The Erdoğan of Downing Street, a Le Pen in No 10: that’s how Merkel sees May
Theresa May yesterday reacted with fury to what she termed the EU’s “deliberately timed meddling” in the British election campaign. But it’s not just Jean-Claude Juncker who believes that May lives in another galaxy: most leaders in continental Europe believe that – including Angela Merkel. The German chancellor never took kindly to May’s attempt in the early days after the Brexit vote to create an alliance between the two most powerful women in Europe to get Britain a special deal. Merkel is firmly driven by safeguarding Europe’s future, not the pursuit of gender-based political deals.
Truth be told, the German chancellor must increasingly feel as if she is dealing with a female Erdoğan in Downing Street – a British leader so wrapped up in her own world view that she has lost touch not just with European realities, but the fundamentals of international negotiations. For a Turkish president to act in such an aloof and pompous manner is one thing. For a British prime minister to do likewise is something else entirely. Rather than doing “the British thing” and pragmatically adjusting the nation’s flawed strategy post-haste, May and her party are digging themselves in and resorting to macho rituals of self-assurance.
This hasn’t just shocked continental Europe. The people of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland can only dream of having a leader as concerned about internal unity and cohesion as the 27 EU states May will be negotiating with have been. She risks the disintegration of the United Kingdom’s union. No wonder her government is unhappy with the EU27’s unified stance on the negotiating mandate.
The Tories’ customary divide and rule strategy towards Europe has not worked. This British tradition failed early on – in the very moment that the Brexit campaign zeroed in so centrally on Polish workers in the UK. With that one move, any realistic hope for the kind of deal May still hopes for was lost. The Polish government would have been the only one able to topple the entire EU bandwagon. Hitting out at Polish workers may have helped win the Brexit vote, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. With that one tactic, the UK lost any hope for the Polish government to act as a spoiler on its behalf inside the EU camp.
The damaging dinner with Juncker at Downing Street was no surprise – it was signalled in Merkel’s speech to the German parliament last month. Merkel – usually not a woman of clear messages – left no doubt that she considers May’s negotiating strategy to be totally unrealistic. When she said that the deal May envisages can’t be had, she destroyed her British colleague’s narrative. Merkel never takes kindly to upstarts who try to rock the boat, whether for reasons of vanity, immaturity or lack of realism.
If the Tories believed Germany would be an ally, they had miscalculated badly. Merkel not only stands 100% behind the EU27’s chosen path, she has been pushing for it, realising that Brexit could be the perfect opportunity for the EU to pull together.
On this issue, Merkel’s CDU and its coalition partner, the SPD, stand completely united – even as the campaigning ahead of German federal elections in September. That is why hopes peddled in London that an SPD-led government might be more lenient towards the UK are a flight of fancy. In fact, long though the odds may be, the German government believes that its interests – and all of Europe’s – are best served by Downing Street coming to its senses at some point and abandoning Brexit. May’s willingness to prefer “no deal” to a “bad deal” may turn into one of the biggest own goals in diplomatic history.
Berlin has long operated on the basis of one core conviction: the only way the EU can remain strong is with the UK inside it. This means playing tough with the Brexiteers, in the belief that it will force them to reconsider the entire exercise. It decidedly does not mean the German government bending over backwards to accommodate the UK’s exit strategy.
Even were May to obtain a “strong mandate” from the British voters next month, the rest of Europe would largely interpret it as a surreal “refusenik” vote that is distant from the people’s own economic interests.
The Brexit vote itself was seen on the continent as a “venting” vote. British working-class voters, too cowed to see the Tories for what they are, were directed to vent their anger against Brussels, to ensure that they didn’t direct their anger at British elites. Far from leading a sovereignty revolution, May is – in the EU’s eyes – increasingly revealing herself as the Trump of Europe. Whatever strategic mistakes she commits, and she has committed many, she is instinctively inclined to blame other nations for her own flaws and miscalculations.
Just consider her latest assertion that the EU27’s position on Brexit leads to foreign-imposed “uncertainty and instability” and brings “grave risk to our growing economy with higher taxes, fewer jobs, more waste and more debt”. May is beginning to sound almost like Marine Le Pen. This expresses itself in a belief not just in closed borders but in sovereignty having innate wealth-creating properties for British workers.
The real surprise about May’s Brexit strategy is that it represents a big departure from the unflinchingly reality-based political assessments that have been the hallmark of Britain’s international policies for centuries. Historically the UK has not been known to allow the outcome of a national strategy to rest on a hunch that things will turn out OK. But Theresa May is trying just that.
Re-posted from The Guardian