international analysis and commentary

The UK-Germany factor: power plays and misconceptions


As UK Prime Minister Theresa May decided last minute to postpone the vote on her Withdrawal Agreement in the House of Commons scheduled for 11 December 2018, the Brexit conundrum has just taken another turn. The meaningful vote is now due to be applied by the Commons in the week commencing 14 January 2019, but it is still unlikely that the British Parliament will approve the deal. This means further uncertainty in Europe and continued chaos domestically.

To understand the current events, it is necessary to have a look at how positions on both sides of the Channel have evolved and what factors shaped the developments. Did Germany have significant influence and what has been its role?

“Please don’t go!” said Der Spiegel’s cover in June 2016, in reference to Brexit


The role of German business was brought into the debate already during the Brexit campaign by Leave campaigners as they brushed off predictions of hampered trade with the continent in a post-Brexit world by arguing that German carmakers would surely make their interests heard. Thus, Brexiteers assumed that German big business would lobby its government in a way that frictionless trade would continue to be guaranteed.

This might have been a slightly optimistic view by Brexit campaigners; still it was carried into the following government led by May after the referendum. As symbolism plays an important role in diplomacy, the Prime Minister took her first trip abroad not to Brussels, but to Berlin in July 2016, seeking good will by the German chancellor and favorable conditions for the upcoming Brexit negotiations.

One might think that, due to several parallels between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister May, they would be able to build a special relationship eventually making Brexit easier. Both are almost the same age and grew up in religious households as both of their fathers were pastors. Merkel and May majored in Physics and Geography respectively, areas far away from politics. Neither have children and both got involved in politics somehow by accident, gradually fighting their way up in male-dominated conservative parties and eventually reaching the top in favorable circumstances. Thanks to their resilience and their political maneuvering, both of them have managed to remain in power much longer than initially expected by their critics. In 2017, the two leaders were listed by Forbes as the two most powerful women in the world.

However, despite all this common ground, Angela Merkel has not gone out of her way to facilitate Brexit negotiations in a way that Theresa May had wished. Instead, the German Chancellor from the beginning of the process referred to the EU Commission being in charge.

This shows their different approaches in negotiating international agreements. Whereas the British Prime Minister strongly believes in symbolism and personal relationships, her German counterpart prefers to play by the rules set out in the European treaties. However, this does not mean that the German government was not interested in being part of the process, on the contrary.

Immediately after the referendum, the German foreign ministry together with other ministries created a task force on Brexit led by the diplomat Peter Ptassek. Parallel to that, Angela Merkel’s cabinet formed a special committee for the process, reporting directly to the Chancellor. The goal was to pool information and more clearly identify German interests; but instead of looking at bilateral deals with the United Kingdom, the task force would lobby the EU Commission and its Head Negotiator, Michel Barnier. As the leader of the German task force pointed out in 2017, one of the major challenges for the continental side of the negotiations is to find out what the British government actually wants. This has of course evolved during the past two and a half years.

Whatever the tendency was, Brexit was always one of the main topics in British politics during this time, particularly in the snap election in June 2017. According to YouGov, the UK exiting the European Union polled by far as the most important issue for British voters, followed by health and immigration.

Three months later in the 2017 German elections, it is fair to say that Brexit did not play any role at all as it did not feature in the two major polls by Infratest Dimap and DeutschlandTrend. Immigration, social inequality, pensions and education were far more pressing concerns to the German voters than foreign policy, let alone Brexit.

In Germany, there is a large consensus among the public, the media as well as in politics that Brexit is a mistake and that both sides will lose from it. As Peter Ptassek pointed out, the negotiations had to be about limiting the damage, acknowledging that 750,000 jobs in Germany depend on trade with the United Kingdom. Not only by him, but also in the German media, the twists and turns across the Channel on Brexit including frequent changes of personnel have been met with bewilderment.

This shows that in Germany, the domestic factors and constraints by which Theresa May is driven are largely ignored. Taking a step back and looking at the relationship between the two countries in this process shows misconceptions on both sides.

Germans, both the public and the politicians, think that it was foolish and irrational of the British voters to vote Leave according to their instincts. In the UK, rather, there seems to be a lack of understanding about how the EU-27 approach the negotiations, which is through the given rules and institutions, i.e. the treaties and the EU Commission taking into account the remaining EU as a bloc and not individual member states’ interests.

A clear indication for this is that Angela Merkel rarely spoke out on the negotiations, always cautiously referring to Michel Barnier and his negotiating team, somehow hiding behind the institutional process.

British miscalculations also consisted in thinking that however tough and muddled the negotiations were, they would be solved in a Brussels night shift, just as many other disagreements in the EU were settled in the early hours after many hours of debating. Yet the scope of Brexit is bigger than any punctual matter on Greece, the Eurozone or border controls. As the German magazine Der Spiegel reported, this became apparent when then Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson asked the German MEP David McAllister, responsible for Brexit negotiations, “You’re going to help us on this, aren’t you?”

Just as Theresa May started her premiership with a trip to Berlin in 2016 in order to establish a friendly relationship with the German Chancellor, instead of holding the parliamentary vote on 11 December 2018, she decided to request a meeting with her counterpart in Germany. Her move was announced by the German public TV station ARD, which is not known for flashy headlines, with a story titled “On a desperate mission”, again showing a fundamental lack of understanding of her approach.

The Prime Minister’s hopes of renegotiating the Withdrawal Agreement were in vain, as European leaders, including Angela Merkel, immediately ruled out a renegotiation and would only be willing to provide political reassurances and clarification. This might eventually help her at home to increase the votes in favor of the deal, although it is uncertain whether this would help her to remain in power, let alone to increase the votes in a way that would ensure the deal gets through Parliament.

Yet it still shows that in some respect both sides, the UK and Germany, continue with the same approach: one side trying to broker bilateral deals and the other one sticking to the commonly agreed framework. Over the next few weeks and months, it will be seen whether these approaches will eventually be crowned with success and if Theresa May is able to carry on.