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25 September 2017

What Angela Merkel’s election victory means for Brexit talks

The German chancellor will be wrangling over coalition formation for a while.

By Stephen Bush

I’m in Brighton for Labour conference but the big story today is in Germany, where Angela Merkel has won a fourth term in office. Scores on the door:

CDU/CSU: (246 seats) 34.7 per cent

SPD: (153 seats) 21.6 per cent

AfD: (94 seats) 13.3 per cent

FDP: (80 seats) 11.3 per cent

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Die Linke: (69 seats) 9.7 per cent

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Greens: (67 seats) 9.4 per cent

In many ways, a quintessential European election: the traditional party of the centre-left way off the pace (it’s the worst result for the SPD in modern times), their vote torn between a leftier alternative (Die Linke) and the nativist right (AfD), with a centrist liberal (FDP) and an ecology party (you guessed it: Greens) making up their numbers. And in first place, enjoying a position that is two parts hegemonic and two parts weakness, the centre-right CDU/CSU, the only party able to form a government.

But Merkel’s choices to reach the 355 seats she needs for a majority are sharply limited. The SPD have already announced that they will not be continuing the grand coalition with their traditional Christian Democrat opponents. The AfD, rather like Ukip, are popular among their own voters but deeply unpopular among most Germans – so their participation in government is politically impossible for a raft of reasons.

That leaves Merkel with just one option: a coalition with the Greens and the FDP, a so-called “Jamaica coalition”, named for the colours of the parties involved: black for the CDU/CSU, yellow for the FDP, and green for the (a twist ending this) Greens.

Whether this is the start of a new and angrier chapter in German politics remains to be seen. Looked at one way, the success of the AfD is the same old story of the Merkel era: grand coalitions dampen down the differences between the big two, leading to increased scores for all the little parties, which leads to a period in which Merkel governs without the SPD, which boosts both her party and the centre-left, so they end up in grand coalition, and the cycle continues.

Looked at another, Germany’s awareness of its own history coupled with economic dislocation in the east mean the country is no longer inoculated from the tides sweeping Europe and elsewhere. It’s too early to tell, to coin a phrase.

What does it all mean for Brexit? Well, Britain’s referendum played about as big a role in the German election as Emmanuel Macron’s labour market reforms did in ours, but one immediate consequence is that Merkel will be involved in wrangling over coalition formation for a wee while. The great hope of Brexiteers that she will come riding to the rescue has receded even further.

It’s perfectly possible that the centre-right politicians who were among David Cameron’s biggest allies, Mark Rutte in the Netherlands and Angela Merkel, will spend most of the Article 50 process locked in coalition talks. All of which was hugely predictable when Theresa May opted to pull the trigger when she did. And the consequence of that may be a significantly larger populist shock than 13 per cent.