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Be careful what you wish for

September 28th, 2017

Alastair Meeks on EU politics and Brexit

How they chortled.  For three months, loyal Conservative Leavers have had to endure the taunts of their opponents, sneering at the way in which Theresa May called an unnecessary election to secure a Brexit mandate and mislaid her majority.  And now their nemesis, Angela Merkel, has suffered a similar fate.  Despite many months of polls showing them cruising to a healthy win, the CDU and the CSU tallied just a third of the vote.

One in eight Germans, a very similar proportion to that which voted for UKIP in Britain in 2015 and for the PVV in the Netherlands earlier this year, has voted for the AfD (perhaps it is now standard in the developed world for one in eight of the population to cast their vote on the basis of a native identity that is perceived to be under siege).  The government coalition has collapsed and whatever is put in its place will look almost as delicate as the Conservatives’ tie-up with the DUP.  It turns out that Germany is not immune to populism after all.

There is much to absorb from the German election.  As with Britain and the US, the areas that have voted most strongly for the anti-immigrant party live in areas with few immigrants and with many poor and alienated oldies.  This suggests that the protest is more important than the specific policy.  Both main parties are going to need to consider how to win back erstwhile voters who thought they had been taken for granted.

Fascinating though these questions are, they have only the most indirect relevance for the Brexit negotiations.  The result does, however, have direct relevance in an unexpected and unhelpful way.

Dumbo had his white feather that he believed helped him to fly and before the German federal election some Leavers had grasped tightly the idea that after it was out of the way Angela Merkel would break the Brexit impasse between Britain and the EU.  The Leaver Dumbos had scant evidence for clutching this feather so firmly.  All of the potential parties of government were in unison as to how Brexit should be approached. Confirming Oscar Wilde’s dictum that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about, Brexit was not mentioned once in the debate between Martin Schulz and Angela Merkel.  It was simply a non-issue.  Leavers would be as likely to see a change in the political climate if they sought to flap their ears.

The result has proved that no matter how bad things are, they can always get worse.  For any attention that Angela Merkel might have given to Brexit is now going to have to compete with the far more pressing problem for her of forming a viable coalition.  Can she persuade the SPD to be German politics’ piñata for a third time?  If not, can she persuade the Greens and the FDP to play nicely for an unlikely Jamaican three legged race?  These are the questions that are going to absorb her waking hours for the coming weeks.  The limited headspace that she has been sparing for Brexit has just got much more limited.

It doesn’t look as though other EU nations are going to be providing much guidance to the EU’s negotiators either.  France’s president Emmanuel Macron is looking to recast the whole EU in line with an up-to-date Gallic vision: Brexit looks like an incidental to him.  Spain is currently riven over the question of dreams of Catalan nationhood.  The Italians are limbering up for a general election of their own and the Poles are on the EU’s naughty step.  So the EU hierarchy is going to be largely left to its own devices for some considerable time to come.

Time is not a commodity that Britain has in abundance.  Theresa May has sought to kick the can down the road through a transitional deal but this has not yet been accepted, nor can it be until the two sides have some idea what they are transitioning to.

Some avowed Brexiters have taken to demonising the EU negotiating team.  This is not just unwise, it is an error.  The chief problem with M. Barnier and President Juncker is not that they are wont to intransigence but that they have their negotiating brief and have no authority to go beyond it without the approval of the member states.  In order to get that authority, they will need something concrete to present to them.

The British government does not want to be making all the moves.  Nor does the EU.  The present state of affairs is summed up by what the Guinness Book of Records describes as the world’s most succinct word, Mamihlapinatapai, (from the Yaghan language of Tierra del Fuego): “a look shared by two people, each wishing that the other would initiate something that they both desire but which neither wants to begin”.  But someone will have to.  It was probably always going to be Britain.  That now looks almost certain.

Alastair Meeks