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Why Merkel and May could make ideal Brexit partners

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Why Merkel and May could make ideal Brexit partners
Theresa May and Angela Merkel. Photo: DPA
09:54 CEST+02:00
A leading expert on the EU tells The Local why Germany will be on the UK's side in Brexit negotiations, and how Angela Merkel and Theresa May could be a good fit.

It is clear that the United Kingdom needs any friends it can get at the moment.

The shock vote to leave the European Union has led to allegations of recklessness aimed at David Cameron and his cabinet by disappointed European partners.

Speaking at a diplomatic function on Monday evening, Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated the pain she felt at the decision, calling it a “bitter turn of events.”

The United States have also expressed regret that the UK chose to turn its back on the continent that lies across the narrow straits of the English channel.

According to the Daily Telegraph, meanwhile, the French are “salivating at the prospect of UK-based financial businesses relocating to Paris.”

But according to Dr. Michael Wohlgemuth, the director of the Open Europe Berlin think tank, despite the disappointment in Berlin, Germany will be fighting Britain's corner during Brexit negotiations

“It is in Merkel's and the German economy's interest not to put artificial trade barriers up to their third largest trading partner,” he tells The Local. "Germany will really want to try and build bridges between Brussels and London."

And the good news for the Brits is Germany won't be alone.

“The Swedes and the Dutch will also want to keep the UK as close to the EU as possible.”

These countries have traditionally been grateful to London for its efforts to restrain the EU budget and the loss of a close partner at EU summits will hurt.

A recent independent survey in Sweden showed that London and Stockholm voted the same way in almost 89 percent of votes on European policies.

Practical not polemical

With Theresa May moving into 10 Downing Street, Germany is also likely to have a partner in London it can work with.

Many journalists have been quick to make the comparisons with Merkel, with both being the daughters of pastors.

“Perhaps these comparisons are largely just because they are both women,” says Wohlgemuth. “But it seems to me both are pragmatic women, they're not pompous in political style and they're not driven by extreme visions for Europe.”

He expects the two conservative leaders to sit down at the end of the year for an informal discussion on Brexit, which will centre around the premise of 'how do we avoid making this harmful for us'.

However, Britain would be mistaken to believe that Germany will bend over backwards to get the best deal possible for them.

Berlin also “has a political interest in not giving the UK too good a deal” Wohlgemuth points out, as favourable Brexit terms are highly likely to spark "contagion", encouraging other want-away countries to try and seek special terms outside the EU.

While Merkel “will not try to punish the UK by limiting trade” the EU expert asserts, “she will also not compromise on freedoms that are fundamental to the EU” - namely freedom of movement.

Essentially what Germany will be pursuing is the so-called “Norwegian compromise”: a settlement which Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland have all signed up to. They get full access to the European Economic Area, but they also have to accept free movement of goods, capital and labour.

But “there could be a trade-off between certain aspects of access to the free market and immigration. It is not a simple yes or no.”

Wohlgemuth points out that Cameron actually achieved some restrictions on free movement of labour during negotiations in Brussels aimed at convincing British voters to stay in the EU.

At the February summit, the Tory leader won an “emergency brake” clause which would have restricted the access of EU nationals to the British welfare system for a four-year period.

Ironically by voting to leave, British voters wiped out these concessions and there is no guarantee that if Britain wishes to stay in the common market they will be won back.

“All this could still be granted though,” says Wohlgemüth.

Fifty-fifty

As much as northern Europe might be rooting for the UK, the French and other southern European countries have a very different attitude.

Brexit has re-stoked dreams in France of a federal Europe. And with opposition to the EU among the French electorate high, Paris could be tempted to drive the knife in to make sure that the idea of a Frexit becomes much less attractive to French voters.

Wohlgemuth believes that only a minority of the remaining EU member states are open market advocates who really want Britain to remain in the single market, meaning Berlin will have its work cut out to cajole the necessary qualified majority of the other 26 member states into seeing its point of view.

He rates Germany's chances of winning the argument as “fifty-fifty”.

“I think Germany does have some power. After all, there are other member states in the Eurozone who are heavily dependent on German money.

“Eastern European states are also favourable towards the UK for reasons of defence and security and their shared belief in a flexible EU which leaves much political power at the national level. They can be convinced.”

But he cautions that, ultimately, the decisive factor is still the UK government.

“The question is whether the UK is prepared to pay the price for access to the single market.”

May is a woman who has understood all along that staying in the free market means accepting freedom of movement, he says.

“She sees where the problem lies. She is not full of illusions. That is quite similar to Merkel's general attitude. Both leaders may seek mutual win-win solutions and not mutual self-damage.”

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