In September 2017, Germany will elect a new parliament. The result of these elections is unlikely to change Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations, as both of Germany’s largest parties, the CDU/CSU and the SPD, have made it clear that full membership of the European Single Market comes with the free movement of people.
Only a few weeks ago, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has been in power since 2005, announced her plans to run again for office. Yet, we knew little about her plans for what would be her fourth term in office. We had to wait until this week (5-7 December) when Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) held its annual conference. This is where the party leader and the executive are elected and important policy decisions are taken.
Although German party conferences tend to be smaller than their British counterparts (in this case, roughly 1000 party delegates attended the conference) they are media spectacles. The German media was quick to point out Merkel’s disappointing election result. She was re-elected as party leader by 89.5 per cent of the delegates, down from her best result, namely 97.9 per cent, in 2012. One could however argue that after 11 years in office, this is a respectable result. For now, Merkel remains the unchallenged leader of her party.
And yet, some of her more “progressive” policies have been criticized by the CDU’s more conservative constituencies. Most importantly, Merkel’s decision in the late summer of 2015 to allow close to one million refugees to enter Germany from war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, has been – and still is – criticized by many of her colleagues, and especially those from the CDU’s Bavarian sister party, the CSU. In addition, the CDU grassroots and Young Christian Democrats (Junge Union) now demand an upper limit for Germany’s refugee intake. Thus, Merkel’s controversial and historical decision has shaped much of the current political debate in Germany and will be of utmost importance in next year’s federal elections. Merkel thus told the conference: I have demanded a lot from you (…) I am very much aware of it.” For her challenging 2016 election campaign, Merkel asked her party for support, saying: “you need to help me”.
Unsurprisingly, large parts of Merkel’s conference speech, which was followed by 11 minutes of standing ovation, focus on the integration of migrants into German society and Germany’s future as a multicultural society. Hence, the most cited passage of Merkel’s conference speech was: ‘The situation we had in the late summer of 2015 cannot, shall not, and must not be repeated”. Another attempt to calm down her critics inside and outside the party was the chancellor’s announcement that, should she be re-elected, the wearing of the Burka will be abolished in public places such as schools and courts. Merkel argues that the Burka prevents Muslim women from fully integrating into German society.
This shift in policy has to be understood in the context of the rising popularity of the far-right, anti-Islam, xenophobic, Eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which is predicted to enter the Bundestag for the first time in 2016, after having gained seats in the majority of regional assemblies. The success of the AfD puts the CDU under pressure to take a harder line on Muslim immigration. Also, the conference delegates’ decision to vote in favour of abolishing the recently introduced double nationality, needs to be understood in this context. It means that, should the CDU win the majority of seats in 2016, children born to foreigners in Germany will have to decide before their 23rd birthday which nationality to keep and which to give up.
The picture that was painted by Merkel and her colleagues at the party conference was one of an uncertain world. The CDU executive’s (approved) motion was called ‘Orientation in difficult times: for a successful Germany and Europe’. In it, the outcome of the Brexit referendum is described as a cause for concern. However, the CDU does not reveal its preferences for a Brexit deal here. After all, Merkel does not want to be seen to steal the limelight of the EU institutions and their appointed Brexit negotiators. So far, however, Merkel has given us no reason to believe that the German government would allow the UK to remain a member of the Single European Market whilst abolishing the free movement of people. The CDU remains supportive of the EU and its founding principles.
Meanwhile, the centre-left SPD, Germany’s second largest party, has not yet selected its chancellor candidate for the election. In recent opinion polls, the SPD would only gain about 20 per cent of the votes. What the party leadership finds hard to accept is that many SPD supporters like Angela Merkel. It still remains unclear whether party leader Sigmar Gabriel will run for the chancellorship in 2016. Rumour has it that the incumbent president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, is considering running for the job. As his term ends in January 2017, he might be looking for a new career. Both Gabriel and Schulz belong to the SPD’s centrist, pragmatic wing. Both politicians have expressed their unhappiness with the Brexit referendum outcome. Yet, as a convinced Europhile and supranationalist, Schulz would be the harder negotiation partner for Theresa May. He has stated that ‘The party of Churchill and Disraeli has put its particular interests before those of the country: Cameron, Johnson and Gave have left ruins in order to satisfy their personal ambitions”. Neither Martin Schulz nor Sigmar Gabriel would be likely to allow the UK to remain in the single market whilst abolishing the free movement of people.
In short, whether Merkel becomes Chancellor for the fourth time or the SPD unexpectedly wins the voters over, the German government’s stance on the EU’s principle of free movement is unlikely to change in 2017. On a personal level, Theresa May would probably get along better with Angela Merkel than with any of the SPD’s likely candidates, as her recent visit to Berlin has indicated. Nonetheless, at least for now, Germany’s mainstream parties are unlikely to offer the UK favourable Brexit conditions.
Dr Isabelle Hertner is Lecturer in Politics of Britain in Europe at King’s College London.