An integral element of the Government’s Brexit negotiation strategy has been to try and play the EU Commission off against the member states. David Davis, before his resignation over the Chequers plan; Jeremy Hunt; Philip Hammond; David Lidington, who served as Europe Minister for six years – all, at one time or another, have toured the capitals of the EU27 to fish for support and allies. No country has been trawled more hopefully than Germany.
Perhaps, Ministers and Brexiteers have speculated, Angela Merkel will stir from torpor, rise, and deploy her mighty powers, once used to squeeze Yanis Varoufakis, to save Theresa May. The German Chancellor, the argument runs, is apprehensive about a messy Brexit on her north-west frontier. Nor does she want those legendary German car manufacturers knocking angrily on her door. She will rise up, pull Emmanuel Macron into line, give Michel Barnier his marching orders, fix the talks, and deliver a decent Brexit deal.
So at last, there is hope that this deliverance is at hand. Or is there? Today’s Financial Times reports that, at this week’s summit dinner, Merkel indicated that the EU should rethink its approach to the backstop. If a solution can be found, we will exit the Customs Union before the next election and gain the freedom to negotiate meaningful trade deals. The biggest obstacle to a deal would fall away. The Prime Minister would be rescued from her present agonies, which now reportedly include the possibility of being replaced by Davis.
We have been here before. If you doubt it, read Daniel Korksi’s account of David Cameron’s dealings with the German Chancellor. First came the overture. The former Prime Minister and Merkel both believed that Jean-Claude Juncker was the wrong man for the Commission’s presidency. But the Chancellor “was forced to drop her opposition in response to a brilliant campaign run by Juncker’s chef de cabinet, Martin Selmayr”. And Cameron’s attempt to block Juncker failed. Merkel left him exposed and embarrassed.
The main act was the then Prime Minister’s renegotiation package. The Chancellor saw talks about it as a “nuisance”, according to Korski: “we were…over-reliant on [her], even after she showed us that she wasn’t as dependable a supporter as we might have wished. We invited ridicule with how much we feted her – inviting her to address parliament, which she did movingly, and flying to a succession of events in Germany. But our efforts yielded little.”
She was willing, he writes, to give Cameron part of what he wanted but not all of it. He himself became unwilling to push her harder on treaty change and freedom and movement, because he concluded that this wouldn’t get him anywhere. And after the referendum, she said to him that there would indeed have been no other offer forthcoming. Exit Cameron. Enter May. And so to where we are now – with Government hopes pinned on Merkel once again.
Perhaps it really will be different this time. Those German manufacturers are certainly nervous about a No Deal Brexit. Their access to American markets is threatened by Donald Trump’s protectionist instincts, and their entry to others, such as China and Russia, by his use of sanctions. None the less, the car-makers have remained remarkably disciplined in their insistence that the integrity of the Single Market comes before ease of trade with the UK: their stance is part-choreographed, part-real.
But here are three cautionary notes. First, never forget that politicians in other European countries think less about Brexit than ours do. Merkel’s in-tray was piled high with other matters when Cameron was Prime Minister. So it is now. And she was in a much stronger position then. Although she won a fourth term last year, her party’s vote share fell by nine per cent – almost the same percentage as the gain made by the AfD, now the opposition. Her migration stance had allowed the CDU to be outflanked on its right – for the first time.
Support for her government is at a record low. Backing for her party is at 25 per cent. Her CSU ally has just recorded its worst result in Bavaria for 60 years. The CDU now faces another electoral trial in Hesse. But if there is an obvious threat from the AfD on her right, there is a more subtle one on her left: the weakness of her SPD partner in coalition is, by extension, also a problem for her. These external problems are breeding internal ones. Volker Kauder, her man at the head of the CDU’s parliamentary group, has been ousted.
She will doubtless be re-elected as the CDU’s leader at its biannual party conference later this year. But she may face a contest, and may not scoop the 90 per cent or so of the vote that she did last time round. This points towards the second factor. While Merkel reportedly wants the EU to rethink its approach to the backstop, she wants our Government to do so too. But she may not be focused on the details (though she has clearly grasped the point that if the talks collapse, Ireland will face precisely the hard border that it fears).
Other leaders, the FT says, “remain puzzled about the chancellor’s intentions…one senior diplomat joked that as a scientist Ms Merkel “saw things in a different way in time and space”. These ambiguities lead to the third factor. A compromise forced on both the EU and the UK may not be one that works for anyone. Emmanuel Macron may resist any hint of a soft north-south border on the island of Ireland, since this could, in his view, open the Single Market to the flow of poorly-regulated goods.
And Theresa May should stand firm against any scheme that would leave Britain stuck with the backstop. She reportedly told Leo Varadkar that she agrees there should be no time limit on it. That makes sense, because what is needed is not so much a set time limit as a unilteral escape clause. It isn’t hard to imagine Merkel pushing a scheme that doesn’t guarantee one – with May then trying to sell it to the Pizza Group of Brexiteering Cabinet Ministers, just as she floated the Robbins scheme to some of them last week.
Beware Germans bearing gifts, some will say, adapting the old saw about Greeks. That might seem tough on a German Chancellor who could yet bear a key that could unlock the door to a deal. But all would depend on its terms. Cameron’s simply wasn’t good enough. May faces the same risk – assuming, that is, that there is really any daylight between the German Chancellor, besieged as she is by a plague of troubles, and an apparently unyielding Commission plus Macron, who seems to see himself as the guardian of the EU project.