German MPs ditch Brexit for climate action amid budget debate

Angela Merkel calls for a ‘show of strength’ from EU on environment and digitalisation

German chancellor Angela Merkel listens after delivering a keynote speech during a debate on the federal budget at the Bundestag,  in Berlin. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

German chancellor Angela Merkel listens after delivering a keynote speech during a debate on the federal budget at the Bundestag, in Berlin. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

 

While Brexit Britain bickers on, German MPs used Wednesday’s budget debate in the Bundestag to discuss what they view as more pressing business: securing the place of Germany and the EU as green, global players.

Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted an orderly UK departure from the EU was still possible, but that, hard or soft, Brexit was a real risk that the bloc should transform into an opportunity.

“We are standing weakened through the departure of Great Britain, one has to say that,” she told the Bundestag.

A reference to the UK’s departure “in a few months” – as opposed to in a few weeks on October 31st, as scheduled – prompted some in the press gallery to wonder if the German leader had misspoken, or if she knew more than she is letting on. But she moved on after just seven sentences on Brexit to urge the EU to recognise, and embrace, the geopolitical shifts of which Brexit is a part.

Dr Merkel vowed to strengthen the transatlantic relationship and push a trade policy which “supports free trade” – without saying whether, these days, she thinks they are mutually exclusive.

The German chancellor viewed the new EU term, and the incoming commission under her party ally Ursula von der Leyen, as a chance for the remaining 27 EU member states to reorder their political priorities.

Top of the agenda for the German leader is the need for a “show of strength” on climate change and digitalisation, she said. Failing here would risk Europe’s future and see it squeezed between the US and China.

“If we drive on climate protection it will cost money, this money is well spent . . . ignoring it will cost us more money,” she said, a week before a key meeting in Berlin expected to agree new legislation, including pricing carbon dioxide emissions.

Her pragmatic remarks, on Brexit and beyond, set the tone of the budget debate. As German MPs in the chamber followed the latest twist in British politics, from Scottish judges, on their smartphones, foreign minister Heiko Maas said it was more important to “be prepared for Brexit”.

“We don’t like it but Brexit will come,” he said. Germany was too small to take on the world alone, he said, and “needs more Europe”.

Political pivot

As the Bundestag’s four-day budget debate dragged on, most striking was the pivot in political attention: away from Brexit and towards the climate.

The centre-left Social Democrats (SPD) have earmarked climate policy as a social justice issue in their ongoing search for a new leader – and in a bid to close an eight-point poll gap to the Greens.

Christian Lindner, head of the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), agreed the “world is shifting”, ignored Brexit and suggested that on the international stage, Merkel-era Germany “is boxing below its weight”.

Both the FDP and the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) suggested Berlin, facing into an economic slowdown, was overcompensating in embracing climate politics.

AfD co-leader Alice Weidel got the biggest – unintentional – laugh of the day by suggesting Berlin had “driven Britain from the EU but contributes nothing to a sensible Brexit solution”.