No Brexit Respite for U.K. as German Parties Align Behind the EU

  • Merkel or Schulz: next German government won’t help the U.K.
  • Brexit barely features in campaign for Sept. 24 election

Merkel's Election Challenges

If the U.K. expects the next German government to ease the terms of its departure from the European Union, it’s about to be disappointed.

Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly stressed that her priority is to maintain the unity of the other 27 EU states, and polls all show her on course to win a fourth term on Sept. 24, albeit at the head of a coalition. A study of the main party platforms shows that all of her prospective coalition partners are similarly disinclined to grant the U.K. any Brexit gifts.

Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union-led bloc singles out the German fishing industry as a central interest to defend in exit talks, while her main challenger for the chancellery, Martin Schulz’s Social Democratic Party, warns against a “Europe a la carte” for the U.K.

“It’s in our interests to cultivate intensive economic and political ties with the U.K. after Brexit,” Merkel’s party platform reads, adding that the aim must be to contain the damage caused to people and the economy. “But it’s also clear: Whoever leaves the EU can’t profit further from all the advantages of the bloc.”

Barely Featured

Brexit has barely featured in the campaign for Germany’s federal election. But all five parties with even an outside chance of entering government are broadly pro-European in outlook. The exception is the Alternative for Germany, which advocates a German exit from the EU under certain conditions, but since all the other parties refuse any form of cooperation, it won’t be in any position to follow through.

Thus whatever the makeup of the next government, even allowing for an upset win by Schulz, Berlin is unlikely to change its fundamental position on Brexit.

“Most German voters still have a very hard time understanding why British voters decided the leave the EU,” Christian Odendahl, chief economist of the London-based Center for European Reform, and research fellow Sophia Besch wrote in a note. “They fail to see how retreating from a club of like-minded democratic countries gives Britain more control.”

As a result, the contending parties say little in their election platforms and less on the campaign trail on the subject of Brexit. Taken together, the election programs of the six blocs poised to enter the next Bundestag contain similar positions in statements that together amount to fewer than 800 words combined.

European Unity

Merkel and Schulz have on occasion flagged the decision by British voters to leave the EU, only to stress the importance of uniting the remaining 27 nations. In a 97-minute press conference on Tuesday, Merkel wasn’t once asked about the historic decision that’s shaken the foundation of U.K. politics.

“Contrary to what readers of the U.K. news media may believe, Brexit hardly features in the German election campaign,” say Odendahl and Besch.

The new government’s position will be determined by the parties that form the coalition. Merkel’s CDU/CSU are in position to head the government with 37-39 percent support in polls taken this week, with the SPD behind on 22-24 percent. The business-friendly Free Democratic Party has 8-9 percent, while the Greens trail with 6.5-8 percent. All three parties are possible coalition partners for Merkel, while the SPD could at least in theory also tie up with the anti-capitalist Left Party, which has 9-10 percent backing. The anti-immigration, euro-skeptic Alternative for Germany, or AfD, has 8-10 percent.

Advantages Spurned

The Social Democrats led by Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament, say that a country that quits the EU “cannot enjoy the advantages” of membership. While expressing a desire to continue a close partnership with the U.K. on foreign and security policy matters, the SPD says that in the Brexit negotiations now under way, “European unity is of the utmost German interest.”

The two smaller parties most likely to join a Merkel-led government -- the Free Democrats and the Greens -- both go further, welcoming the openness of Scottish and Northern Irish voters who rejected Brexit in last year’s referendum and offering them the prospect of staying in the EU.

“Should they decide to leave the U.K., the door to the EU should remain open -- as it should to the U.K.,” the FDP says in its platform.

Below are the party positions from their respective manifestos:

CDU/CSU (Chancellor Angela Merkel): “The U.K. has decided to leave the European Union, and it is in our interest to cultivate intensive economic and political ties with the U.K. after Brexit, with the aim of reducing the negative impact of Brexit on citizens and keeping the economy on track. But it’s also clear: Whoever leaves the EU can’t profit further from all the advantages of the bloc.”

“We will pay particular attention to the needs of deep-sea fishing, especially in the context of the departure of Great Britain from the EU.”

SPD (Martin Schulz): “The United Kingdom wants to leave the European Union. It is important to respect this decision, but it is also clear that a country that no longer wants to be a member of the European Union cannot enjoy its advantages. The four freedoms (free movement of goods, people, services and capital) and the internal market are inextricably linked. There can be no ‘Europe à la carte’ in the negotiations with the United Kingdom. Of course, a close partnership with Great Britain will continue to be of mutual interest, particularly in foreign and security policy. For us, however, the most important German interest in the negotiations is the preservation of European unity.”
 
“The European parties are the bearers of a transnational political alliance. In addition to strengthening this important aspect of European democracy, the European parties are also in favor of the fact that the seats in the European Parliament, which will be freed up by the departure of Great Britain, will be filled by representatives elected by means of transnational lists.”
 
FDP: “We Free Democrats regret the Brexit decision of British citizens, but we want to deal with the situation pragmatically, because we respect this decision, and now, in a partnership procedure, the conditions of the exit with London must be negotiated. We should also take the interests of Scotland and Northern Ireland into account, and should they decide to leave the U.K., the door to the EU should remain open -- as it should to the U.K. But not at any cost: ‘cherry picking’ or surrendering fundamental principles of the internal market are not up for debate for us. It is particularly important that the EU and Great Britain clarify their future relationship before spring 2019 so that the next elections for the European Parliament can be carried out on a new basis.”
 
Greens: “We won’t be discouraged by the outcome of the Brexit referendum and the successes of the right-wing populists, and will still advocate our values. The highest priority in the Brexit negotiations with the U.K. must be a strong European Union. The unity of the EU 27 and the interests of their Member States have without a doubt a high priority, which means that there can be no ‘exit à la carte.’ Free access to the EU’s internal market should only be possible if the uniformity of European law, the law and jurisdiction of the Community and the validity of all four fundamental freedoms, in particular the freedom of movement for people, are maintained. Keeping Europe together will be the task of the new federal government in the negotiations, including the need for Germany to take on more financial responsibility, to ensure that the EU remains effective after Brexit. For us, the citizens of the U.K. belong to Europe. The desire of the Scots and the Northern Irish, as well as many other people in the United Kingdom, who want to stay in the EU will be met with openness and sympathy. We will therefore continue to work towards close cooperation between the EU and the United Kingdom. We also make it clear that our door remains open. The European Union remains a project of peace and prosperity. This is why we are reaching out for the opportunity to continue to shape the future together under the umbrella of the EU. We want to establish an easy path toward German, and by extension EU, citizenship to all Britons who have lived in Germany for a long time.”

“Parties are also to come up with transnational lists for the EU Parliament, which is why, after Brexit, we will be able to use some of the vacant seats of the British deputies of Europe.”
 
Left: “The Brexit referendum in the U.K. is the latest signal that it’s become clear that the risk of a breakup of the EU is very real.”
 
“The Left party supports the negotiations on the departure of Great Britain from the EU at all political levels. 1. The protection of the right to free movement of workers must be maintained so that British citizens continue to have the right to work in EU Member States. At the same time, citizens of EU Member States must be able to continue to work in the U.K. 2. We respect the right of British citizens residing in EU Member States, as well as those of citizens of EU Member States in the U.K.”
 
AfD: “If such a concept (for greater sovereignty) cannot be negotiated amicably with the current partners of the EU, Germany will be forced to follow the example of Great Britain and leave the existing EU.”

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