by Callum Anderson
After three months of intense negotiations, Germany finally has a new government. Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU centre-right party will enter a so-called ‘Grand Coalition’ with the centre-left social democrats, the SPD, after its members ratified the agreement in a vote a week ago.
The arrangement, however, could represent the proverbial ‘spanner in the works’ for David Cameron’s plans to repatriate powers from the European Union to individual member states. Although Mr Cameron does have a natural ally for EU reform in Chancellor Merkel, her coalition partners, the SPD, are likely to prove a substantial stumbling block for any attempt by Ms Merkel to collaborate with the prime minister.
For a start, the Euroscepticism of David Cameron’s Conservative Party is completely at odds with the staunchly pro-EU stance of the SPD. A German government, with SPD involvement, will almost certainly take a dim view of any potential “Europe a la carte” arrangement that the prime minister seeks, especially in regard to social regulations such as the working time directive. Indeed, it is highly likely that it will actively try to block attempts to return EU powers to national governments.
Difficulty also represents itself in the form of the new foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who also served in the same capacity in the last ‘Grand Coalition’, between 2005 and 2009. Steinmeier not only frequently scuppered Merkel’s foreign policy plans during that time, but is also considered one of the Social Democrats’ closest links to the French Socialist party. Indeed, Steinmeier is reported to have said in December 2011 that he expected the UK to leave the EU, remarking that, “I fear the decisive step for Great Britain’s exit has already been made. If the regular meetings take the form of a Europe of 26 without Britain, then a process of alienation will become inevitable and irreversible.” It is therefore likely that he will not idly sit by and let Angela Merkel freely negotiate with David Cameron.
The possible ramifications of SPD hostility are obvious. By blocking Angela Merkel’s attempts to work with the UK on a new relationship between the EU and its member states, the SPD will deprive David Cameron of a possible key ally in claiming powers back from Brussels. If Germany is unable or unwilling to work with the UK prime minister, other Northern European states such as the Netherlands and Sweden are also likely to become sceptical. Similarly, any significant strengthening of Franco-German relations could further weaken London’s hand.
With the European elections just a few months away, a failure to gain any concessions from fellow EU member states will not only allow UKIP to put David Cameron and the Conservative party under pressure in the run up to the general election in 2015, but also on the pro-EU wing in UK politics, as the path towards an in-out EU referendum in 2017 will come into clearer view.
There is ultimately scope for Cameron to do business with Merkel. The CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the CSU, are highly sympathetic to Cameron’s reform agenda (especially in regards to issues such as immigration), and will dominate the next German government. They will also, in addition to the Chancellery, keep control over the Finance Ministry – the two bodies which will have the largest influence over German decision making over the next four years.
However, it is unrealistic to assume that the SPD will accept this without a fight. Indeed, for many SPD politicians (and members), the main lessons of the 2005-2009 ‘Grand Coalition’ are, first, not to let the CDU railroad them into policy positions that they feel uncomfortable with, and second, that their [the SPD’s] hard work should not result in the CDU taking all the credit.
The result? The SPD will reduce the negotiating room for Ms Merkel, and as such will reduce the scope for a UK-friendly policy. So Dave – you’ve been warned.
Callum Anderson is a recent Economics and German graduate from the University of Birmingham