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November 21, 2016

Merkel IV

She said to herself "you can't get off the field at a time like this", but it was apparently a closer decision than many people had thought. Angela Merkel was minded not to run for a fourth term, citing potential health reasons and the very difficult election campaign ahead. The decision to run was met with relief by the CDU, which would have struggled to agree on another candidate so late in the game. The CSU's chief Horst Seehofer supported Merkel's decision, while his nemesis - Bavaria's finance minister Markus Soder - said the decision would be met with respect, but not enthusiasm.

The comments by the most senior German political commentators ranged from resigned to outright sceptical. We should note that these are mostly commentators supporting of the centre-right.  

Berthold Kohler notes in Frankfurter Allgemeine that Merkel is the best chance for the CDU/CSU to stick to power. If Merkel really had wanted to say No, she would have done this much earlier. But there can also be no doubt that Merkel's power has already passed its zenith, both within Germany and abroad. The elections and the period afterwards are going to be difficult. Merkel favours a coalition with the Greens, but that would be hard to do with the CSU. And even the most likely option, a continuation of the grand coalition (not so grand after the election) would be difficult as the SPD will not tolerate Merkel forever. It would be no surprise if she left half-way through the next term, and handed over to another CDU politician.

In a separate article the paper tried to analyse Merkel's tactics. The reason she announced her decision so late was coldly calculated. Because she refused to announce her decision early, she forced her critics to come up with another candidate, which they could not do.

Heribert Prantl writes in Süddeutsche Zeitung that there used to be a time when people underestimated Merkel. But now the political danger is to overestimate her.

Nikolaus Blome, who has been a Merkel fan, writes in Bild that the political environment will become more hostile for her. She could be squeezed between a possible coalition of SPD, Greens and the Left Party coalition on the one side, and the AfD on the other. We are no longer in the political game where the only question is how big her lead would be. The public still rejects her refugee policies. To succeed, Merkel will have to reinvent herself in the upcoming election campaign. That's going to be hard to do after three terms in office.

While everybody has been focused on Merkel, we think the most important shift to take place in Germany is in the Bundestag. The Bundestag is a very powerful parliament, whose role has been strengthened. It was less powerful under Merkel because her two grand coalitions had overwhelming majorities, and the euro rescue policies of her 2009-2013 coalition with the FDP were supported by the opposition. The policy consensus is now over. We agree that a continuation of the Grand Coalition is the arithmetically most likely outcome, but the majority in seats would be much reduced - from 80% now to just over 50%. Both the AfD and the FDP can be counted on to oppose any further eurozone rescues. Her own party is divided. The coalition may have enough votes to vote for Merkel as chancellor, but not enough to support her policies.

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November 21, 2016

Erdogan increasingly alienated from the West

Tensions between the West and Turkey under Recep Tayyip Erdogan continue to rise. At the end of last week Jens Stoltenberg - who was to visit Turkey yesterday - admitted that a number of Turkish officials posted with NATO had applied for asylum in the countries were they are based. It had earlier been reported that about 60 people with Turkish diplomatic passports, including family members of Turkish officials, had remained in Germany after their assignments ended or were terminated since the attempted coup in mid-July, with some of them filing asylum applications on concerns for their personal safety. Erdogan has warned NATO against giving asylum to "terrorist soldiers". This development put Germany in the same difficult position Greece is already in with the eight Turkish soldiers who defected in a military helicopter on the night of the coup and applied for asylum in Greece. The dilemma is that just processing the asylum applications - let alone granting asylum if it comes to that - antagonises Turkey and jeopardises its refugee deal with the EU. Turkey's relation with the EU is only likely to deteriorate further this coming week when the European parliament debates and votes a non-binding resolution asking the European Commission to suspend Turkey's accession negotiations. Federica Mogherini will take part in the debate on Tuesday on "whether EU accession talks with Turkey should be frozen or made subject to further conditions" according to the Parliament's agenda.

Erdogan is not only upset at the EU and NATO, but in an interview with CBS' 60 minutes he says he's become "disillusioned" with the US after the Obama administration failed to support Turkey's extradition request of Fetullah Gülen, the cleric that Erdogan claims instigated the coup attempt. Erdogan is signalling his displeasure by suggesting that Turkey might respond to a suspension of EU accession talks by joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, which ties Russia, China, and the central Asian republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Turkey is a "dialogue partner" of the SCO, a status more detached than that of observer but still allowing the country to attend ministerial meetings. Given the security component of the SCO, it is dubious whether Turkey can join it and remain part of NATO, which makes such statements by Erdogan more than just a shot across the bow of the west.

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November 21, 2016

EU may force a hard Brexit

The Observer has a story that the EU has now agreed to force a binary choice on Britain - either stay in, or hard Brexit - very much like Donald Tusk said at the last European Council. We think this alternative is unsurprising, given the UK's insistence on immigration controls. But the political reason is the changing perception of the French election. It is our view that the EU will not shift positions ahead of the French elections, and possibly the German ones, so it would not such a big deal if the Artice 50 trigger were to be delayed by a few months. Not much will happen between March and September in any case, certainly not at the political level. The article also quoted Norbert Röttgen, who recently co-authored a proposal for an association agreement between the UK and the EU continent, as part of which the UK could impose immigration controls. He is now quoted as saying:

“if [the British position is] no, no, no, then even I would have to say that there is no common ground.”

The FT has the additional information that even Denmark has changed its mind to favour a hard Brexit. While the political inclination was originally to go soft on the UK, commercial interests point in the opposite direction. The paper quotes a Danish diplomat as saying that it had not yet dawned on UK politicians that there will be no single market option on offer. It is not in the EU's advantage to be helpful and friendly.

One UK politicians who understands the continental position well is Lord Lawson, a former chancellor under Margaret Thatcher. He told the BBC that the EU will not give the UK a good deal, and it's best to recognise this right away. Don't waste time trying to negotiate the unnegotiable, he said.

While many people in the UK do not realise that the terms of Brexit will ultimately be hard - eased only through an interim agreement - many continentals misjudge the politics of the UK. We thought George Eaton was spot-on with his observation that the UK parliament would support Brexit - any version. To mount a rebellion would take an organisational talent the former Remain supporters lack. This is how it will pan out:

"There is no prospect of Article 50 being blocked if parliament does secure a vote. Most of the Tory rebels (save for Ken Clarke) and Labour intend to vote for withdrawal. Once this process begins, and the government announces its high-level principles (expected before the year's end), the Leavers believe the Remainers will struggle to obstruct Theresa May. Tory MPs expect her to pursue withdrawal from both the single market and the customs union."

We agree. There is no credible political alternative. That judgement is underlined by the following story in The Times that Tony Blair is now trying to become the leader of the campaign to frustrate Brexit. He wants to mobilise public support for a second referendum and is now reorganising his various interests to focus entirely on this issue as his one last big battle.

Christopher Booker has a comment in the Daily Telegraph, saying that the whole country has underestimated the complexities of Brexit. The Remainers never bothered about it because they relied so much on Project Fear that they thought a plan B was not needed. And the leavers are simply naive. Five months later, nobody has a clue yet. The government may have to hire as many as 30,000 civil servants to get this done.

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November 21, 2016

The day after

Wolfgang Münchau no longer sees any chance that Italy can sustain its membership of the euro indefinitely in the absence of a major policy shift by Germany, for which he thinks it is too late in any case. The referendum on constitutional reform does not matter in itself, but if Renzi were to lose it by a large margin there is a very clear threat that a combination of market pressure and a populist revolt could force Italy's eurozone exit. But, even if Renzi were to win the referendum, that would not change the ultimate outcome. The country would be at risk once the ECB normalises monetary policy, which will happen not right away, but eventually. Given that all three opposition parties - and some people on the left of the PD - question Italy's eurozone membership, the point will eventually arrive when these political majorities will assert themselves. The tipping point for Italy was when the country fail to escape from its recession with decent enough growth rates - we are looking at economic growth well below 1% for both this year and next, with currently negative inflation. The combination of high debt, low growth, weak banks, and the certain end of central bank support for the sovereign debt market, have sealed Italy's fate. Münchau does not see a break-up of the euro itself. That would happen if France were to leave. His scenario is one where the eurozone survives with a smaller number of member states.

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