Late on Monday night, Germany was thrown into a constitutional crisis.
Christian Linder, the leader of the Free Democrat Party (FDP), brought an end to negotiations seeking to form a coalition government.
Without a hint of irony, he announced, “it’s better not to govern than to govern badly” – echoing Theresa May, who has been saying of the Brexit negotiations that “no deal is better than a bad deal”.
As a lesson in negotiating brinkmanship to get what you want, British politicians of all parties should be looking on and asking themselves, “is it time for us to be walking away?”
While all eyes will this week be on Philip Hammond’s Budget, I wager that within a week the gaze of politicians will be firmly back on the Brexit negotiations, and particularly on how Germany’s domestic difficulty affects the dynamics.
Following the breakdown in talks, there is now a very real prospect of a fresh election in Germany, as all the parties except Angela Merkel’s CDU/CSU grouping smell an opportunity to make gains at her expense. If they hold out and refuse to form a coalition government then an election it must be.
Meanwhile, Merkel will remain Chancellor, but German power will be weakened, if only temporarily.
Does this moment of confusion for the EU’s most influential member and largest economy present an opportunity for the UK in the Brexit negotiations? Yes and no.
Yes, because Britain can make the valid point that there are far too many problems facing the EU already: the dark clouds of a looming Italian banking crisis that would spread contagion to France and beyond; the weakness of Eurozone economic growth without the continued supply of QE; the continuing impact of massive immigration, its resulting multicultural change, and the public response of rising tension and support for populist movements.
Would it not make sense for the EU to strike a quick deal with the UK so that economic recovery might continue and minds can be focused on the genuine existential threats? That is the point the UK should be pressing behind the scenes officially, while other proxies might make the point more publicly (and colourfully).
But no, because common sense, self-awareness, and the ability to move quickly have never been the EU’s strengths.
So don’t expect anything to come from trying to pressurise the EU Commission – especially when it will be difficult for Jean-Claude Junker, Michel Barnier and the rest to get an answer out of a Germany that will be otherwise occupied.
In addition, Germany’s weakness will probably result in the French President and arch-integrationist Emmanuel Macron taking more of a leading role. That is not to Britain’s advantage in agreeing the best deal possible.
Furthermore, a new election is not guaranteed to end Germany’s governance crisis and might even exacerbate it. If the anti-immigration Alternative Fur Deutschland wins more seats, as seems likely, the result may in the end be a grand coalition between Merkel’s CDU/CSU and Social Democratic Party, led by former EU parliament president Martin Schulz, also making a deal far more difficult.
Money talks, and I remain relaxed about the UK meeting its financially and legal obligations up until we leave or during a time-limited period of transition.
We can also signal a willingness to go further and identify what new shared investments for education, science and space might be to our benefit – none of which require EU membership.
The MP Owen Paterson is right, however, when he says that we should not send a single penny until the trade deal is finalised, and if it is blocked by the EU parliament, then the EU can go whistle for what is not legally due.
Likewise, foreign bullying has never gone down well among the British people, and if the EU thinks it can withhold our previously negotiated membership rebate, we should reduce our annual payment to the net sum.
So long as we keep to the spirit of the law, the British people will give their support.
Much as it must be tempting after being ridiculed for failing to win an outright majority in the UK’s own General Election, Conservative politicians must ignore any feelings of schadenfreude towards the plight of Chancellor Merkel, the so-called best leader of the free world.
They should instead stay calm, and tell the EU that, with the carrot of UK money for itemised bills agreed, now is the time to start trade negotiations in earnest.
If the EU Commission believes the German predicament is a reason to delay decisions, the UK must take the brave pills and walk away.