James Kirkup

How Cameron’s misreading of Merkel led to Brexit | 29 October 2018

How Cameron’s misreading of Merkel led to Brexit | 29 October 2018
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It is impossible to overstate Angela Merkel’s significance, to Germany, to the EU, and to Britain. Others are better qualified than me to talk about the first two of those, but as she announces her (slow, deliberate) departure from office, I offer a thought about Merkel and Britain, which is that the modern history of Britain’s European policy has been a story of misunderstanding Angela Merkel, and therefore Germany.

This story starts in 2005, when David Cameron stood for the Tory leadership. As a moderate, he was keen to woo the Right, especially on Europe. So he promised to pull the Tory MEPs out of the European People’s Party grouping in the European Parliament. He made the promise despite knowing that Merkel was concerned about the prospect of an institutional split between the Conservatives and her Christian Democrats. She even said so publicly.

That concern caused Cameron to delay but not abandon his plan: in 2009, the Tories duly left the EPP, severing an alliance which – though they did not value it – mattered quite a lot to the most influential leader in Europe. For some in Europe, that decision was proof that Cameron was a man to put party management ahead of statecraft. And leaders with such a reputation do not, as a whole, do well in European negotiations, especially with Merkel. Not that Cameron was daunted.  Throughout his time as PM, he consistently overestimated his ability to win and retain support from Merkel, only to discover that she was not as committed to his cause as he had hoped.  

To be fair to Cameron, he was hardly the only politician to have this experience, but the consequences of his misreading Merkel were rather greater. Consider his decision to frame the EU referendum as a choice between exit and his new, renegotiated membership. The only way he could really remake the UK membership deal was with Merkel’s support for a have-cake-and-eat-deal that was always hard to reconcile with most German ideas of the EU. Of course, some people in the British government knew this very well, and urged caution. The history of Brexit will, one day, record their names with honour.

But Cameron and his team were not daunted, believing that something as airy as his personal charm would actually persuade the utterly grounded German chancellor to change Germany’s fundamental approach to Europe. When that history of Brexit is written, the No 10 briefing in 2014 to our own James Forsyth that Merkel saw Cameron as a “naughty nephew” and would help him with his renegotiation should get very close attention. Those two words capture perfectly the unthinking hubris of the Cameron team that tipped Britain out of the EU by accident. 

For of course, Cameron’s new deal came to very little, and the Remain campaign was hobbled from the start. Having spent years telling voters the EU was rubbish, Cameron then asked them to vote for more of the same rubbish. Then he ran away to avoid dealing with the consequences of his failure, but that’s a story for another day.

Some of those politicians who stuck around to deal with Brexit have also consistently misread Merkel and Germany, most notably David Davis. “The first calling point of the UK's negotiator immediately after #Brexit will not be Brussels, it will be Berlin, to strike a deal” he declared in May 2016, capturing the belief that Germany would call the final shots in any negotiation, meaning the UK could ignore and undermine Michel Barnier and the European Commission.

Merkel is also central to the superstitious beliefs of some Brexiteers about how Germany and the EU operates, a view that suggests German carmarkers run Germany’s European policy and that Merkel would, in the final analysis, do anything to strike a deal allowing them to sell cars to the UK freely.

“Post #Brexit a UK-German deal would include free access for their cars and industrial goods, in exchange for a deal on everything else,” Davis wrote a couple of months before becoming Britain’s main Brexit negotiator.

And then in October 2016, Merkel clearly and publicly explained why this magical thinking cut no ice with her: preserving the EU project matters more to her and Germany than accommodating the parochial interests of either the UK government or the Conservative Party:

"If we don't say full access to the internal market is linked to full freedom of movement, then a movement will spread in Europe where everyone just does whatever they want.”

For Merkel, a pick-and-choose approach to Europe was never an option. Cake was never on her menu, either before or after our referendum.

That simple truth has been there in plain sight since Merkel become Chancellor in 2005, yet a great many British politicians and observers have gone to great pains to ignore it. Time after time, they took Merkel’s cautious and sometimes cryptic public persona as a blank canvass on which they could paint their imagined version of European and German politics. And time after time, they were wrong.

What happens now? How will Merkel’s announced departure affect the Brexit process? I offer not predictions here. Instead, I just say this: the next time you hear a British politician predict that Angela Merkel is about to give full backing to whatever that politician is trying to sell you, think long and hard before buying it.