Theresa May’s formal notice of the UK’s intention to leave the EU is handed to European Council president Donald Tusk in Brussels on Wednesday © AFP
German lawmakers have warned that Theresa May’s threat to limit security co-operation with the EU if Brexit talks collapse could undermine negotiations — but Angela Merkel herself has declined to join the critics.
Germany’s chancellor, the most powerful national leader in the EU as the bloc sets out on two years of talks over the terms of the UK’s exit, is determined not to inflame the mood and wants to prevent Brexit from taking over the EU agenda.
Even at a conference on Europe’s future this week, in front of an audience of centre-right allies, Ms Merkel delivered a set-piece speech that said nothing about the UK’s departure plans.
Yet some of Ms Merkel’s allies left little doubt that they were unhappy at the British prime minister’s observations on post-Brexit security arrangements, made in her letter setting out Britain’s intention to leave the EU. They warned that the hints of “blackmail” overshadowed its generally conciliatory approach.
“The letter was a bit nicer in tone that I expected,” Norbert Röttgen, head of the Bundestag international affairs committee, said. “But it was undermined by her remarks on security co-operation. She could have framed that positively, but the threat to withdraw co-operation if things go wrong will be seen as blackmail.”
Detlef Seif, Brexit spokesman for Ms Merkel’s ruling conservative bloc, said in a Bundestag Brexit debate: “This amounts to the ultimate unprincipled blackmail attempt.”
The German government itself is playing down the potential security threats, which coincide with a state of alert over international terrorism. Defence minister Ursula von der Leyen said: “I do not expect we are going to bargain with security topics because it’s in our common and mutual interest to exchange information.”
The spat over security casts a shadow over an otherwise broadly positive German response to Mrs May’s historic letter. German officials are satisfied that it was less aggressive than other recent British declarations, including the Brexit White Paper that was published in February and set out the UK stance
Berlin’s position on Brexit has been hardening steadily over the nine months since the referendum vote, mainly in reaction to Mrs May moving away from a possible soft Brexit towards a hard one. Germany has also redoubled efforts to defend the EU-27 in the face of populist criticism, including from US president Donald Trump.
Germans remain sympathetic to the UK. In the Bundestag, Ralph Brinkhaus, a CDU lawmaker, recalled Britain’s contribution to Germany’s post-1945 reconstruction and said: “Mutual respect: that’s what we owe our British friends.”
But this does not extend to the key question of the sequencing of the negotiations. Ms Merkel insists the Brexit talks must clarify the terms of Britain’s departure, including the exit bill, before focusing on the future UK-EU relationship. She said this week that the second phase could come “subsequently — but hopefully soon” after the first.
The European Commission, in its negotiating guidelines published on Friday, called for “significant progress” on phase one before phase two starts. German officials accept this — as long as the UK pledges early on to honour its exit commitments.
There remains concern in Berlin about how pro-Brexit parts of the British media are stoking anti-EU sentiment, even when Mrs May has expressed support for the union, and potentially making talks more difficult.
Norbert Spinrath, the SPD’s parliamentary Brexit spokesman, said: “Theresa May is generally conciliatory in her language but the UK media is still in campaign mode. This will put her under pressure.”
Other lawmakers fear Mrs May might be pushed into taking a firmer line and force Germany, and others, into a tougher response. “I am a bit more pessimistic than I was before about whether we can reach an agreement,” says Mr Röttgen. “Positions have hardened on both sides. I think there is now a 60:40 chance of failure.”