May won’t get Merkel’s help in breaking deadlock

by Quentin Peel | 16.10.2017

Theresa May seems desperate to break the deadlock in the Brexit talks. Hence, her dash to Brussels this evening for dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, and her phone call to Germany’s Angela Merkel yesterday. But our prime minister appears destined to repeat the two fundamental miscalculations she has been making since the start of the talks.

The first assumption she made was that Germany would prove her most helpful EU partner in negotiating an acceptable future relationship between the UK and Europe. Many Brexiters thought it would fall over itself to do a deal because it was desperate to sell us BMWs and the like. In the event, the opposite is now proving to be true: Berlin is taking a very tough line, insisting on a budget deal before talking about any transition or the ultimate trade relationship.

May’s second false assumption was that the UK could successfully pursue its traditional tactics of seeking to divide and rule the 27 other member states. Instead, the EU27 have so far maintained a remarkably unified stance – with a lot of vigorous encouragement from Germany.

Brexit puts the Commission in a much more powerful position than it has been in for years, officials say. It’s the law of unintended consequences. As far as the UK is concerned, that makes the negotiations more difficult. “We are fully behind the line of Michel Barnier,” comes the word from Angela Merkel’s side. “It is checked with Berlin line by line.”

So last week, before an ambassadors’ meeting in Brussels, phone calls from Berlin to several smaller EU members – Slovakia, Lithuania, Cyprus and Malta, to name but a few – specifically asked them to speak out for the strict sequencing of the negotiations: that there should be no talk of the endgame, as London wants, before agreeing the exit details, and especially the financial settlement.

Officials in Whitehall insist that May made an offer in her speech in Florence last month: that the UK would keep paying net contributions through its proposed “transition period”. She mentioned no figure, but the rough calculation is about €20bn. Berlin is dismissive: “The problem is there is nothing on the table in Brussels. The British think they have made an offer, and we think they have not. We have not even begun to talk about the financial implications of withdrawal.” That matters for Germany, as the largest net contributor to the EU budget.

But it’s not just the money. There has been precious little progress on the other “exit” issues: the rights of EU citizens post-Brexit, and how to avoid a “hard” border across Ireland. The Brits have sought to cover the weakness of their negotiating position, and the deep divisions between Remainers and Brexiters in the Cabinet, by not negotiating at all. Barnier says, with palpable frustration, it is “like negotiating with myself”.

In the endgame negotiations, the EU27 will find it much more difficult to maintain a united front. So will the UK. The danger is of an interminable wrangle, bringing all other EU business to a standstill for years while the British fight their civil war. From 1979-84, when Margaret Thatcher fought for her budget rebate from Brussels, that is what happened. But at least on that occasion she headed a united government. Eventually, Helmut Kohl paid the bill. This time, Berlin can see no reason to make concessions to a UK government that does not know what it wants, and a prime minister who is too weak to keep any promises she may make. Nor can France. Why should they?

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

One Response to “May won’t get Merkel’s help in breaking deadlock”

  • I am not sure the EU member states will find it any more difficult to remain united in the second phase of talks (if it ever happens) than they have in the first. All of them are united in their desire to prevent free riding by the United Kingdom on the EU’s internal market and customs union. The self-absorbed incompetence with which the British government has pursued the negotiations until now has only served to reinforce this attitude. The British government should not assume that the second phase of the Brexit negotiations will be any easier than the first.