Merkel keeping one eye on Britain’s “UK first” approach

As much as Berlin would like to prevent negotiations with the UK turning sour, it is hard to envisage any other outcome

ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

When Prime Minister Theresa May recently convened her cabinet for a brain-storming session at Chequers following the summer recess, she made sure that the media were in the room. May – who seems to have gained more attention in Germany for her fashion taste than anything else – firmly put forward her vision for the future of the United Kingdom. The task ahead, she argued, was about finding a new role for Britain in the world, and one that works for all Brits.

After the initial post-referendum chaos it was a sign in itself that Theresa May rather swiftly took the office of prime minister, following David Cameron’s departure.

The setting of a sixteenth-century manor house, where she convened her cabinet for the first time after the summer break, was a perfect stage for the underlying message she conveyed to the world – the situation is dire, but us Brits have a long history of desperation and victory, and as we have done so many times in the past we are determined to turn this most recent period of disruption into another success story.

May made it clear that she saw no urgency for triggering article 50, to formally start the EU exit process, before the end of the year. The phase of insecurity, costly in both economic and political terms for the European Union as a whole, will therefore continue, and the Union risks being at the receiving end of London’s wobbly political decision-making.

As simple as Theresa May’s slogan of “a positive role for the UK in the world” sounds, it should be taken literally by EU members.

As simple as Theresa May’s slogan of “a positive role for the UK in the world” sounds, it should be taken literally by EU members. In the months and years ahead, this will be the top priority for the British government, and May will make sure that her strategy in re-negotiating Britain’s future status with the EU serves exactly this goal.

All those in continental Europe scratching their heads about the substance of any such Brexit strategy, will no doubt ask the question of whether they can trust in the good faith of Britain. And those among them who believe that London will, indeed, be acting in good faith at the negotiating table are likely to be bitterly disappointed.

The British government will have to make the best out of a rather desperate position. So big is the task ahead that there will be little room for clean politics both at home and abroad. EU members should be prepared to expect any forthcoming Brexit plan from London to put British interests first, even at the expense of other EU member states.

To the amazement of many in continental Europe, the referendum revealed deep ideological rifts within the United Kingdom in political, geographic and identity terms. If the political class in the UK cannot heal these rifts their union has perhaps little chance of survival. It looks like this is one of the most important lessons that Number 10 has drawn from the referendum result.

As continental Europeans put together their negotiating teams they should be prepared for a “UK first” approach. Angela Merkel, at least, seems to understand this — being reticent to pin too many hopes on a government that is more concerned with its own might than abstract ideas about European solidarity.

For Angela Merkel Germany’s fortune is still embedded in the European Union, and one has to read Merkel’s messages with this in mind. In her recent speeches over summer she has almost completely avoided talking about the divisive “British question” and rather shifted her focus towards winning support for a hands on approach to the challenges of prosperity and security as joint European concerns.

The EU-27 — convening in Bratislava this week — will close their ranks by talking about the future without the UK. But while the UK may not be at the discussion table, Merkel is keen to understand how British thinking is evolving. Ahead of the Bratislava summit she had a phone call with her Number 10 counterpart, which Theresa May’s office was keen to communicate to the public. But as much as Berlin would like to prevent negotiations with the UK turning sour, it is hard to envisage any other outcome.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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