UK hopes to reset relationship with Germany after forever misjudging Merkel

Johnson will hope to reopen the Northern Ireland protocol with her successor

Boris Johnson bumps elbows with Angela Merkel. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA/Bloomberg

Boris Johnson bumps elbows with Angela Merkel. Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA/Bloomberg

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When Angela Merkel made her farewell visit to Britain this month, Boris Johnson pulled out all the stops in the diplomatic organ, laying on a visit to Queen Elizabeth, a meeting with his cabinet and a new bilateral foreign policy agreement. He even dedicated a medal to the former quantum chemist, to accompany a £10,000 annual award to a female scientist from Britain or Germany.

Speaking to reporters in Chequers, Merkel said co-operation with Johnson had developed very well in the two years since he took office.

“If it hadn’t, we wouldn’t be standing here. We look at each other, we look at how different people can be and we make the best of it,” she said.

Such warmish words could not, however, conceal the fact that, like four previous UK prime ministers, Johnson had misjudged Merkel and been disappointed by her.

By the time Merkel became chancellor in 2005, Tony Blair’s relationship with her predecessor had soured over the Iraq war and the appointment of José Manuel Barroso to succeed Romano Prodi as European Commission president. Blair found Merkel more congenial, and they had few public disagreements before he left office in 2007.

Merkel with Tony Blair in 2005. Photograph: Thierry Roge/Reuters
Merkel with Tony Blair in 2005. Photograph: Thierry Roge/Reuters

But British officials were taken aback by the speed with which the German chancellor repaired relations with Washington, supplanting Blair as George W Bush’s most important political ally in Europe. After Blair left office, she worked with French president Nicholas Sarkozy to sink his prospects of becoming European Council president.

Gordon Brown, who championed a soft Euroscepticism as a means of undermining Blair before he succeeded him in Downing Street, was initially wary of Merkel. Their relationship improved quickly, however, and they worked well together during the 2008 financial crisis despite her more cautious approach to the recapitalisation and underwriting of financial institutions.

Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown in 2009. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
Angela Merkel and Gordon Brown in 2009. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Brown’s failure to make the case for Europe to a sceptical British public, his opposition to joining the euro and his transactional approach to the EU meant that he could never become a powerful ally for Merkel during his three years in office.

Cameron’s misstep

David Cameron started off on the wrong foot with Merkel before he entered Downing Street in 2010, angering her a few months earlier by following through on his leadership campaign promise to take the Conservatives out of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) of which her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is part. 

Merkel with David Cameron. Photograph: Michele Tantussi/Bloomberg
Merkel with David Cameron. Photograph: Michele Tantussi/Bloomberg

In his memoir, For the Record, Cameron said he built a “strong and trusting” relationship with Merkel, but he discovered its limits when she and Sarkozy outmanoeuvred him when he vetoed the Fiscal Compact Treaty in 2011. In a gamble pre-cooked with other EU leaders, Merkel and Sarkozy proposed that the changes should instead be made in an intergovernmental treaty outside the EU treaties.

Merkel let Cameron down over the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as commission president in 2014, but he still pinned his hopes on her during negotiations about a special deal for the UK ahead of the Brexit referendum two years later. Although he thought she wanted to help, Cameron was unable to persuade her that EU citizens coming to Britain should be treated as migrants and that there should be a cap on their numbers.

“You have low unemployment, a booming economy, you’re growing faster than most of Europe, there’s no social crisis. And you are pulling in highly qualified labour, cheaply. Explain to me what the problem is,” she said to him.

After the referendum, Merkel reassured Cameron that he could not have won a better deal from the EU, and he admitted later that he had allowed expectations surrounding the renegotiation to rise too high. But his successor, Theresa May, would make the same mistake about negotiations with the EU and about Merkel’s willingness to come to her aid.

The car delusion

Eurosceptic Conservative MPs and their cheerleaders in the press believed that German car manufacturers would persuade Merkel to push for a “pragmatic” Brexit deal to protect their access to the British market. May knew better but, as the negotiations progressed, she hoped to circumvent EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier by appealing to Merkel as the most sympathetic EU leader.

Angela Merkel and Theresa May. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty
Angela Merkel and Theresa May. Photograph: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty

It was a doomed strategy because it was in the interest of EU leaders to leave the negotiations in Barnier’s hands, not least because it offered some protection from special pleading from domestic lobby groups. May underestimated the extent to which Merkel saw the integrity of the European single market as a more important German economic priority than her country’s trade surplus with Britain.

She also failed to see that, for Merkel, protecting the interests of a small member state such as Ireland was crucial for Germany’s role as the EU’s most powerful country. Finally, May overestimated the lengths to which Merkel was willing to go to keep her in office and to keep Johnson out of No 10.

Although Johnson’s ebullience conceals a character as introverted as May’s, he has more emotional intelligence and self-awareness than his predecessor. But at crucial moments in the final phase of the Brexit negotiations, he repeated the mistake of putting too much faith in Merkel and over-reading her practical, down-to-earth style.

In a phone call in October 2019, she pulled the plug on Johnson’s hopes for a compromise on Northern Ireland, creating what Dominic Cummings called “a clarifying moment”. It was out of the hopelessness of this moment that Johnson found a breakthrough with Leo Varadkar a few days later, agreeing to leave the North within the EU’s customs and regulatory orbit.

Johnson is still banking on his bilateral relationship with Berlin to help him to reopen the Northern Ireland protocol, despite Merkel ruling out a renegotiation. And Downing Street is already eyeing up Merkel’s most likely successor, CDU leader Armin Laschet, talking up the ambitions of the bilateral relationship and kindling every spark of hope that Britain will have a firmer friend in the chancellery.

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