Even if Germany had Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system, Angela Merkel would be struggling this morning to form a government. With 33 per cent of the vote, her Christian Democrat and Christian Social alliance has suffered its weakest showing in 68 years – tempered only by the equal failure of the socialists. It might have been a moment for Emmanuel Macron to seize the crown of de facto leader of Europe were it not that he, too, suffered a lower-profile though no less significant electoral reversal over the weekend – in Senate elections the La Republique En Marche party won only 23 of the 171 seats up for grabs. With his popularity ratings plummeting and his labour market reforms hardly begun, the Macron bubble has well and truly been burst.
What a difference from the summer, when Theresa May was fresh from her general election embarrassment and the EU’s other main national leaders were experiencing a new-found burst of confidence. Now Britain, Germany and France all have weakened leaders. It would be reassuring to think that some sort of balance has been restored – that Theresa May can once again hold her own on the European stage without anyone muttering about her domestic insecurity.
There is an alternative interpretation, however: that the real winner from the weekend’s events is the European leader who doesn’t have to worry about such irritating things as elections: Jean-Claude Juncker. A week ago, with Theresa May’s Florence speech coming up, there was a sense that the battle over Brexit might end up being conducted over his head and the head of his chief negotiator, Michael Barnier. May was expected by many to appeal for the deadlock to be lifted, for the future relations between Britain and the EU to be hammered out by national leaders, motivated by the interests of the export industries, not by obstinate officials in back rooms in Brussels who cared only about imposing some kind of defeat on Britain.
That hope appears to be over for now. First, May failed to take the initiative – instead partially capitulating to Barnier’s demand for an exit fee and kicking the whole business of Brexit into the long grass by favouring a transition period of two years, possibly longer. Now, Merkel and Macron look like being bogged down in domestic affairs for the time being. The initiative on Brexit is being sucked back in to the meeting rooms of Brussels, where so little progress seems to be made.