Photographer: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Brexit Negotiations May Have to Wait for a New German Government

  • Bundestag elected Sept. 24 with six blocs poised to win seats
  • Average of 46 days to form governments since reunification

Theresa May fired the starting gun on two years of Brexit talks last month, but Europe’s packed electoral timetable for 2017 suggests that meaningful negotiations might not get under way until a new German government has been installed.

European Union President Donald Tusk has said that preliminary trade discussions could start this fall, assuming “sufficient progress” is made in talks to leave the bloc. Yet according to Alex de Ruyter, director of the Centre for Brexit Studies at Birmingham City University, the U.K. will have to wait until the French and the Germans are ready.

“With the impending French presidential elections and the German federal elections coming up over the next few months, it is likely that no real discussions over Britain’s withdrawal from the EU will take place until after November this year,” de Ruyter said.

The reason is that Germans elect a new lower house of parliament -- the Bundestag -- on Sept. 24, and while the vote crowns the electoral calendar, it doesn’t stop there. No single party has won a parliamentary majority since World War II, so a multiparty coalition is always needed. Since Germany was reunified in 1990, it’s taken an average of a month and a half after an election to form a coalition government.

Opinion polling suggests forming a German government could be even more complicated this year. With the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany party set to win seats in the national parliament for the first time and the liberal Free Democrats possibly re-entering the Bundestag, there may be six blocs represented.

Any delay in creating a coalition could further constrain the time for substantive Brexit negotiations. With the Brexit process due to be completed by March 29, 2019, both the U.K. and EU sides say they need to wrap up talks by the end of 2018 to allow for ratification of the deal.

Possible German government constellations include a continuation of Angela Merkel’s present “grand coalition” of her Christian Democratic-led bloc and the Social Democrats; an alliance of the same parties but led by the Social Democrats under Martin Schulz; an unprecedented combination at national level of Schulz’s SPD with the Greens and the anti-capitalist Left party; or a Merkel-led grouping of the Christian Democrats, Free Democrats and Greens.

None of these options is set to be easy. Germany hasn’t had a government made up of more than two party blocs since 1960; the quickest coalitions to be formed since reunification were the Social Democrat-Green governments under Gerhard Schroeder in 1998 and 2002, and those still took 30 days each.

The most time-consuming discussions have been those for the two grand coalitions under Merkel in 2005 and 2013 -- an average of 75.5 days. A repeat of that would see a new German government in place only in the first week of December. And that would leave just two full negotiating weeks before Europe shuts down for Christmas.

— With assistance by Ian Wishart

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