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27 Oct 2023

UK-EU Relations

Drawing on their recent article, Tim Bale and Karl Pike explore the consequences of the ‘Merkel myth’ for Brexit – the notion that the key to UK withdrawal lay with Angela Merkel.

Criticising prime minister Theresa May’s approach to Brexit, Nick Clegg confessed that he’d always assumed May

would jump on a plane in the dead of night without telling the press, go to Berlin, have a nice, quiet sauerkraut dinner with Angela Merkel, and say to her ‘listen this is a nightmare for us, I don’t want this, you don’t want this, Europe’s got many bigger fish to fry… let’s try and reach quickly an accommodation’.

A few months later, and just ahead of the 2017 general election, veteran Sun columnist Trevor Kavanagh encouraged the tabloid’s readers to ‘give Theresa May the landslide majority she says she needs to take on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’. And writing in its aftermath, the paper remained convinced that it was still all about the German Chancellor, noting ‘It would be ideal if Ms Merkel realised the damage a “punishment” Brexit will do to German car giants and saw reason’. If she didn’t, it continued, May should ‘get serious about walking away’.

This was all too typical: as ‘Brexit’ began to dominate British political discourse, Remainers and Leavers were united in believing that the key to limiting the damage EU withdrawal might do or, alternatively, to exploiting the opportunities on offer, lay with Angela Merkel. But nor was it anything new. Indeed, from the moment David Cameron committed in early 2013 to holding an in-out referendum should he be re-elected as Prime Minister, right through to the moment Merkel stepped down as Germany’s Chancellor nearly a decade later, many British politicians and commentators – particularly (but not exclusively) if they were Conservatives –assumed that the path to whichever outcome they were bent on ran through Berlin.

The consequences of attributing this near-miraculous power to Germany’s Chancellor were serious, not to say deleterious.  The ‘Merkel myth’ skewed the British political class’s understanding of the EU’s priorities, its objectives, and the likely outcomes of leaving.

Boiled down to its essential components, the Merkel myth was based on four widespread but ultimately false assumptions, namely

(i) that the German Chancellor (and certainly not the EU’s appointed negotiator, once the UK had voted to leave, Michel Barnier) was the ultimate decision-maker on the EU side;

(ii) that in the wake of the Eurozone and refugee crises (both of which had supposedly proved this decision-making power) Merkel would deliver on her inclination to compromise in order to preserve good relations with the UK;

(iii) that German industrial interests would push Merkel in that direction; and

(iv)  that Merkel was essentially a pragmatist and one temperamentally inclined both towards the UK and to delay deciding until late on in any process.

The third of those assumptions has probably generated the most attention – in part because it has generated the most comedy, much of it occasioned by May’s future Brexit Secretary David Davis’s assurance prior to the referendum that ‘Within minutes of a vote for Brexit the CEO’s of Mercedes, BMW, VW and Audi will be knocking down Chancellor Merkel’s door demanding that there be no barriers to German access to the British market.’ This became, as Barnier’s senior adviser Stefaan De Rynck has noted in his book, ‘a recurring meme in London during three and a half years of negotiations’.

However, the other assumptions were every bit as important, reinforced as they were not just by misreadings of Merkel’s modus operandi and her underlying motivations but by an equally misplaced faith in the importance of supposed personal chemistry.

Cameron, in particular, learned far too late that, inasmuch as he had a good relationship with ‘Angela’, it did not mean that she would help him get what he wanted and needed in his renegotiation, especially when it came to constraining free movement. Yet it was hoped – early on anyway and likewise to little eventual effect – that the apparent similarities between the two women (unflashy, clergyman’s daughters, who had worked hard to rise to the top in a man’s world) might prove useful.

All four assumptions were also underpinned by a widespread tendency among the British political class to see the EU as an essentially intergovernmental organisation often overtaken by supranational pretensions. A powerful ally like Germany, then, would allow Britain to sidestep the ‘bureaucracy’ of the Commission.

France, on the other hand, was continually seen as an antagonist – and one intent on ‘punishing’ the UK for wanting to leave the EU. This made it all the more tempting to see Germany, along with the Netherlands, ‘the Nordics’ and ‘the Baltics’, as a counterweight, thereby underestimating the ultimately unwavering commitment on its part (and on the part of its Chancellor) to what one British minister regretfully called ‘the extraordinary grip’ exerted by Europe’s ‘political project’.

Ironically, the risk that this might occur was never lost on Merkel herself. In an address to Parliament during a visit to London back in 2014, she had noted

I have been told many times during the last few days that there are very special expectations of my speech here today. Supposedly, or so I have heard, some expect my speech to pave the way for a fundamental reform of the European architecture which will satisfy all kinds of alleged or actual British wishes. I am afraid they are in for a disappointment. I have also heard that others are expecting the exact opposite… I am afraid these hopes will be dashed, too.

She wasn’t wrong. Clearly, it is one thing to listen to a speech but quite another to actually hear it.

By Tim Bale, Professor of Politics,  and Dr Karl Pike, Lecturer in Public Policy, Queen Mary University of London. 

Tim Bale and Karl Pike’s full-length article, ‘Hopes will be dashed: Brexit and the “Merkel myth”’ is free to read in the Journal of European Integration.


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