Brexit: why German turmoil is cruelly timed for Britain | Politics


Why does Merkel matter for Brexit?

Within hours of watching Angela Merkel fail to form a coalition, Theresa May hosts a cabinet committee that will test the weakness of her own fragile government. After months of prevaricating, it seems Britain is finally ready to commit itself to paying a divorce settlement with the EU of anything up to a €60bn (£53bn) in a desperate attempt to unlock the next stage of Brexit talks on a trade deal and transition phase. Germany had led the hardball negotiating tactics that pushed May into this corner, but was expected to be – at least potentially – a more friendly ally when it came to discussing future free trade arrangements for its exporters. A weakened government in Berlin is less likely to be able win over more protectionist voices in the EU who have less to gain from an open border with Britain.

What happens next?

Germany is in uncharted territory. The collapse of the three-party coalition talks over a range of issues including immigration could mark the beginning of the end of Merkel’s political career after 12 years as chancellor. There are now three options: a minority government, which few parties favour; a “grand coalition” between her conservative CDU/CSU and the social democrat SPD party, which it has consistently ruled out; or new elections, which would require a vote in the Bundestag and risk being just as inconclusive as September’s vote. Whatever the outcome, Germany faces weeks, if not months, of paralysis, with a lame-duck, acting government unlikely to make major policy decisions at home or on the European stage – including on Brexit.

Wasn’t Germany meant to have come to the UK’s rescue already?

Brexiters have long argued that Germany, and in particular its big carmakers, will ensure Britain emerges with a favourable trade deal. But this flies in the face of EU logic and even German self-interest, as German industry leaders have endlessly repeated. If 7.5% of German exports go to Britain, 92.5% go elsewhere; for German manufacturers, the integrity of the single market outweighs a good deal with the UK. David Davis advised his audience in Berlin last week not to “put politics above prosperity” but Germany sees its prosperity as inseparable from the preservation of the single market. Since the EU referendum, German politicians have been warning Britain that it cannot cherry-pick: no one can enjoy the rewards of the single market without the compromises of membership.

Is there a bright spot for Brexit?

Once more, Europe’s future is up in the air. The claim of Brexiters that the European project is doomed continue to look wildly overstated, but there is no doubt that Merkel’s weakness will delay the kind of far-reaching reforms mooted, for example, by France’s president, Emmanuel Macron.

More constructively, from a British perspective, the cause of her problems may at least rekindle debate about some of the EU’s existing strictures. Immigration means different things to German and British voters, but both Merkel and the pre-Brexit UK government were tainted by the perception they had allowed it to run out of control.

The challenge of ensuring there is no room for the far right in the event of new elections may perhaps win fractionally more sympathy for Britain’s aim to curb European free movement. But imagining Germany will ride to the rescue with a cake-and-eat-it trade deal remains almost as implausible as thinking BMW will override 40 years of EU law.

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