Britain topples from post-war pedestal in Germany
A tearless Brexit delivery leaves the German leader holding the baby
German chancellor Angela Merkel: The moment Germany fell out of love with Britain is perhaps the moment she fell in love with the EU. Photograph: Stephanie Le Coq/EPA
David Cameron never noticed Angela Merkel’s bemused smile during his inaugural visit to Berlin. It was May 2010 and, as would become his wont on such European visits, Mr Cameron was more focused on his Eurosceptic backbenchers back home.
Though his fated EU referendum promise was still some way off, the prime minister vowed in Berlin to block further transfer of powers to Brussels and to prune back existing EU competences in member states.
With debate club confidence, Mr Cameron said he would “like to have a positive effect in Britain and in Europe”. That was when Dr Merkel smiled, perhaps tickled by a political rookie thinking he could have his cake and eat it. She’s not smiling now. After a troubled nine-month pregnancy, this week’s tearless Brexit delivery leaves the German leader holding the baby.
These are instructive and fascinating times for onlookers in Germany, to be filed away later under “shattered illusions”.
For seven decades, most Germans idealised Britain much as many Brexiteers idealise Britain’s past and its post-EU future: a thriving, open-yet-closed land of cricket, cream teas and fair play. But Brexit has toppled Britain from its lofty, post-war pedestal in Germany.
From Mr Cameron’s EU referendum promise, last June’s vote and Wednesday’s “Dear Donald” break-up letter, Germany began a journey through the five stages of grief.
We saw denial that Brexit was a real possibility, and disbelief that the British could confuse self-harm with self-empowerment.
Angela Merkel’s political challenge at home is to herd various kinds of anger into the next stage: bargaining
Now we are on to anger. One variety, on display across the media, was malice: with demands, under headings like “Theresa in Wonderland”, for the rudest of awakenings for Britain in divorce talks.
Another kind of anger on display sees Brexit as robbing Germany of an awkward, but like-minded partner on economic and trade issues, not least the EU budget. The conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine daily warned on Wednesday that Britain’s departure strips Germany of its blocking minority against southern Europe’s grand plans to turn the EU into a “transfer and debt union”.
As European leaders agree the terms of their negotiating mandate, Angela Merkel’s political challenge at home is to herd various kinds of anger into the next stage: bargaining. For a supreme political pragmatist, a politician critics say has always favoured tactics over strategy, it will be a challenging time.
The Merkel administration had a bad feeling about Mr Cameron’s EU reform campaign from the start, realising early on that the prime minister’s lofty promises to retool the union were more about London than Brussels.
That sinking feeling grew when Berlin realised how much Downing Street viewed its reform campaign more as event than process, consisting largely of love-bombing Merkel rather than reaching out across the union to build alliances.
Concluding that London failed to see the reform process as one of give and take, Berlin quietly withdrew its attention and made clear that it would always choose Europe’s shared interests over Britain’s particular concerns.
This stance extended into the post-June phase, and Germany’s insistence that allowing British cherry-picking of EU rights and obligations would be the EU’s road to ruin. Anticipating London’s economic arguments for a good trade deal, German industry leaders were summoned to the chancellery after June’s vote and called to heel. Dr Merkel made clear to them that the British export market is big and important but the single market is even more so.
Given Dr Merkel’s energetic defence of German auto interests against EU environmental concerns, it will be interesting to see if her Europe-first, Germany-second stance prevails.
For now Dr Merkel’s main Brexit priorities are to clarify existing rights enjoyed by EU and British citizens living away from home, and for “fair” talks about a future “balanced relationship of rights and obligations” with Britain – but only after separation talks conclude.
In Berlin next Thursday, Taoiseach Enda Kenny knows that, to secure German backing for Ireland’s specific Brexit concerns, it would be wise to show inventive interest in Dr Merkel’s final priority: to prevent Brexit sapping energy and attention from the EU 27 efforts to tackle digitalisation, globalisation, international terrorism and climate change.
When Brexit talks kick off, the German leader’s attention will return to her re-election bid in September. But even here her Europe record will loom large. Her Social Democrat (SPD) challenger Martin Schulz will accuse Dr Merkel of retooling the crisis-wracked EU into an intergovernmental club that maximised German influence, German interests and German solutions over the common European good – a policy that peaked in the euro crisis and rebounded in the refugee crisis.
SPD strategists sense the mood has shifted and that Germans, shaken awake by Brexit and Trump, are ready to defend the European project not simply as a matter of the head, as the SPD claims is the Merkel approach, but as a matter of the heart.
Sensing the change, the normally sober Dr Merkel insisted the EU’s future hinged on whether its members believed they could still do more together “in a world that doesn’t sleep”.
Before European colleagues in Malta, she struck a new note by quoting German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm: “One loves that for which one makes an effort, and one makes an effort for that which one loves.”
The week London filed its divorce papers in Brussels, the moment Germany fell out of love with Britain, is perhaps the moment Dr Merkel finally fell in love with the EU.
Derek Scally is Berlin correspondent