John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: Angela Merkel

IF THE UK GETS AN ACCEPTABLE EU DEAL, WILL IT STILL KEEP COMING BACK FOR MORE, EVERY TIME AN EU TREATY HAS TO BE REVISED IN FUTURE?


A “Daily Mail” poll,  last week, showed that, in a sudden change, 51% of UK voters now want to leave the EU, whereas 49% want to stay in.

This big change in opinion seems to be related to the refugee crisis, because the poll also shows voters strongly favour David Cameron’s unwillingness to accommodate large numbers of refugees as against Angela Merkel’s support for all EU countries accommodating a substantial quota.

This dramatic change in opinion shows how a referendum result on a particular day can turn on unexpected events, and how a permanent decision can be influenced by what may prove to be temporary phenomena

The UK already had a referendum on whether to stay in the EU in 1975.  Now it is to have another in 2017. But will this 2017 referendum settle the question?

Eurosceptics, like Nigel Farage, have welcomed the decision of David Cameron to change the wording of the question UK voters will be asked to decide on, from a “Yes” or “No” to UK membership, to one which asks whether UK voters want to “remain” in, or “leave”, the Union. 

This change was recommended to David Cameron by the Electoral Commission who felt the earlier formulation favoured those who wanted the UK to stay in the EU.

“Leave” implies action, “remain “could be construed as endorsing passivity.  “Yes” would have implied positivity, “No” negativity. Generally people prefer to be positive. So perhaps Nigel Farage is right to be happy.

The bigger risk here is not in the wording of the question. It is in the political reality  that, in a referendum, temporary considerations, like anger at some current government policy on an unrelated matter, may induce people to make a permanent decision that they would not make in normal circumstances.

That is why I prefer parliamentary democracy to referendum democracy. 

In a referendum, the issue has to be reduced to a single question decided on a single day. 
In the parliamentary system the decision is usually taken over many months, in a process which allows greater flexibility, and opportunities to change direction in light of what is learned. 

But a referendum is what we are going to have, so it behoves everyone in all the 28 EU countries to do what they can to ensure, if they want the UK to stay in the EU, that the negotiation is concluded in a way that presents the EU in the best possible light to the UK electorate.

The UK’s negotiating approach, and the frame of mind in which the UK people approach the negotiations, are important here too. If the UK gets a good deal, that is endorsed in a referendum, will UK citizens then fully commit to the EU, or will they retain an attitude of conditional and skeptical membership, waiting for the next opportunity to find fault?

In 2003, I was chairman of the committee of the Convention on the Future of Europe which dealt with Justice and Home Affairs.  Our task was to redraft the provisions of the EU Treaties dealing with cross border crimes. The UK had long been suspicious of continental courts having jurisdiction over UK citizens and wanted to limit EU activity in this field.

At each stage in the negotiation, the other parties to the negotiation went as far as they thought they could to accommodate UK concerns, only to find that once that was settled, the UK came back looking for more concessions on the same points.

The Convention’s “final” draft of the proposed EU Constitution, was not final. The UK looked for, and got, more concessions in the draft approved by the Heads of Government. 

Then, when the Constitution failed in referenda in France and the Netherlands, and was replaced by a slightly slimmed down “Treaty” in Lisbon, the UK looked for, and got, even more concessions on their concerns, including a complete opt out, with a right to opt in at will.

Will the other states go all the way to their bottom lines, in the negotiation of the “improved” terms of UK membership if they think the UK will adopt a similar tactic and keep coming back for more? They will ask themselves how an EU of 28 members would work, if every country that UK approach.

Suppose the final deal is one that satisfies UK voters by a narrow margin, will future UK governments then be likely to go on looking for further concessions afterwards, on the same issues, every time there have to be any further revisions of the EU Treaties? 

If the answer to these questions is yes, and there are many in the UK who will never be satisfied with what the EU offers, then the other 27 members may hold back from their maximum concession. 

David Cameron may then find he has raised expectations in the UK unduly, and may fail to convince UK voters to remain in the EU.

Or he may find that his electorate wants to “experiment” with leaving the EU, just as many US voters want to experiment with Donald Trump, or some UK voters seem to want to experiment with Jeremy Corbyn.

There also is the related risk that UK voters may see the referendum as an opportunity to “make a statement” about their sense of who they are, rather than make a final, fully considered, decision about the future of Europe. 

So we must prepare for the possibility of an EU without the UK.

ANGELA MERKEL

“Angela Merkel” by Alan Crawford and Tony Czuczka is not a conventional biography of the leading political figure in Europe. Rather it is an exploration of her approach to politics around different themes…..her approach to the United States, her response to the Greek crisis, to the nuclear question, and the future of the European Union.

Her style is different from her predecessors Helmut Kohl, and Gerhard Schroeder.
She would never have taken Schroeder’s strong stand against the Iraq War because of her emotional pro Americanism, something that flows from having dreamed of America while growing up in Communist East Germany.

She does not have Kohl’s emotional commitment to European political Union. Kohl, whose life was seared by the effects of family losses in the two World Wars, wants to merge Germany into a united Europe to prevent future wars. It is something about which he is deeply emotional. 

Merkel’s approach is more practical, and more in tune with the feelings of ordinary debt averse Germans. She will pay a price to keep Europe together, but not any price. She is not as committed to common European Institutions, like the sole right of legislative initiative of the European Commission, as Kohl was, and is more likely to make deal with a small number of other heads of government of bigger states, bypassing the Commission. This is risky for smaller EU nations. But small nations, by insisting on one Commissioner per member state , have contributed to a weakening of the Commission.

Her approach to all political questions is shaped by her training as a scientist. She looks for lots of evidence before making a decision. She avoids visionary statements, but works through the evidence until she finds a basis for a decision. The weakness of this approach is that, in the absence of a grand vision into which decisions can fit, German public opinion may not be adequately prepared for the decision when it is finally taken.
She makes no effort at all to paint a picture of the future of Europe that would inspire the continent’s 500 million people to make sacrifices to build a joint future. But if the German Chancellor does not paint such a picture, who else has the stature to do so? 

Her pragmatic, cautious, and scientific approach also presumes a degree of rationality and shared interest on the part of her antagonists. Although she is a fluent Russian speaker, she does not seem to have achieved any common ground with Putin. She may be having a similar experience with Alexis Tsipras of Greece.

This is good book but I finished it, feeling that I had acquired a good knowledge of Angela Merkel’s tactical approach to politics, but no greater understanding of her deeper motivations.  

THE GERMAN ELECTION OF 2013……..DID ANGELA MERKEL GET TOO MANY VOTES?

I am in Germany this week, in the immediate aftermath of the General Election, in which Chancellor Merkel’s CDU/CSU alliance emerged as the largest party in almost every state in Germany.

But, although her own party’s vote is up more than 7 percentage points, her favoured coalition partner, the FPD, is out of the Bundestag altogether, because it did not get the minimum of 5% of the vote in Germany as a whole. They missed the threshold by just 0.2%!
In the last election, in 2009, the FDP got 14.6% % and 90 seats, and Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU got only 33  %. This time, Angela Merkel wanted her party to be the one to make the big gains, and she succeeded…too well. Her vote jumped from 33% to 41%.
Under the German system of proportional representation, each voter casts two votes, one for the representatives in her/his own district and another for the national lists of one of the parties.

A practice had grown up of some CDU/CSU voters voting for their own party in their own district, but giving their second vote to the national list of the FDP, so they would get over the 5% threshold and be available as the preferred coalition partner for CDU/CSU. 
This time Angela Merkel made it clear she wanted every vote to come to her own party. As a result the  proportion of the CDU.CSU electorate” lending” their vote to the FDP fell from 5 % to 2%. 

As a result the FDP are out, and Mrs Merkel has to look for a coalition with less amenable partners, either the SPD, or the Greens. Her situation is not unlike an Irish politician who headed the poll, but failed to bring in his/her running mate. 
Coalition negotiations will be prolonged and difficult, and all that could have been avoided if just 1% more CDU voters had given their second vote to the FDP, and enabled them to survive!
Given that the SPD lost 11% of the vote in 2009, after their previous coalition with Mrs Merkel from 2005 to 2009, they will not be keen to repeat the experience. Prior to the 2009 election, the CDU/CSU were the biggest party only in four big states in  Southern Germany,-Bavaria, Baden Wurtemburg, Rhineland Pfalz, and Saxony, and the SPD got the most votes in every other German state.

Now, after the 2013 election, the SPD are the biggest party only in their strongholds in Hamburg and Bremen, and in pockets in the Ruhr, Dortmund and Kiel.

The SPD will also look at the more recent experience of the FDP, who went from 14.6% down to 4.8% as the outcome of their coalition with Mrs Merkel, and they will hope  to pass the responsibility over to the Greens. 

The SPD base never fully accepted the 2004 labour market reforms of the last SPD led government, which did so much to improve German competitiveness, and it was the subsequent Merkel led governments, not the SPD, got the credit for the resultant economic growth.

This is important because Germany has some more tough reforms to undertake, if it is improve the productivity of its domestic economy. The OECD has said that Germany’s domestic service economy has low productivity, entry to professions is too tight, and fees and prices are too high as a result. A major overhaul of energy policy is needed too, if Germany is to survive without nuclear power.
A CDU/CSU deal with the Greens would be another way to provide a majority. The social bases of the two parties are similar. Since Merkel agreed to abandon nuclear power, the policy divide is not as wide as it was.  Fewer CDU/CSU Ministers would have to lose their jobs to accommodate the Greens, than would have to step down in a coalition with the SPD. But some Greens would find a coalition with Mrs Merkel to be anathema, and she is cautious and may not want to try such a novel coalition either. 
If no deal with either the SPD or the Greens is reached, a second election is possible, which might favour Chancellor Merkel and allow the FDP to get above 5% and thus to restore the old coalition.

But the prolonged instability involved in a second election would be dangerous for the global economy and for Europe, and that is why it will not happen.

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