The question that will be asked most here about Germany’s election result is: what does it mean for Brexit? The answer may well be – not a lot. The most likely government to emerge, since Angela Merkel failed to win a majority, is a so-called “Jamaika” coalition: the CDU, the more pro-free market FDP and the Greens. The FDP will be mildly pro-business and pro-deal – more inclined than the CDU to be sensitive to the desire of German firms to carry on exporting to Britain with minimum inconvenience. The Greens will be markedly anti-business, hostile to Theresa May and her party, and antipathetic to any Brexit deal that compromises the European ideal
This difference shows how incoherent any such new government could be, though some claim that a Jamaika coalition is working well enough in Schleswig-Holstein. First forming one (assuming this happens) and then running it will consume Merkel’s time and energy. Furthermore, getting any coalition together at all, in the manner of German government-forming in such circumstances, will take time. The CSU, Merkel’s more conservative Bavarian partner, dislike the Greens so much that some suggest they will balk at such a coalition altogether. They will probably go along with it in the end, but their reluctance shows how arduous the talks will be. So the re-elected Chancellor will probably be too busy in the near future to think much about Britain – even assuming that she wants the Brexit negotiation to move swiftly on to trade talks next month. All in all, the election outcome does nothing to make this more likely.
The party that Merkel will not be going into coalition with is the AfD which, as is so often the way with protest parties in these times, did better than the polls suggested and is now Germany’s third force, winning Bundestag representation for the first time. Sometimes this global discontent comes from the Left (Syriza, Podemos, Corbyn), sometimes from the Right (Trump, Wilders, Le Pen). Emmanuel Macron beat the trend and burst through from the centre. Merkel declared last night that she wants former CDU voters who turned to the AfD back, but her unrepentant tone on immigration suggested that she will find doing so an uphill haul.
So watch for pressure on the Chancellor from the right within her own party. The name most often cited in this context is Jens Spahn, deputy finance minister in her last administration. “Germany may not be the right country for those who want to keep their wife in a burka or niqab, especially now that we have become such a sought-after destination for so many,” he told the Observer earlier this year. “We need to send some strong signals about what is acceptable and what isn’t.” Expect more where that came from. Merkel is back in office, but her authority may be dented, as much because of her longevity in office as because of the result itself.
The AfD itself has changed almost beyond recognition from the party of anti-Euro, pro-EU professors that founded it. Die Zeit did a recent analysis of its top candidates, dividing them into “moderate”, “economic liberal”, “national conservative” (broadly a UKIP-type position in this case) and “radical right” (which includes people who go on about the evils of race-mixing and the shame of the “Holocaust industry”). According to the paper, 11 are moderate or economically liberal (including Frauke Petry, its Chairman), 26 “national conservative”, nine radical right and 23 unknown. 17 are ex-CDU, five ex-SPD and eight ex-FDP. Were the CDU and the SPD in a position to re-form their grand coalition, the AfD would have been the official opposition, which would have suited it very well. Now the latter must reform after a poor result, particularly in East Germany, where the AfD came second.
The wider read-over for Britain is obvious, at a time when the Government is looking to keep free movement, though in a confined form, during any implementation period for a Brexit deal. For Jeremy Corbyn, it is: watch your heartlands. Its voters want less immigration and will turn to other parties if you neglect them. For Theresa May, it is: find a credible plan to get migration down after implementation ends. In the meantime, push for more entitlement restrictions during transition, and hold your course on them. Merkel is back for a fourth term – a great electoral achievement – but the vultures are gathering. Extremists in parliament is a watershed moment for Germany.