Angela Merkel is the Theresa May of Europe. Whenever something goes wrong, she gets the blame. Just look at Brexit.
Clearly, there we were many reasons why the UK voted to leave the EU. A deep-rooted national identity crisis, for example, and the pervasive image of the EU as a boring bureaucratic behemoth imposing its will – an idea propagated by many eurosceptics.
But shortly after the Brexit referendum, some European commentators quickly found the real culprit to blame for the disaster: the German chancellor herself.
Many blamed her immigration policy. In 2015 she had allowed tens of thousands of refugees into Germany. The Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros argued – to the glee of the Daily Mail – that Merkel had brought chaos to Europe. It was “an inspiring gesture,” he argued, “but it was not properly thought out.”
Jan Fleischhauer, a notoriously provocative opinion writer for German magazine Der Spiegel, also wrote in June 2018: “No one will ever be able to prove the extent of the role played by Merkel’s open border policies on the [UK] referendum’s outcome, but it can be considered certain that the images of huge groups of refugees making their way into Bavaria frightened many Brits.”
Images like these were indeed used by the likes of Nigel Farage and his populist campaign, and the idea that Merkel’s policy essentially caused Brexit persists to this day in Germany.
In June 2018, the news website Politico wrote that “Merkel broke the EU”. German journalist Jochen Bittner – a liberal – echoed this sentiment in the New York Times in September, claiming “her mixed messages on labour mobility and refugees drove Britain away.” The controversial French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut recently told German daily Die Welt: “If Angela Merkel hadn’t said ‘we can do this’ and let one million migrants into Germany in 2015, there would have been no Brexit.”
Facing this backlash from political commentators, in addition to the rise of right-wing populism in Germany (with the far-right party, Alternative für Deutschland, entering parliament in the last elections), Merkel has distanced herself decisively from what has been called the “Willkommenskultur” (“welcome culture”) towards refugees.
Since 2015, her coalition has tightened asylum laws numerous times. Her rhetoric has since changed from “we can do this” to “we won’t repeat 2015”. She even said the refugee crisis was ”my failure, too” in the European Parliament in November.
But she has, perhaps correctly, not accepted responsibility for Brexit, because the Christian Democrat leader never actually wanted Brexit to happen – even though she has repeatedly made clear that she respects the results of the referendum, which she described as a “tragedy”.
So while her policies have been weaponised against, Merkel is staunchly pro-European, and fears the UK crashing out of the bloc without a deal in place.
In her Thursday press conference with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, she stressed that she would “fight until the last hour” to prevent a no-deal from happening. But that means fighting for Brexit to happen under preferable circumstances, rather than not at all.
This makes Merkel a powerful proponent of May’s deal. But her comments about a no-deal catastrophe show that she’s open to alternatives, a wise move given that May has failed three times to pass her deal in the House of Commons, and is now in talks with the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, in at attempt to break the deadlock.
Merkel wants the softest Brexit she can getLarissa Brunner
Merkel’s patience over the churning chaos in British politics is, essentially, pragmatic: a no-deal would not only harm the British economy, but the German and European economies too. She wants to send positive signals to the more than 140,000 German citizens living in Great Britain, too.
The chancellor has also said it is important the EU shows patience with the UK. According to a Financial Times report, Merkel recently got into a heated exchange with France’s president Emmanuel Macron, who argued that Brexit should not be delayed any longer if May does not present proper alternatives. Merkel warned Macron that history would not judge the leaders of the EU kindly, should they allow a chaotic Brexit out of scorn.
“Compared to Merkel, Macron is much more of a hardliner,” Larissa Brunner, policy analyst specialising in Brexit and German politics at the European Policy Centre in Brussels, told HuffPost UK. “He’s playing the bad cop.”
But Merkel isn’t quite the good cop, either.
During the last few weeks the chancellor has made it clear that she would have preferred a positive vote on May’s Brexit deal, but that there would be no new negotiations about its contents. Merkel also said that she will not support any solution that violates the principles of the EU, such as free movement of people.
Does Merkel have a plan to stop Brexit altogether?
“Merkel wants the softest Brexit she can get,” says Brunner. “If she hopes for negotiations for a Norway-plus model or a ‘People’s Vote’, it makes sense that she would try to prolong the Brexit negotiations.”
Indeed some German politicians close to the chancellor make exactly this argument. Norbert Röttgen, a CDU-politician and the chairman of the foreign policy committee of the Bundestag, was last week quick to point out that a second referendum or a customs union were among the more popular options voted down in parliament.
“My opinion remains that the people need to decide, because parliament and government are not able to find a solution,” Röttgen said. An underlying hope to this assertion: that the British people might just vote to stop Brexit altogether.
“It’s possible that some German politicians and members of government imagine that a people’s vote might prevent Brexit or at least lead to a definite decision about it,” says Brunner. But in light of the unclear majority for remain in the polls, this would make for wishful thinking – a habit Merkel herself is not known for.
The chancellor deals in facts, not principles – except for one: she’s a cast-iron European. Pipe dreams like Boris Johnson’s past musings that Germany’s reliance on car exports would drive the chancellor to guarantee Britain free access to the single market no matter what are therefore fantasies.
To Merkel, Brexit means Brexit. Until it doesn’t.
CORRECTION: This article was amended to reflect that George Soros is Hungarian-American, not Ukrainian.