Merkel spells out the obvious

by Quentin Peel | 28.04.2017

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has made her name by being prudent, polite and predictable. But when she rose in the Bundestag on Thursday to set out her government’s position on the forthcoming Brexit negotiations, she felt the need to state the blindingly obvious in blunt terms, not least for the benefit of British listeners.

Apologising for spelling out what she called “self-evident truths”, Merkel said she was doing so because “unfortunately I have the impression that some people in Great Britain still have illusions”. It was a statement undiplomatic enough to sting Theresa May into warning that the rest of the EU seemed to be lining up “to oppose us”.

Speaking in Leeds the same day, the British leader told a Conservative campaign rally: “We can see how tough those negotiations are going to be at times… So we need the strongest possible hand, the strongest possible mandate and the strongest possible leadership as we go into those talks.”

What prompted the chancellor to be so outspoken?

Illusion 1: British importance

One of the illusions Merkel singled out was the idea that Brexit was the most important problem on the European Union agenda. The EU27 have to deal with refugee flows and migration, relations with a revisionist Russia and an increasingly undemocratic Turkey, the unfinished economic crisis in the eurozone, and an unpredictable new US president.

She stressed the paramount importance of maintaining a common EU front and of agreeing nothing in the UK negotiations that would undermine its integrity. She was delighted that despite the best efforts of May and her ministers, no one had broken ranks to conduct “pre-negotiations”, although many – she cited Ireland in particular – had vital national interests threatened by the Brexit process.

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Illusion 2: The correct order of things

The chancellor said the European Commission was right to insist the UK must first agree on the financial consequences of its exit, and on protecting the rights of EU citizens, before negotiations could start on a new long-term relationship. Britain could not expect to walk away from the EU preserving all its trading benefits but none of its responsibilities. She won warm applause from lawmakers when she said the financial commitments would last beyond the two-year timetable for leaving.

Berlin had three priorities, she underlined. The first was to protect the rights of German citizens, especially some 100,000 living in the UK, including pensioners who had spent a lifetime working there, students who had pursued the “dream of a border-free Europe” to study in British universities, and German parents living in London with children in local schools. All deserved clarity and security on their future, just as UK citizens living in Germany would be given a “fair offer”.

Second was to avoid “any damage to the EU as a whole”. German business wanted to keep market access, and the German government wanted to maintain the closest possible ties in fighting terrorism, and on security and foreign policy, she said, but in doing so “we must preserve and strengthen the achievements of EU integration”. That means “no cherry-picking” whether in trade or in bilateral security deals.

Third, the chancellor wants the EU-27 to emerge strengthened from the negotiations. She was vague on specifics but insisted that the EU was a 60-year success story, and she would do everything in her power to preserve its unity.

Her central thesis was clear: we regret but respect the UK decision to leave. But it means the UK will be treated after Brexit as a “third country”. Hence May cannot expect to have a better deal outside the EU than it has as a full member state.

Illusion 3: European bluffing

Some in Whitehall may harbour another illusion: that Ms Merkel’s firm line is just posturing  before the federal election in September. Yet her message is shared across the German political spectrum.

The only Brexit sympathisers are in the far-right Alternative for Germany party, which has fallen back below 10 per cent in recent polls. The party has been torn by infighting that has left a hard-line anti-immigration faction in charge of its election campaign.

More notable has been the revival of the Social Democratic party (SPD) with Martin Schulz, the former European Parliament president, as its candidate. He is even keener on EU integration than Merkel. If he becomes chancellor or vice-chancellor (Merkel is still favourite to top the poll), he would be even less sympathetic to big concessions to the UK.

Illusion 4: Timing

One other illusion seems to remain in London: that a fully empowered German government will take office right after the September 24 election. In reality, there will be prolonged coalition negotiations and a new government will likely only be in place just before Christmas, ready to negotiate in Brussels from January 2018.

As Merkel underlined, stabbing her finger on the podium, that doesn’t leave much time for complex negotiations to unravel 44 years of UK treaty commitments. And Germany is a country that believes in the paramount importance of sticking to the rules.

Edited by Paul Taylor