Raisins or cherries, the message remains the same

Angela Merkel warned last week against British cherrypicking on Brexit. Or rather, she warned against “Rosinenpickerei”, which literally means raisin-picking.

But this is hardly news.

On 28 June, 5 days after the referendum, Merkel first included such a warning in a speech to the Bundestag, immediately before the European Council meeting and the first informal meeting of “the 27” on 29 June. And her message has been consistent since then, despite wishful misinterpretations by sections of the British press.

What has changed in the intervening months? In June, her Bundestag speech was solely about Brexit and its impact on Europe and Germany. She effectively set out a manifesto for the negotiations with Britain, her expectations and red lines, and the priorities for those remaining in the EU. On 6 December, the warnings about cherry-picking and the importance of the four fundamental freedoms were no more than a passing reference to Brexit within her wide-ranging, 80-minute CDU party conference speech.

Contrast our own government, which has yet to set out its Brexit strategy after nearly six months, with Merkel, who took just five days to produce a carefully considered response. Expressing her deep regret at the outcome, she set out a six-point plan:

  • The 27 remaining member states must take decisions based on a calm and reasoned analysis of the situation, and must all do this together.
  • It was for Britain to explain first how it wanted to shape its future relationship with Europe.
  • While it would be for the Article 50 negotiations to determine the details of the future relationship, she suggested it was in Britain’s own interests, as well as in Germany’s, to maintain close and friendly links.
  • There could be no cherry-picking. For example, any country wanting membership of the single market must also accept the four fundamental freedoms.
  • She went on to speak about priorities for a successful Europe.
  • And finally, she stressed the importance of a historical awareness in drawing conclusions from the Brexit referendum: European unity had been a way of finding peace and reconciliation after centuries of bloodshed and war.

She also included an important hint: the German government would be keeping a close eye on the interests of their own citizens and businesses, including the many German citizens living in Britain who were now concerned for their future, and she assured them that Germany would make every effort to find solutions to any questions that arose.

Did Foreign Office officials ever brief May on the detail of Merkel’s agenda-setting June speech? There has been just one small sign that they may have done, and perhaps even advised her to act on Merkel’s concern for German citizens – but if so, her response came far too late. At the end of November, an intriguing story emerged about their encounter during President Obama’s farewell tour to Europe in mid-November. May apparently put to Merkel the idea of suggesting a deal, at the forthcoming mid-December EU summit, under which (non-UK) EU citizens in the UK would be assured of their right to stay and UK citizens elsewhere in the EU would receive a reciprocal assurance. Given Merkel’s comments about the concerns of German citizens in the UK, this proposal might have had some traction had it come from Cameron immediately after the referendum, or even from May on her first visit to Germany in mid-July – though it would still have carried the unpleasant implication of using German citizens as bargaining chips. In any event, four months on, Merkel’s response was a flat “Nein”, a rejection which – according to Fraser Nelson in the Spectator – surprised May so much that she took some time to regain her composure. This may explain the awkward body language between the two women captured in a tweet by The Times’ Berlin correspondent, David Charter.

A recent FT article by Janan Ganesh focused on the inability of the British, raised on irony and understatement, to comprehend and take at face value the more candid, forthright style of communication favoured in continental Europe. That is part of the problem. But I would suggest the differences between Merkel and May go deeper than that: Germany and the UK have a very different way of doing politics, possibly fostered by the Germans’ constant need to form and maintain coalitions (between CDU and CSU, and even between CDU/CSU and SPD).

May opened her first cabinet meeting in July by telling her Ministers that politics was not a game. But she has failed to follow through on that maxim herself. Her closing speech at the Tory party conference was a hodge-podge of dog-whistles, empty slogans and kite-flying, embellished with lame jokes and jibes against those with a less parochial view of the world. Reading May’s speech alongside Merkel’s recent speech to the CDU, I was struck by a very visible difference: May spoke entirely in sentences, whereas Merkel spoke in whole paragraphs.

This reflects the fact that the Germans have a much more serious-minded attitude to politics. One of David Cameron’s last acts in Downing Street was to hum a tune – variously identified as the close of the West Wing theme, or a range of classical possibilities from Wagner’s Tannhäuser to Shostakovich’s 5th symphony. The British reaction to this was generally positive, as a rather endearing sign of humanity, and someone even orchestrated the tune into “Cameron’s lament”. By contrast, the German weekly Der Spiegel ran a heavily critical article comparing Cameron’s behaviour to the antics of the Bullingdon club, under a title neatly containing its conclusion: “The strange little song by the departing British Prime Minister DC shows how much respect he has for his position and for the public: none at all”.

If we are to enter successfully into constructive new relationships with our European neighbours, our politicians and civil servants will have to learn to bridge such cultural gaps.

[This is the first in what may turn out to be a series of Merkel-watching blogs aiming to interpret the German political scene and attitudes to Brexit.]

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