When you have eliminated the impossible…

A quick thought on the news that the UK “offer” has been agreed by Cabinet (see Robert Peston).

One thing that has been underdiscussed in all the arguing about the Irish border issue is that the core principle of the Good Friday agreement is cross-community consent. The agreement foresees that there can be no change in the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of both communities, and the agreement itself was subject to an act of public consent in the form of a referendum. This is crucial to the whole project. Cross-community consent offers a guarantee to the Unionists that they cannot be sold out by the British, but it is more than just a Unionist veto. To say that there can be no change without cross-community consent is also to say that there can be change, if such consent were given. In taking imposed change off the table, it puts the possibility of change through consent on it.

This is sauce for the goose and for the gander. Stephen Bush on the New Statesman has repeatedly pointed out that there are precisely three options:

a) a land border
b) a sea border
c) no border

The problem with both a) and b) is that they both represent a change in the status of Northern Ireland. I suppose a real sophist might try to claim it wasn’t substantive change, but I can’t see it washing with anyone. If you are committed to the GFA, like all British and Irish political parties, you can’t really support either unless you think you can convince the Unionists to accept b) or the Nationalists to accept a). Neither is realistic. It is not just that the DUP would hate b) or Sinn Fein a) – neither option is acceptable in terms of the GFA because both involve a change in the status of NI imposed on one community or the other.

With a) and b) ruled out that leaves only c), no border. Even the much mocked DEXEU paper on drones, balloons, and such is a sort of twisted acceptance of this point. The point of a “frictionless” or “invisible” border is that it is very like no border. This leads us to a further trilemma. The DUP, and indeed the British government, has acquired three commitments:

1) the Union
2) the GFA
3) Brexit, defined to exclude the customs union

The first is existential. The second is extremely important. DUP ministers, members, and voters benefit from peace and the open border. The third was entered into verbally when Theresa May chose to up the rhetoric at the 2016 Conservative conference, and is not binding in any way. If the first cannot be given up, the second would be extremely costly to give up, and the third merely embarrassing, what do you think will give? How does your answer change now the government has agreed to pay up?

This is why I have not been particularly worried about the Irish element of Brexit, and why I think we’re staying in something.

Article 63: It’s the New Article 50

So what’s going to happen next in Germany? It’s worth taking a look at the mechanics of how Germany elects a Chancellor. These are set out quite specifically in Article 63 of the Grundgesetz. The text is here and an official explanatory note by the parliamentary administration is here. Article 63 foresees a step-by-step process:

1) The Federal President, currently Frank-Walter Steinmeier, proposes a candidate. This candidate can be any German citizen who possesses the right to vote and to stand for election, and doesn’t have to be a member of the Bundestag. The choice is left entirely to the President, who is not required to take heed of any recommendation from the parties or anyone else. The Bundestag note says that such a candidate should be capable of a majority in parliament, but the letter of the law doesn’t prescribe any test for this. The law leaves open how long the President can take to make a decision. During this period of time, the President can require the current Chancellor to stay in office, and in practice always does. While this is the case, the Bundestag can’t vote no-confidence in them.

2) Once the choice is made, the Bundestag divides on a straight up-or-down vote. There is no debate and no other candidate at this point, it’s purely yes or no on a secret ballot. If the candidate gets an absolute majority, the President is legally bound to appoint him or her as Chancellor without further delay. Every Chancellor so far has been elected at this step.

3) If the absolute majority is not forthcoming, the Bundestag now gets 14 consecutive days from the time of the vote to elect a Chancellor, again by absolute majority. If a candidate is elected, the President must appoint them within seven days. The law leaves this phase entirely up to the Bundestag and therefore to its President, a certain Wolfgang Schäuble.

4) If there is still no solution after 14 days, a further round of voting takes place immediately. If a candidate does, in fact, get a majority at this point the usual rules apply and the President must appoint them with seven days. Failing that, though, the President has the right to either appoint the candidate with the most votes, or call a general election, which must occur within 60 days. If there is a tie, voting continues. If the President wants new elections, they must be called within the seven days or else that option is lost.

Some comments about this. First, the President’s role is quite powerful. Rather than ratifying the majority leader’s claim, the President at least theoretically makes an active choice and can in fact choose someone completely different.

Second, it’s going to be difficult to go through this process without Angela Merkel being chosen. The law leaves the President free to choose, but as the Parliamentary note points out, the President is given plenty of time precisely in order to choose someone who commands a majority. It is hard to think of anyone with a better claim. And the first Bundestag vote does not provide for an alternative candidate. It would be very difficult to keep half the Bundestag from electing her given the chance, or bringing her back in the second phase if Steinmeier was to astonish everyone by picking someone else.

Third, it’s going to be very difficult to get to new elections without cross-party agreement that they are necessary. The process defined in Article 63 sets up steadily rising pressure on the parties to agree on a chancellor. For almost any party, it would be better to come to an agreement under 3) rather than have someone imposed under 4). It would likely be necessary for one or more parties to deliberately throw several votes in order to get to new elections.

Fourth, the Bundestag is free to organise Step 3 as it wishes, so it’s probably worth having a look at that.

In the 2013-2017 Bundestag, the parliament’s own rules of procedure required a candidate to get either the signatures of 25% of its members, or else the support of a parliamentary party including 25% of the members. The absolute minimum of support required to appear on the ballot was therefore 12.5% plus one vote – a majority of a party big enough to account for 25% of the members. This rule, Section 4 of the Rules, is still in force. Now, the only parliamentary party big enough by itself to put forward a candidate is the joint CDU-CSU, with 246 out of 709 seats, 34.7%. Section 4 therefore provides that the magic number required to put forward a candidate is 17.35% or 124 exclusively CDU-CSU votes – if we get to Step 3 at all. For a cross-party candidate, it’s 177.

The FDP has left the centre

This chart from the Berliner Morgenpost‘s election night data feature tells you everything you need to know about how the German coalition talks broke down. It shows the ideological positioning of every new MdB from the 2017 election.

The data is taken from Abgeordnetenwatch‘s candidate checker, which administered a standard questionnaire to all the candidates. I think the analysis they ran is the same one Chris Lightfoot’s empirical political compass survey used – ask them all a list of questions and then apply principal-components analysis in order to discover which combinations of questions and answers explain most of the variation between them. Rather than define the political positions and score people against them, this technique allows the positions to emerge from implicit relationships among the responses.

In the event, one axis shows a well-defined left-to-right political spectrum, spookily matching the Bundestag’s own hemicycle. The Left Party lines up on the far left, the Greens come next, and then the Social Democrats. Beyond the centre, the CDU and CSU line up in a similar way. All very orderly, like the main sequence of stars in the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram.

But then there’s the other axis. This gives us a cloud of anomalous outliers. You could try to make sense of this as a liberal-authoritarian axis, but the civil-libertarian Greens are on the same level as the CSU, so that won’t wash. It might be more useful to think of it as running between pro-Europeans or globalists and Eurosceptics or even, thinking of the AfD, provincial particularists. This might be right – some of the Left Party and CSU people on the fringes score higher on it, and both groups are critical of the EU.

Whatever it is, the property it measures is something that the AfD has in spades and that the rest of the political system doesn’t. The most left- and right-wing members of the political main sequence also have it to some extent. Fascinatingly, the new FDP MdBs are often very high scorers on it. In fact, the FDP overlaps startingly with the AfD, and it seems to have largely vacated the centre. Centrist Dad has left the building.

One possibility is that this axis might be measuring discontent with the Federal Republic in general, or a stereotypically populist attitude. Now, it’s been suggested on and off going back to the early 2000s that the FDP might drift into populism. Its early postwar history, in fact, saw it skate very close to a role like the FPO’s in Austria, basically a retirement home for old Nazis, before it installed itself in the main sequence of Federal Republic politics. And its role in government has often been…rather like a populist protest movement, but for rich people.

In some ways, what differentiates the CDU from the FDP is that the first is dominated by the business lobby, and the second by the wealth lobby. Conservative parties usually try to fuse both roles, fighting for the market economy and also for plutocracy at one and the same time. Perhaps this is why the CDU is one of the least objectionable forms of conservatism? One way in which this might be working out in practice is economic libertarianism. The first version of the AfD was very much about hard-money libertarian economics, before it swung further towards nationalism and populism. And after all, the alliance of libertarianism and nationalism is stinking up a comments thread near you right now. Jasper von Altenbockum says something similar in the FAZ here, pointing out that the FDP has been emphasising both its economic libertarian and its “national-liberal” side in pursuit of AfD votes.

This makes a lot of sense. Neither the CDU nor the Greens have any use for the politics of the Internet troll. And Rich People Populists; it’s a thing. You down with RPP? Yeah, you know me…