Germany needs a strong EU. Why would it allow Britain an easy Brexit?

Britain has long misread the German attitude to Brexit, with many Tories wrongly assuming that Angela Merkel’s government will be driven by economic self-interest to ensure Britain gets a good deal.

The reality is that the German view is strikingly hardline and Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election in June will not change that.

In Berlin there is some optimism that a larger parliamentary majority will make May an easier negotiating partner to deal with. She will of course be better placed to resist pressure from opposition parties and the House of Lords for a softer Brexit but also to face down the Eurosceptic right of the Tory party who could try to veto any compromise she might do with the EU in order to strike a deal. At the same time, however, excessive anti-EU rhetoric during the coming election campaign could erode some of the goodwill that Britain will need from other European governments to secure a half-decent deal.

It is true that many Germans regret the departure of a country that is committed to free trade and free markets, and opposed to the economic interventionism of France, Italy and others. Britain, like Germany, is also a net contributor to the EU budget. They fear that Brexit will weaken the EU’s foreign and defence policy. And some worry that Brexit will make Germany even more dominant within the union, thus fuelling resentment towards Berlin from other member states.

Yet none of this regret – as I learned during a recent visit to Berlin – makes the German government inclined to indulge the British in the forthcoming negotiations. Its top priority is to ensure that Brexit does not weaken the EU, and that means the UK must not be allowed any kind of special arrangements that could undermine the European institutions.

Donald Trump’s ascent to power in the US has exacerbated German worries over Brexit. The Trump presidency is probably more traumatic for Germany than any other country, his values being diametrically opposed to the liberal, postmodern, rules-based, multilateral world-view that permeates Germany’s ruling elite. As a German diplomat put it: “It is hard for us to understand his nationalism, which goes against our DNA, yet China and Russia get it.”

Germany’s Atlanticists, who include Merkel, see that Trump is shaking one of the two pillars of Germany’s international identity, namely close ties to the US. That makes preserving the EU – the remaining pillar – even more important. German industrialists might be expected to favour giving Britain an easier ride in the negotiations. But leading business figures argue that their long-term economic interests are best served by taking a hard line with the UK. They say that if Britain could cherrypick from the single market, opting in or out of certain parts, it would set a dangerous precedent and act as an incentive to populists such as Marine Le Pen. They echo Merkel’s belief that the strength of the EU matters more than the loss of a bit of trade. And even where corporate pressure exists, German politicians have often privileged strategic interests over economics: big business has been lobbying against EU sanctions on Russia for the past two years – to no effect.

In practice, Germany’s support for the uncompromising stance taken by the European commission, France and most other states means that only when the article 50 talks have made progress – on such issues as the rights of EU citizens, and Britain’s financial obligations to the EU – will they be willing to discuss future trade relations. And if the British balk at the principle of paying money – leaving Germany to pick up the biggest share of the hole then left in the EU budget – then there will simply be no deal. Many senior German officials think the Brexit talks are quite likely to collapse in any case as a result of the UK, in their view, being ill-prepared. For example, the British say they want a quick deal on the rights of EU nationals in the UK and vice versa, but seem unaware of the legal and technical complexities involved. The Germans fret, too, about the lack of EU expertise in Whitehall and its lack of capacity to run the negotiations efficiently.

Another complaint is that Theresa May has done too little to prepare public opinion for the painful choices that lie ahead, although a thumping parliamentary majority may make it easier for her to cede ground on such issues as transfers of money or the UK accepting rulings of the European court during transitional arrangements.

Merkel’s growing domestic political vulnerability is another reason for pessimism from Britain’s point of view. Within Germany, the rise of Social Democrat candidate Martin Schulz has put Merkel on the defensive. Six months ago a friend of hers told me that Merkel would intervene in the Brexit talks to ensure a fair deal for Britain. But more recently he said she now lacked the strength to pick up the pieces if the talks failed. If she sought to help the British, Schulz – a strong European federalist – would attack her for undermining European unity.She is also increasingly challenged within the EU: southern Europeans resent the austerity that Germany has imposed, while central Europeans dislike her attempt to make them take quotas of refugees.

If Schulz triumphs over Merkel in September’s federal elections, the chances of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal would rise. Schulz has long had an antagonistic relationship with Britain, and, lacking Merkel’s personal authority with EU leaders, would be ill-equipped to forge a compromise.

Whatever the result of the forthcoming British and German elections, London should not expect much help from Berlin.

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