Angela Merkel’s successor will be no help to Brexit Britain
Whether or not Merkel’s successor is the pro-business Merz or the progressive known as AKK, it looks like Germany will turn towards France – and away from Britain – in future
There has been a flurry of excitement following Angela Merkel’s plans to stand down as the Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) party leader, with suggestions that Berlin will become less European and more German. But there is zero evidence for this.
The CDU’s two main candidates for her succession are Friedrich Merz, 62, and Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, known as AKK, 56. Merz is a former MEP who served on the European parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee (1989-1994), where he was a strong supporter of introducing the euro. He is unusual in switching from the European parliament to the Bundestag, but he did the heavy lifting on economic and fiscal policy in opposition to the 7-year reign of Gerhard Schröder (1998-2005).
The shrewdest London-based observer of Brussels is Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform, who said: “If I had a vote I would got for Merz. I met him long ago and was impressed. He knows a lot about Europe and could help Macron with EU/euro reform.”
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Merz and Merkel, however, are chalk and cheese. Merkel never bothered to hide her centrist, cautious semi-social-democratic views on running Germany, whereas Merz is a staunchly pro-business corporate lawyer who sits on the supervisory boards of blue-chip German companies. He left the Bundestag in 2009 and has made a fortune in business, although it should be noted that this may stand against him, as German CDU members are ultra-sensitive about their politicians not being in cahoots with big money.
Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), on the other hand, is Merkel’s protégée and according to the German press, the outgoing CDU leader’s choice to take over as party leader at the CDU leadership congress in December. She headed a coalition with the Greens in Saarland. The Greens are now ahead of the social democrats as the principle vector of progressive politics in Germany and could be a coalition partner if AKK becomes chancellor.
AKK also speaks good French, served as commissioner of the Federal Republic of Germany for cultural affairs under the Treaty on Franco-German Cooperation and continues to be a member of the German–French Friendship Society.
Like Merz, AKK is a convinced European. It is not properly understood in London the extent to which the security and integrity of the EU is central to Germany’s future. The EU for Germans is a Rechtsgemeinde – a “community of laws”, based on laws which all have helped to shape and which thereafter must be obeyed.
The endless British hopes that EU laws and treaties could be bent to suit domestic British political interests and passions is incomprehensible to Germans like Merkel, Merz and AKK. Germany has eight borders with EU member states, nine if Switzerland – which accepts many EU regulations including freedom of movement – is included.
It is of the highest strategic interest for Germany that those eight states abide by EU laws and are open to German investments and trade. 500,000 non-Germans cross these frontiers every day to work in Germany.
By contrast, the obsession of British politicians – Labour as much as the Conservatives – with workers in the UK from other EU member states makes no sense in Germany, where more than 6 million other EU citizens live and work, including an estimated 2 million Poles.
In Berlin, Brexit was seen as the beginning of a chain reaction of dangerous nationalist populism. It was followed by a myriad of similar examples: Trump’s US election win; Marine Le Pen’s rise as main rival to President Macron; the arrival of Matteo Salvini as the populist strongman in Italy; the far-right Freedom Party with its Nazi past entering into the governing coalition in Austria and the confirmation in elections of Viktor Orban in Hungary, and Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s PiS party in Poland, of the concept of “illiberal democracy”, tinged with the kind of xenophobia and antisemitism that was anathema in Germany for obvious historical reasons.
Today, Germany is confronted with a nationalist, illiberal and often xenophobic party, Alternative für Deutschland, with a clear presence in the Bundestag and all 16 regional land parliaments. The CDU will want a leader to take it on.
Regardless of who that is, the obvious partner for either Merz or AKK is Emmanuel Macron, who is itching to get going on eurozone reform. Paris would work well with either the pro-EU Merz or the Francophone and Francophile AKK.
As the UK inches to some kind of agreement on the terms of withdrawing from Europe next March, followed by a Brexeternity going into the 2020s of tetchy negotiations, House of Commons rows, and endless business uncertainty over the future relationship between the UK and EU, it’s clear that the chances of London getting a different, more favourable reception from the next leader of Germany’s ruling centre-right party are not high.
Denis MacShane is the UK’s former minister for Europe. He writes on European policy and politics
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