Analysis

What the German elections mean for the future of UK-EU relations

Chris Adams

With the federal election results in, Europe is fast approaching the end of the Merkel era, leading to a distinct shift in the EU’s centre of power towards Macron.

In a world of soaring energy prices, a supply chain crisis and dwindling petrol reserves, you could be forgiven for having missed the results of this weekend’s federal election in Germany. Post Brexit it may even seem that the results of these elections are even less relevant to the UK than they were when we were members of the EU. The reality, though, couldn’t be further from the truth: these elections have profound repercussions on the EU’s leading voices, and what that means for the UK’s future relations with the bloc.

German politics’ fundamental shift

Two parties have dominated German politics since the end of the Second World War: the centre-right CDU and the centre-left SDP. Yet not long ago, the papers were awash with the shock polling putting the German Greens ahead in the race for the Chancellery. It looked like the herald of a new era – a great realignment of German politics, to address the great challenge of climate change.

The excitement proved to be gravely exaggerated. Yet, despite a significant dip in the polls since the dizzy heights of 29% in April and May, the Greens still secured their best ever result with 14.8% of the vote, almost doubling their number of seats in the Bundestag. This came largely at the expense of the CDU/CSU alliance – Angela Merkel’s party which has governed Germany for 32 of the last 39 years – polling its worst result ever at 24.1% of the vote, handing victory to the SPD which secured just 25.7% of the vote. The pro-business, liberal FDP polled 11.5%, while the far-right AfD and far-left Die Linke polled 10.3% and 4.9% respectively.

Observers should not be fooled by the SDP’s narrow victory – their candidate for Chancellor, Olaf Sholz, is no radical change or new dawn for German politics. As the current Vice-Chancellor and Finance Minister in the ‘Grand Coalition’ which has governed Germany since 2017, he has succeeded in positioning himself as the natural successor to Merkel.

Yet the truth is that Merkel’s departure leaves a power vacuum at the top of the EU which will not be filled by the new German Chancellor, whoever they may be. They simply lack the gravitas or authority to do so, and even if they possessed such traits, they will in all likelihood have to govern at the head of an unprecedented 3-party coalition, alongside the Greens and the FDP, significantly curtailing their authority. Even if we see another re-run of the ‘Grand Coalition’, it will be very much a coalition of equals, bringing with it its own challenges.

The European Succession

There is only one leader who can fill the post-Merkel vacuum, and he’s been itching to fill the role for years: French President, Emmanuel Macron. His own unique brand of Napoleonic ambition is not constrained by the leadership of France — for anyone doubting this, think back to his invitation to US President Donald Trump to attend the Bastille Day military parade in 2019 — Macron’s desired legacy is a global one.

He is also ideally placed to succeed Merkel as the leader of Europe. Broadly centrist and thus able to work with leaders from across the political divide, he is passionately pro-European: it is not for nothing that he chose to walk out to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, Europe’s national anthem, to greet the French people following his election in 2017.

This is all despite his own fraught position at home: the leader of the far-right Rassemblement Nationale, Marine le Pen, is feeling more confident than ever at her prospects of securing the keys to the Elysée Palace next year. In truth, though, there is still no viable opponent emerging from the ashes of the previously dominant Socialists or the Republicans and, while many in France may be frustrated with Macron, far more will be horrified at the realistic possibility of a far-right President.

There is also no real alternative within Europe and not simply because France is the second-largest nation within the bloc: Italy or Spain could also potentially vie for the position, but neither has the political stability to maintain a position at the head of the EU.

The future of EU-UK relations

The real question for the UK will be how this affects its continuing relationship with the European bloc. Tensions were already high between France and the UK over how to deal both with migrants crossing the channel and fishing rights around the Channel Islands. The AUKUS deal announced last week will only have exacerbated this.

Macron was significantly more aggressive that other European leaders in his negotiation tactics during the Brexit transition period and will likely seek to secure significant concessions from the UK if that settlement is to be amended at any point in the near future. This bodes ill for the UK’s continuing row with the EU over the Northern Ireland backstop which has, in effect, created a customs border down the Irish Sea. While the PM might hope to renegotiate this aspect of the Withdrawal Agreement, Macron is highly unlikely to budge.

The key to understanding negotiations with Macron will be in accepting that he is far more interested in shoring up his own power than in brokering agreements with third countries: for the French President, looking powerful will be just as important as securing policy objectives, especially with the French elections coming up next year. With the French electorate veering to the far right and blaming many national ills on the effects of immigration, Priti Patel’s attempts to force his hand on preventing illegal migrants crossing the channel only plays into Macron’s hands, domestically.

Macron’s commitment to the European project will also be a key factor in his approach to post-Brexit relations with the UK. He certainly views Brexit as an unprecedented act of national self-harm and is unlikely to do anything to mitigate any domestic fallout from the UK’s decision to leave the EU. The current supply chain crisis and the dampening effect of additional bureaucracy on trade with the EU are therefore unlikely to be alleviated anytime soon.

Even with Boris Johnson’s famous charisma and charm — both of which impressed EU leaders at their summit in Lisbon in 2019 — there is no doubt that the Macron era of UK-EU relations will be more difficult to navigate than it was under Mutti Merkel.