After Brexit, all eyes are on Angela Merkel: how she steers the first steps into uncharted territory with Britain, and how she acts to steady the EU of 27 it leaves behind. Unlike others, the German chancellor has been there before.
Angela Merkel thrives on crisis. Since taking office in 2005 she has steered Germany – and, in recent years, Europe – through a bewildering series of crises: banking, the euro, and migration. In her spare time she has mediated a military standoff between Ukraine and Russia and managed the Western world’s response to a growing asymmetrical war with Islamist extremism.
As the German leader headed to Brussels on Tuesday for yet another EU crisis summit (is there any other kind anymore?) she admitted that, “Europe has survived many difficult crises, but in almost 60 years … there has never been anything like this.”
After Britain’s vote to exit the EU last week, the Berlin leader wasted no time in calling it an Einschnitt (“watershed”) in the history of European integration. Now all eyes are on the German leader: how she steers the first steps into uncharted territory with Britain, and how she acts to steady the EU of 27 it leaves behind.
After initial conciliatory remarks, Merkel got tough on Monday and Tuesday, as Britain’s timetable for actually filing for divorce hovered in the air. In a stern speech to the German Bundestag on Tuesday, she warned Prime Minister David Cameron’s successor not to delay in activating Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which starts a two-year window to negotiate London’s departure – and a new relationship.
Until that happens, she warned, no talks – formal or informal – can take place about Britain’s future relationship with the EU. And even when talks begin, she warned, there can be no “cherry-picking”. “It has to make a considerable difference if someone wants to be a member of the European family or not,” she said.
The crunch issue for many of Britain’s “Leave” campaigners is maintaining free access to the EU’s common market. Dismissing claims that Britain can have its common market cake and eat it, too, she said that common market access requires accepting the four basic freedoms of movement: for goods, services, capital, and – crucially for migration-allergic Britain – people. “That applies to Great Britain as much as it does to anyone else,” she said. “Someone who wants to leave cannot expect that the obligations fall but the privileges remain.”
It’s likely Merkel had a déjà vu-flash when she landed in the EU capital on Tuesday afternoon. Unlike other EU leaders at the summit table, she has been here before: when grand plans for a European constitution came to nothing a decade ago. After years of hearings and negotiations, voters in France and the Netherlands killed off in two referenda efforts to give the EU a less technocratic heart.
Considering the decade of crisis since then, it’s easy to forget the existential gloom back then. But Angela Merkel hasn’t forgotten. She turned things around then with her first pan-European deployment of what we now call the Merkel method.
Step one: allow everyone vent a bit, but not too long, while watching and saying nothing committal. Step two: break down a seemingly hopeless, complex task into a set of manageable, sequential steps. Step three: leave the civil servants to tackle reform technicalities and get politicians working on matters of style to lift the mood.
In March 2007, in the middle of Germany’s EU presidency, Merkel invited downbeat EU leaders to mark the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, the bloc’s foundation, by signing a “Berlin Declaration”. The declaration had no legal weight but it had an aspiration: to break the vicious circle of depression and paralysis and got things moving again in Europe with its core idea that the continent’s citizens “have united, to our good fortune.”
It worked – for a while at least. But now, to its misfortune, Europe is divided like never before. A major EU member wants out, the path ahead obscure, and Europe’s political mainstream is squeezed between left-wing austerity opponents and referenda-loving right wing populists.The Brexit shock is sparking financial market contagion – and the German chancellor knows that Berlin Declaration-style pathos won’t be enough this time around. Also, concerns about German dominance in the EU are greater now than ever before, meaning Merkel’s priority will be to move lightly and soundlessly to maneuver the bloc from post-mortem sniping to real reform.
Less Distant, More Social?
France could be the next to send a euro shock if – as expected – the far-right Marine Le Pen uses the Brexit vote to build up her already considerable position ahead of next year’s presidential elections. Alarmed, the center-left Paris administration had teamed up with political allies across Europe’s Socialist bloc – including Merkel’s Social Democrat (SPD) grand coalition partners – to strike against the dominant center-right ideology in Europe. The lesson of the Brexit vote, they say, is that citizens want a less distant and more social Europe.
After trilateral talks on Monday in Berlin with her French and Italian counterparts, François Hollande and Matteo Renzi, the leaders said the EU needed to present concrete proposals to tackle concrete problems: security, the economy, youth unemployment. What Europe needs now is a “Europe that works,” Merkel told MPs on Tuesday, not more shadowboxing over “more or less Europe” – suggesting the Berlin leader is as cool as ever to the idea that a new EU treaty is good for what ails Europe.
But institutional root canal work is what many in the EU – particularly a nascent national conservative camp in Central and Eastern Europe – are now demanding. Europe’s surging populists, meanwhile, want to pull a series of teeth from the EU and return it to its common market origins.
After five decades driving forward – followed by another decade stalled in crisis – the European car has just discovered that it has a reverse gear. But expect no sudden moves from the woman at the wheel.