German voters deal a blow to Macron’s EU reform drive

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and French President Emmanuel Macron (R) speak at a joint news conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, 13 July 2017. [Julien De Rosa / EPA]

Angela Merkel may be too busy holding together an unwieldy coalition to act as an effective partner for the French president’s bold plans, which he will outline on Tuesday (26 September).

Since he was elected French president four months ago, Emmanuel Macron has been promising to roll out an ambitious reform program for the European Union. But he said he would wait until after the German election to unveil his bold plans.

Now, it is clear why that was so necessary.

Though she secured a fourth term as German chancellor today, Angela Merkel probably wasn’t popping the Champagne behind closed doors. Though it still won far more votes than any other party, her conservative bloc lost 8% of the vote share it won in the last election in 2013. The centre-left SPD, her coalition partner for the past four years, suffered its worst result in history, even though it came in second place.

The new far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party was the chief beneficiary of these lost votes, coming in third place. Last night, SPD leader Martin Schulz ruled out forming another coalition with Merkel, so as to prevent the AfD from becoming the German parliament’s largest opposition party.

Merkel’s CDU wins with dramatic downturn, far-right AfD enters Bundestag

Chancellor Angela Merkel secured her fourth term in office in Sunday’s (24 September) parliamentary election but her Christian Democratic Union picked up far fewer votes than expected, complicating the future coalition talks. And the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) made a historic breakthrough by winning Bundestag seats.

That means Merkel will have to form a coalition with the free-market FDP and the ecologist Greens – the ‘Jamaica coalition’, so-called because of the three parties’ colours.

A Jamaica coalition may sound fun, but it will be anything but. Finding agreement between these two parties will be difficult. Merkel will be left weakened, and she is unlikely to have much extra time to devote to Macron’s grand project. “The way forward is going to be difficult and treacherous,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, co-chair of the European Greens, last night.

“Angela Merkel will now be challenged to win back support of her conservative core constituency,” predicted Olaf Böhnke, a senior advisor with Rasmussen, a political consulting firm.

“This might have an impact on the amount of time the Chancellor has for extensive foreign policy and even European engagements like in previous years. Coalition building with two very stubborn partners – the FDP and Greens – will absorb much of her attention and her political skill in the coming months.”

Will Macron pull his punches?

Eager not to waste any time after the German election, Macron has scheduled a speech at the Sorbonne University in Paris, unveiling his EU plans, for Tuesday (26 September).

This will be followed by an informal summit in Estonia on Thursday (28 September) where leaders from the 28 EU countries – minus the United Kingdom – will discuss the way forward for Europe after the UK’s departure from the bloc.

The reason Macron has waited until now to unveil his plans is that he needed to know what the German political situation would be. Now he knows, and it’s not looking good for him. He may choose to scale back his ambition.

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The presence of the Liberals in Merkel’s coalition will be a particular roadblock for Macron. The party has come out against two of his main EU reform plans – a single EU finance minister and a dedicated budget for the eurozone, overseen by a special parliament.

Christian Lindner, the leader of the Liberals, has called for an end to the European Stability Mechanism bailout fund and has even called for Greece to leave the eurozone.

Merkel will also face resistance from the CSU, the Bavarian sister party to her CDU. They will be eager to stop the flow of voters to the right, and may want to draw a line in the sand against any further EU integration. Any idea for debt collectivisation or eurozone budget may be a non-starter.

Germany's Free Democrats may stall EU reform hopes

A week before German elections, the storied Free Democratic Party looks set to recover from a historic 2013 defeat and return to parliament – where it could make Berlin a much more awkward partner for its European neighbours.

Even if they are not the largest opposition party, the significant presence of the AfD in the German parliament will also be a spectre haunting Merkel as she decides whether to embrace Macron’s reform drive. She will be wary of driving more voters to the arms of the AfD, which after all was founded as an anti-euro party in 2013, before it embraced an anti-immigration stance.

The one bright spot for Macron may be the presence of the Greens in the coalition. They are an unabashedly pro-European party and have embraced some, if not all, of Macron’s EU reform ideas.

But given the trauma this election has dealt to Germany’s political class, it seems more likely that caution and conservatism will win the day.

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