conclusion, a review of debates on Brexit in the Bundestag leads to three insights:
First, in Germany’s current political debate, Brexit is more salient as a prompt for debate on the state and future of European integration than as a policy issue concerning the bilateral negotiations between the UK and EU.
Second, the parliamentary dimension of Germany’s involvement in Brexit negotiation is more meaningful at the level of public justification and controversy than through effects on actual policy. While the Federal Government’s stance in relation to Brexit has been supported by the Bundestag, regular debate on Brexit opens up substantial controversies concerning Germany’s current and future role in the EU, even more so after the arrival of the openly Eurosceptic AfD party in the Bundestag following on the September 2017 election.
Third and finally, reflecting a looming fatigue with the continued presence of a Grand Coalition government in large parts of the German political public, the debate on Brexit reveals a contrast between the stability-oriented discourse by the Federal Government, and a spectrum of claims on the future of the EU that is framed in more polarized party political terms. The resulting controversy reveals a growing divide between pro-European and Eurosceptic discourse in Germany, but also clear fissures within the coalition between CDU/CSU and SPD. These fissures demonstrate the ambiguous role of the Grand Coalition parties as gatekeepers for European integration and political competitors with clearly different diagnoses for the challenges posed by Brexit to the future of European integration.
Frank Wendler is currently an Acting Assistant Professor in EU Multi-Level Governance at the Goethe-Universität of Frankfurt am Main, Germany. He has held previous positions at the University of Washington, Seattle (USA), Universiteit Maastricht (Netherlands), and the University of Hamburg (Germany). He has published widely on EU governance and Europeanization of national political systems, with a focus on national parliaments. His most recent book is entitled Debating Europe in National Parliaments: Public Justification and Political Polarization (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016).