The Brief: German vote takes wind out of Europe’s sails

Almost two weeks ago, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker delivered his annual State of the Union speech on the most positive note since the start of the euro debt crisis, saying “The wind is back in Europe’s sails”.

And indeed, so it looked, until the German elections on Sunday.

At the start of the year, all eyes were on France, where the xenophobic, populist and anti-European National Front seemed in a position to win the Presidential race.

There were also worries about how the populist PVV would fare in the Netherlands.

But none of that happened.

Emmanuel Macron comfortably defeated Marine Le Pen and Europhiles were euphoric after the victory of a staunch pro-European who has promised to revive EU democracy and deepen economic and political integration in the eurozone.

And in the Netherlands Geert Wilders came only a distant second to the ruling conservatives.

So next in line was Europe’s economic powerhouse, Germany. Surely, nothing unexpected could come from a two-horse race between the incumbent conservative Angela Merkel and her contender Martin Schulz, a social democrat? Despite some obvious differences, both held similarly pro-European views on how to take European integration forward.

Merkel, in particular, had met Macron’s calls for deeper eurozone integration with benevolence, despite reticence among the hardcore wing of her CDU/CSU, reviving expectations about a ‘grand bargain’ to deepen the eurozone.

Schulz, the more pro-European of the two, was the preferred choice in Brussels, with some Europhiles even dreaming of the stars aligning for the French President in case of a win for Schulz – or at least a strong showing for the SPD.

How different things look now.

The AfD, a strongly anti-European party born on the rejection of bailout programmes for Greece, Ireland and Spain during the euro debt crisis stormed into the Bundestag to become the third political force in Germany.

And Schulz’s SPD suffered its most bruising defeat since World War II, with only 20.5% of votes. The prospect of the AfD becoming the main opposition party – with all the benefits this entails – has relegated Schulz into the role of opposition leader and left Merkel little choice but to try cobbling together a government with the liberal FDP and the Greens.

Alas, the FDP are only second to the AfD when it comes to Euroscepticism. At the European level, they reject Macron’s plans for a common eurozone budget, or a European Monetary Fund to make emergency loans to indebted nations, an idea pushed with insistence in Berlin.

It remains to be seen what parts of that pro-European agenda will survive coalition talks. But none of this is good news for Europe or for Macron, who is due to make a landmark speech on Europe tomorrow, ahead of an informal dinner of EU leaders on Thursday, where the 27 will resume discussions on how to take integration forward after Brexit.

The election of Emmanuel Macron, combined with Brexit, opened an unprecedented window of opportunity to deepen EU integration. German voters may not have shut it permanently but they have certainly narrowed that window considerably.

The Roundup

Surprise at last! After months of an uneventful campaign, Angela Merkel won her fourth mandate – but with fewer votes than expected, and the far-right crashed the Bundestag to become Germany’s third party. Read our analysis here.

Far from neutralised, populism is alive and well: a virtually single-minded campaign on migration policy drove Germany into the arms of the AfD, collecting votes from disenfranchised East Germans.

Macron, who congratulated Merkel at midnight, unveils his EU vision tomorrow at a speech in Paris. Will he push on with his ambitious plans, even now that the Kanzlerin is busy trying to put together a government?

Timing is right for eurozone reform – but Macron should prioritise German support to make it possible, writes Petros Fassoulas of the European Movement International.

The window for structural European reform is indeed narrow, warns the Brussels bureau chief of the Robert Schuman Foundation. Read our interview here.

Brussel reactions: Juncker congratulates Angela Merkel, keeping a neutral tone – but his cabinet chief Martin Selmayr was more eloquent: he tweeted a Jamaican flag sided by two EU flags – the Commission’s way to express a preference for a coalition with the Greens and FPD?

Some more from MEPs: the EPP toasts to Merkel’s success and stability, while the ALDE group congratulates the German liberals (FDP) for…not making the podium. Co-Chair of the Greens, Reinhard Bütikofer, hails the German green vote as an “antidote” to the extreme right, while S&D leader Pittella salutes Schulz’s effort but declares the era of grand coalitions over.

Brexit-German connection: UKIP leader Steve Crowther congratulates AfD on its success – quoting a wrong percentage (it’s 12,6% of votes, Steve, not 13.5%). Buzzfeed’s Jim Waterson reveals a senior AfD member will address a UKIP party conference on Friday. It won’t be co-leader Frauke Petry though, because she just quit.

Look out for…

Macron will deliver his speech at La Sorbonne University in Paris on Tuesday (26 September).

Views are the author’s

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