What happened yesterday regarding the Brexit talks was reminiscent of the Battle of Waterloo – at least the version taught in my German school.
The French had Britain on the brink of defeat, when Prussian troops stormed in and reprieved them.
Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier – a former foreign minister of France, don’t forget – and his francophone troops were ready to declare all further negotiations futile and walk away when Germany’s EU ambassador relayed a message from Berlin.
Alexander Von Schoenburg (pictured), editor-at-large of Germany’s biggest-selling newspaper Bild
Our foreign minister Heiko Maas insisted it was time to end the doctrinaire approach and ‘start looking for a political solution’. If that meant talks had to go on beyond Sunday night, then so be it. As we have seen, his intervention proved decisive.
At around the same time, a press conference was taking place at Germany’s Bundeskanzleramt, the Chancellery.
It was designed to be solely devoted to explaining Germany’s new Covid measures but one journalist asked whether the Chancellor Angela Merkel was in favour of the Brexit negotiations continuing.
She replied: ‘One should try everything that is possible to reach an agreement.’
That word ‘everything’ highlights the difference between the German and the French positions.
From the very beginning of the Brexit talks, there have been two schools of thought prevailing on the continent. Pictured: Prime Minister Boris Johnson with EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen in Brussels
From the very beginning of the Brexit talks, there have been two schools of thought prevailing on the continent.
The German approach has always been to offer Britain a tailor-made deal that is more favourable than the one reached with Norway, or even with Switzerland.
The argument being that the size of Britain’s economy justifies a more delicate approach. Contentious areas could be sidestepped via extended transitional periods.
The second school of thought, favoured by those in the Francophone block, argued the outcome had to be so detrimental to Britain that no other member state would ever again dare go down the road of secession. In short, Britain needed to be punished.
The running gag in Brussels was that whenever the French anti-secessionist general Michel Barnier was away and non-French-speaking civil servants were running the show, negotiations were constructive. When he had to leave the negotiating table and self-isolate after a colleague contracted Covid, for example, there are said to have been a few minor breakthroughs.
But when he returned to the negotiating table, the tone of the talks turned distinctly hostile, thanks to Barnier’s insistence that the UK must abide by EU regulatory changes made after it leaves the bloc.
Germany, of course, has much more to lose from a No Deal conclusion than France.
Last year we exported €80billion (£73billion) of goods and services to the UK – which is the world’s biggest buyer of German cars, accounting for almost one in five of our motoring exports. Volkswagen alone sold 200,000 cars in Britain last year. You are also big buyers of German pharmaceuticals, chemicals and petroleum products.
Volkswagen (pictured) alone sold 200,000 cars in Britain last year. You are also big buyers of German pharmaceuticals, chemicals and petroleum products
Given that our ‘golden decade’ of growth stuttered to a halt last year and the economy has since been devastated by the pandemic, the last thing we need is a tariff barrier to one of our biggest markets.
After all, Britain is not just any old member of the EU. The UK economy is bigger than the 11 smallest EU member states combined. In effect, the EU is shrinking from 27 member states to 16.
We are now at an historical turning point. On Friday, German foreign minister Maas rightly said that future generations will judge us harshly if we walk away from the talks now.
This amounted to a veto from Berlin against the EU Commission’s hawkish stance towards Britain. Monsieur Barnier’s strategy, to force Britain into a position of such despair that it would be forced to come grovelling back some time in the future, has effectively been rebuffed by Berlin.
From what I hear from those close to Ursula von der Leyen, the head of the European Commission, the EU had ceased negotiating in earnestness long before Prime Minister Johnson’s fruitless journey for that dinner in Brussels last Wednesday.
Ursula bossed him around in front of the cameras and served him fish and an Australian dessert – a not so subtle hint as to where this whole affair is heading.
But as Mr Johnson’s plane waited to take him back to London, journalists in Berlin were briefed that Chancellor Merkel was in favour of a face-saving solution for Britain – one that would preserve your sovereignty in so far as there is such a thing in a world growing ever more interdependent.
Alas, the sources told us, Mrs Merkel’s former protegee Ursula had told her in no uncertain terms that it is the prerogative of Brussels and of Brussels alone to conduct all last-minute negotiations and any interference from single national governments was regarded as unwelcome interference. This, Mrs von der Leyen insisted, was the only way to safeguard the interests of all member states collectively.
The sources told us, Mrs Merkel’s (pictured) former protegee Ursula had told her in no uncertain terms that it is the prerogative of Brussels and of Brussels alone
Yesterday’s change of course is a sign of hope, that Paris – and with it Brussels – is coming to its senses.
It would be a grave misreading of Britain’s determination to take back control from the EU, to punish you now on the basis that a future government will knock on our door asking politely for re-entry.
Needless to say, the negotiations could still fail but, if they do, it could be a blessing in disguise.
Once you are out completely, even if it is on WTO-terms, you may well look back on 2020 as the year in which you managed to escape the dead hand of Brussels and regain your role as a global player with a distinctly more liberal, more entrepreneur-friendly and hence more attractive and innovative place to do business.
Ursula von der Leyen (pictured) might be slightly bossy – but the good thing from your point of view is that she is not French but German
A kind of Singapore on Thames is exactly what is feared most in Berlin and this is why Germany will do everything it takes to avoid a trade war and to get Monsieur Barnier and France off their high horse.
Ursula von der Leyen might be slightly bossy – but the good thing from your point of view is that she is not French but German.
In fact, she is from Lower Saxony, a place which not only has particularly close ties to Britain but is the region where Volkswagen’s headquarters is located.
With the entreaties of Mrs Merkel and Germany’s foreign minister Maas ringing in her ears, my prediction is that Mrs von der Leyen will go that extra mile the French seem incapable of going.