Among the German public, last week’s speech by Theresa May has gone down largely unnoticed. Rather, headlines were dominated by the incoming presidency of Donald Trump and his interview with widely-read German tabloid Bild. After seven months, Germans have got over the referendum and the prospect of Britain being on its way out of the European Union.
Indeed, the wider German public has shown little interest in questions regarding the future of Europe’s relationship with the UK, let alone in the details and minutiae of the UK’s legal withdrawal and future relationship with the EU. If anything, the Brexit vote has bolstered support for the EU. As one study conducted at the end of 2016 shows, Germans’ views on the EU have evolved positively over the course of the past year, in large part due to the results of the UK referendum.
While in March 2016, 61% of Germans polled suggested they would vote against exiting the European Union in a potential referendum, this number grew to almost 70% in August, suggesting that citizens feel a greater need for European solidarity and security in the face of a potential break-up. Trump’s inauguration is likely to cement this sentiment; consider that one aspect of Trump’s interview in Bild that aroused particular controversy was his suggestion that further exits from the European Union were not only likely but inevitable.
In Berlin’s political class, a similar sense of acceptance has developed. The result of the June 2016 referendum did not really come as a surprise to Berlin; what did create a strong sense of bafflement, however, was that Westminster had not adequately planned for this outcome. After the referendum, several government ministers expressed their dismay at what was seen as utterly careless behaviour by British politicians.
“Europe is not something to play around with,” the foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, commented in front of Berlin’s ambassadorial corps last summer, a hardly veiled criticism of the “Brexiters”. In fact, the political chaos unleashed by the referendum only strengthened the view that forced to choose between retaining bountiful economic relations with Britain or keeping the EU in good shape, Berlin should choose the latter.
The priority of keeping the union of 27 together has been the consistent, dominant message in Berlin over the past months and Angela Merkel has invested a great deal of energy in shaping a unified European position on the Brexit process. As such, there is no desire for retaliation, but a rather sober and solemn assessment that the British withdrawal is merely another challenge to be added to Berlin’s overladen foreign policy agenda. More positively, the threat to European cohesion has brought Berlin and Paris closer together again and, at this stage, Berlin is much more worried about France’s future in the EU. A President Le Pen is a grave, existential threat to the EU, in a way Brexit never really could be.
The German government has resisted wooing by London lately, insistent that there would be no negotiations without Britain officially triggering article 50. Berlin has stood remarkably firm on this particular point over the past months, arguing that there could be no compromise on the “four freedoms”. Considering this backdrop, Theresa May’s speech last week was in fact welcomed in Berlin. The prime minister’s announcement that Britain would pursue a complete, clean break from all EU structures (including the single market) and aim to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the EU has brought greater clarity to European negotiators and reduced the risk of British cherry-picking.
Having said that, German officials know from experience that what seems black and white from their point of view might in fact be different shades of grey on the other side of the Channel. In other words, Berlin also anticipates that in the upcoming negotiations, May’s currently clear-cut goals could very well give way to a more erratic approach; negotiating special rules for specific sectors, such as the financial industry, might still be on the table further down the road.
Berlin is prepared for the EU to enter a period of complex and demanding negotiations once article 50 has been triggered; considering last week’s speech, it has become abundantly clear that Britain will have to punch extremely hard in order to realise May’s vision of a “global Britain”.
Philip Hammond’s recent interview in German newspaper Die Welt, in which he implied that the UK could effectively become a “tax haven” as a means of relief from the consequences of Brexit, was universally rebuked in Germany, illustrating the state of current discourse. At the same time, there is also a broad consensus that both the UK and German would suffer greatly in the “tax dumping” scenario outlined by Hammond.
Berlin never wanted Britain to leave the EU and in many ways this choice is now coming at the worst of times. Europe is confronted with major, concrete questions of prosperity and security, while at the same time there is a strong sense of realism in Berlin that only a few years ago would have perhaps resonated positively in London.
But nowadays, as the prime minister expressed in her speech, Britain thinks in terms of broad visions, while the German government sternly insists that this is no time for vision, or for waxing lyrical about an “ever closer union”, but rather a time for grit-and-grind dispassion and getting things done. The twisted irony, then, is that the UK is abandoning Europe at a time when Germany has perhaps come to cherish the beauty of shades of grey.
Yet the fact that Germany has repeatedly underlined Britain’s weak negotiating position should not be diagnosed as a symptom of overconfidence. The German government knows very well that keeping the European Union together will be a major struggle; a struggle that will become far more difficult once President Trump steps into the Oval Office on Monday morning.
This commentary was first published in The Guardian on 22 January 2017.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.