Chancellor Angela Merkel will leave active politics after the German federal elections on 26 September 2021. As Merkel’s departure after 16 years will resonate across Europe, the Clingendael Spectator invited several international experts to offer their personal reflections on her legacy. For my contribution, I argued that the key lesson of the Merkel years is a chronic and repeated inability to understand the German chancellor.
Germany and the UK are, we are told, ‘strong and like-minded global partners’ who ‘share a strategic vision on broader foreign and security policy issues’. Such at least was the claim made in the joint declaration of June 2021, signed as Chancellor Angela Merkel basked in a valedictory visit to London.
These warm words hide a different reality. A shared Anglo-German strategic vision there might be. But, below the level of grand political abstraction, perhaps the key lesson of the Merkel years is a chronic and repeated inability to understand the German chancellor. Take, in order, the five British prime ministers that Merkel has survived during her 16 years as chancellor.
It was Merkel who worked with French president Nicholas Sarkozy to undermine Tony Blair’s prospects of becoming European Council president in 2009. Personal relations between the pair were good, but at that point, centre-right governments outweighed those of the centre-left by three to one.
Merkel felt this should be reflected in the EU’s institutions. In turn, this underestimation of Merkel’s ideological fidelity to the centre-right led the government of Gordon Brown to underestimate her opposition to a Keynesian fiscal response to the global financial crisis of 2007.
David Cameron’s first decision – made before becoming Conservative leader – to detach from the mainstream centre-right is both an underappreciated aspect of the Brexit story and reflective of the differences between the two leaders. Merkel made it clear during the Tory leadership campaign in 2005 what she thought of his campaign pledge to withdraw from the European People’s Party (EPP): ‘I look forward to good and intensive cooperation with you, in particular within the framework of the EPP-ED as a clear base for our bilateral dialogue as partners.’
Cameron chose to read between the lines, rather than taking Merkel at face value. UK politicians have spent many years assuming Germany was committed not only to close cooperation, but also to preserving bilateral trade. It was because of this that Cameron believed Chancellor Merkel would help him deliver what he needed in his ‘renegotiation’ of the terms of UK membership of the EU.
During that renegotiation, Merkel made it clear that Cameron’s demands – particularly on free movement – bemused her. In response to the argument that the UK should be able to treat EU citizens as migrants, and cap the number of those arriving, she remarked, caustically: ‘You have low unemployment, a booming economy, you’re growing faster than most of Europe, there’s no social crisis. And you are pulling in highly qualified labour, cheaply. Explain to me what the problem is.’
And, once the renegotiation and the referendum had played out, the reassurances that Merkel would come to the rescue began once again. David Davis, the Chief Negotiator and Secretary of State of Exiting the European Union, famously declared that: ‘We are too valuable a market for Europe to shut off. Within minutes of a vote for Brexit the CEO’s [sic] 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. And while they are at it they will be demanding that those British companies that they own will have uninterrupted access to Europe.’
Had British politicians (and, indeed, the unnamed French official) spent more time studying Merkel’s Germany, and less simply assuming it would ride to the rescue of the UK, the reality was there for all to see. The chancellor would prioritise the effective working of the European Union over bilateral links.
And yet, delusions persisted. Throughout the tortuous Brexit negotiations, leading British politicians and commentators continued to voice their belief that Merkel would help us out, despite her unequivocal insistence on the indivisibility of the four freedoms.
In the week leading up to the launch of Theresa May’s Chequers plan, a paper concerning Brexit and the future relationship between the UK and EU, she flew to Berlin with her Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell and Chief Negotiator Olly Robbins. The meeting with Merkel led Barwell to feel ‘probably the best I ever felt about our prospects of getting Brexit over the line’. Yet, Cabinet agreement on the Chequers plan was followed by an awkward diplomatic silence from Berlin.
Again, a diplomatic misunderstanding of Germany led the UK down the garden path. Indeed, throughout, while the stance of Boris Johnson’s government in particular confused many in Berlin, Merkel remained firm in her belief that the EU should not sign a deal with London ‘at any price’.
And so, we arrive at June 2021. Merkel’s visit included all the bells and whistles of a major state event: a visit to the Queen, a new bilateral foreign policy agreement, an academic medal in her honour. The tone of the joint declaration certainly came as something of a surprise to many in the EU, coming, as it did, at a time when London and Brussels were at loggerheads over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol.
Yet, once again, we should not kid ourselves. There is clearly a desire in Berlin to work closely with the UK, particularly on issues such as security where EU capabilities remain limited. However, a choice between this relationship and EU solidarity would still be a no-brainer for any German chancellor. And, if Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union of Germany (CDU) is out of power and the next chancellor is from a different political tradition to the prime minister, Boris Johnson should not mistake politeness for shared priorities.
Or, instead of reading between the lines, we could perhaps heed Merkel’s clear advice on her final trip to London: ‘We look at each other, we look at how different people can be, and we make the best of it.’