EUROPE FIRST

Merkel Gives Britain Cold Shoulder

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Sorry Theresa. Picture source: Reuters

Chancellor Angela Merkel has given the cold shoulder to a politically weakened Britain, as EU leaders meet for the first summit since Brexit negotiations started earlier this month. Ms. Merkel made clear that Britain, though still officially an EU member, should take a back seat to the interests of the other 27 member states.

“For me, shaping the future of the 27 member states has priority over the question of negotiations with Britain about the exit,” Ms. Merkel said in Brussels in the run-up to the summit. The European Union should of course conduct the Brexit talks in an efficient and constructive manner, the chancellor said, but “the clear focus has to be on the future of the 27.”

The 28 EU member states are meeting in Brussels on Thursday and Friday to discuss a range of issues, from Brexit to trade to defense policy. The political winds in Europe have shifted dramatically since the last EU summit was held in April. Emmanuel Macron, a staunch Europhile, won a landslide victory in French presidential and legislative elections, while British Prime Minister Theresa May lost the Tory majority in parliament. And Ms. Merkel, facing national elections in September, has emerged from a slump in the polls to attain a commanding lead over her rivals.

“Some of my British friends have even asked me whether Brexit could be reversed, and whether I could imagine an outcome where the UK stays part of the EU. ”

Donald Tusk, EU Council President

Ms. May arrives in Brussels politically weakened, with questions looming about how long she will remain prime minister after she miscalculated politically and called snap elections that resulted in devastating losses for the Tories. Britain seemed poised for a hard Brexit under Ms. May’s leadership; she had even called for Britain to leave the EU single market for goods and services to impose stricter controls on immigration. But with the Conservatives facing a hung parliament, London may be forced to soften its negotiating position in Brexit talks. Indeed, Ms. May said she would make a “generous offer” on the rights of EU citizens living in Britain at this week’s summit.

The European Union, viewed as teetering on the brink of collapse just a couple months ago, has been strengthened by Mr. Macron’s decisive victory in France over anti-EU firebrand Marine Le Pen. And Ms. Merkel, who once seemed politically weakened by the refugee crisis, is now riding high with a 64-percent domestic approval rating.  Mr. Macron and Ms. Merkel, both buttressed by strong support at home, are keen to kick-start the long-stalled Franco-German alliance, often referred to as the motor of European integration.

Berlin and Paris both support closer cooperation on defense, amid uncertainty about the commitment of the United States to the NATO military alliance under President Donald Trump. EU government leaders agreed on Thursday to take concrete steps over the next three months to deepen cooperation on joint defense projects and foreign military missions. Ms. Merkel said the European Union is not trying to rival NATO.

“Everyone stressed today that an orderly common set-up of defense structures should not occur in opposition to NATO but the contrary — in collaboration with it,” Ms. Merkel was quoted as saying by Politico. “However, within the EU there is the possibility to integrate much more those member states that are not members of NATO.”

EU leaders also agreed to extend sanctions against Russia for another six months over the conflict in Ukraine. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel recently said there had not been enough progress in the peace process to justify loosening sanctions against Russia.

Mr. Macron also wants to deepen cooperation in the 19-member euro zone. He has proposed creating a joint budget for investment and a joint finance minister for the currency union. Conservatives in Berlin are skeptical of the proposals, but Ms. Merkel, in a nod to Mr. Macron, said Tuesday she was was open to a joint euro-zone finance minister and budget if the conditions and structures are right.

Ms. Merkel, the longest-serving and most influential leader in the European Union, wants to prevent Brexit from dominating the agenda of the summit and focus instead on deepening cooperation among the remaining 27 members. As the political winds turn in Europe, a growing number of EU officials have even suggested that Britain could reverse Brexit altogether. EU Council President Donald Tusk acknowledged that this seemed like wishful thinking, but quoted British rock legend John Lennon to suggest that it is not totally out of the realm of possibility.

“Some of my British friends have even asked me whether Brexit could be reversed, and whether I could imagine an outcome where the UK stays part of the EU,”  Mr. Tusk said. “I told them that in fact the European Union was built on dreams that seemed impossible to achieve. So, who knows? You may say I’m a dreamer, but I am not the only one.”

 

Spencer Kimball is an editor with Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: s.kimball@extern.handelsblatt.com

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