Brexit has destabilised the Franco-German couple

Berlin used to rely on the UK to resist the expansion of the EU budget

Gideon Rachman

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcome European Commission president-elect Ursula Von der Leyen (not pictured) after a joint Franco-German cabinet meeting in Toulouse, France, October 16, 2019. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau/File Photo
Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel after a Franco-German cabinet meeting in Toulouse, France, in October © Reuters

“Ah, your last visit to Germany without a visa,” joked a senior German official as I walked into his office in Berlin earlier this month. But, despite the barbed greeting, I found little antagonism towards the UK and its prime minister, Boris Johnson. On the contrary, the person who is really irritating the German government at the moment is Emmanuel Macron, the president of France.

This is not because the German officials that I spoke to have suddenly decided that Mr Johnson is a wonderful chap and that Brexit is a great idea. Nor have they completely lost their admiration for Mr Macron. But, in the language of relationships, the Germans are now so “over” the British that they no longer feel angry with them. By contrast, they are still locked into a dysfunctional marriage with France. Divorce is inconceivable, but their partner is becoming increasingly irritating.

The Merkel government appears to have decided that Brexit is inevitable and seems genuinely keen to get on with it. As a result, German officials take a rather positive attitude to Mr Johnson, finding him easier to deal with and more straightforward than his predecessor, Theresa May. They hope that Mr Johnson will finally be able to get Brexit through parliament.

An election that leads to a hung parliament and a second referendum in Britain may be longed for by Remainers in the UK, but the prospect is not greeted with delight in Berlin.

Nor does the German government seem outraged that Mr Johnson wants Brexit Britain to diverge significantly from current EU regulations. One senior official shrugs that Brexit would be pretty pointless if the UK did not exercise this option. But German diplomats closely involved with the negotiations are worried that the British do not fully understand how much regulatory divergence will complicate phase two of the talks, the negotiation of a trade deal.

They are concerned that Britain will once again enter Brexit talks underprepared and with unrealistic expectations. (Author’s note: they are right to be worried about that.)

Still, psychologically, the Berlin elite seem to have moved on from Brexit and is already adjusting to an EU without Britain. However, rather than making life simpler for Germany, Brexit is making it more complicated. The UK is a major contributor to the EU budget and, without British money, Germany’s contribution is bound to shoot up. Berlin is already deep into a tussle with southern European countries who want to see the EU budget expand significantly and expect Germany to foot the bill. The German position is that the EU budget should not go above 1 per cent of gross domestic product. But even if they can hold the line at that, they calculate that Germany’s annual contribution would increase by €10bn a year.

In the past, the UK could have been relied upon to resist the expansion of the EU budget. One official says that the British used to play an important role in what he calls “bullshit control”. If somebody (the French president, for example) suggested a crazy idea, the British could be counted upon to raise a list of predictable concerns — cost, legality, practicality.

“We wouldn’t have had to say anything; the British would have done it for us,” remarks one diplomat wistfully.

Mr Macron has recently made some remarks about Nato — calling the alliance “brain-dead” in an interview with The Economist — that have caused consternation in Berlin. Oddly enough, the Germans do not really argue with some of the points that Mr Macron made about Nato — in particular the difficulties posed by Turkey’s incursion into Syria and by America’s wavering commitment. They just believe that it was deeply impolitic of the French president to trash the western alliance in public.

This, combined with French feelers towards Russia, have alarmed Poland and other central European members of the EU. One German official remarks that for France the concerns of Poland seem very distant, but “we are sitting 80km from the Polish border” in Berlin.

Mr Macron’s increasingly outspoken comments reflect French frustration that the Merkel government has responded so cautiously to his ambitious plans for reform of the EU — on everything from defence to the eurozone. The French feel that an over-cautious German government has failed to grasp the gravity of the international situation. They also worry that Germany’s political parties are increasingly preoccupied by internal jockeying, which is making the Merkel government even more introspective and slow-moving.

But these complaints get short shrift in Berlin. One German official even muses that the French president is indulging in “intellectualised Trumpism”, characterised by a fondness for destabilising initiatives that surprise even his own top officials. The Germans say that real progress is made by painstaking and detailed diplomacy, rather than by making flashy statements to the press.

During almost half a century in the EU, the British often felt locked out by the intimate relationship between the “Franco-German couple”. But the fact that the Brits are now leaving the EU, seems to have had an oddly destabilising effect on the dynamics of the relationship between France and Germany. What has not changed is that both sides remain deeply committed to each other. As one Berlin official sighs: “We’re doomed to make this work.”

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