It has become the norm in recent negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom for London to place faith in Berlin — and in particular Angela Merkel — to deliver the deal that the UK is looking for. But this is misguided.
For all the op-eds proclaiming that the Brits need to get the Germans on their side and understand German thinking, Britain has a tendency to misinterpret Germany’s position on the EU fundamentally and repeatedly.
This has historically ended in disappointment — and we are now dangerously close to a repeat performance.
During the UK’s referendum campaign last year, Brexit-supporting politicians and commentators repeatedly put forward the argument that there was nothing to fear. A deal would be easy to secure because Berlin would make sure that it would happen. Germany’s huge trade surplus with the UK meant it would not cut off its nose to spite its face.
Brexit Secretary David Davis even went so far as to say that the day after the referendum he would be in Berlin striking a bilateral trade deal. (With good counsel, he’s since realized that EU countries cannot strike bilateral trade deals, as the EU negotiates as a bloc on behalf of all its members.)
As the clock ticks down, this strand of argument remains pervasive. Mired in the latest psychodramas of the governing Conservative Party and battling the rise of a resurgent opposition Labour Party in a country split down the middle over Brexit, you can understand why the government is distracted.
But if the tactic in Brexit talks is to rely on Berlin for deliverance, it’s striking that many in Westminster have not really bothered to listen to what German politicians or leaders of industry are actually saying.
The UK has wasted too much time relying on the totemic German car manufacturers who would apparently be lobbying Merkel for tariff-free access to the UK. Instead, the Federation of German Industries has been warning its 100,000 members to make preparations for a “hard Brexit.” It has put together a committee of industry leaders to do just that.
The UK wasted even more time telling itself that as soon as the German national election was out of the way, Merkel would “fix” Brexit — or that her junior coalition partner, the economically liberal Free Democratic Party, or FDP, would spend its finite political capital championing “a good deal” with Britain. This is of course, the same FDP, which hired vans to drive around London shortly after the referendum assuring startups and businesses to “Keep calm and move to Berlin.”
The next error was made this summer when British negotiators decided that the European Commission was playing hardball, and that it would go over the head of chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, by appealing directly to EU leaders — Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
The fallacy of that tactic has since been revealed: It’s been Berlin and Paris that have pressed hard to make sure Brexit talks cannot proceed to phase two (future trading relations) until the UK sufficiently addresses the items on the table in phase one (the divorce.)
Indeed, as EU heads of state gathered in Brussels this week, they concluded that there had not been “sufficient progress” to move talks forward to the second phase. But, the British press has still seized upon conciliatory comments from Merkel in the wee hours of Friday morning.
In her typical Merkel-ish manner, the German Chancellor assured that it is in everyone’s interests to strike a good deal, and that “both sides needed to move.” In a nod to Prime Minister Theresa May, the European Council summit conclusions state that the EU will be ready to move to the framework of the future by December contingent on “progress.”
So the mood music has changed. It started with May’s speech in Florence, Italy — which the EU interpreted as the UK finally becoming a little more realistic. And it’s been augmented by May’s “charm offensive” over the past week, which included a last-minute dinner with the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Barnier, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Monday and phone calls to Merkel and Macron over the weekend.
But to interpret this as fundamental movement on the substance of Germany’s position would be a mistake. It is not in Berlin’s strategic long-term political nor economic interest to give Britain the “have your cake and eat it too” kind of deal that it was claimed would be easy to secure. The degree of access the UK will ultimately have to the EU’s single market is conditional on the extent to which the UK is prepared to adhere to regulatory norms.
So while, Merkel simultaneously embodies hope and fear for Brexit Britain, she will not be the one to save Britain from the so-called cliff edge if the British government paints itself into the no-deal corner.