Angela Merkel: UK must live with consequences of weaker ties to EU

German leader signals trade compromise less likely as she hardens tone on no-deal Brexit

The UK will have to “live with the consequences” of Boris Johnson ditching Theresa May’s plan to maintain close economic ties with the EU after Brexit, Angela Merkel has said, hardening her tone over the prospect of a no-deal scenario at the end of the year.

After more than three years in which the German chancellor repeatedly emphasised her openness to a deal that would maintain the UK’s current flows of trade with the bloc, she suggested the door leading to such a compromise had now closed.

“We need to let go of the idea that it is for us to define what Britain should want,” Merkel said in a wide-ranging interview with a small group of European newspapers, including the Guardian. “That is for Britain to define – and we, the EU27, will respond appropriately.”

Speaking days before Germany takes over the EU rotating presidency, Merkel made clear that her priority was instead to push through a pandemic rescue plan to stop Europe’s economy sliding into the worst slump since the 1930s.

Coming in the week of the fourth anniversary of the Brexit referendum, the change of rhetoric from within the chancellory also appears to quash renewed speculation in the British press that Merkel could seek to soften Brussels’ red lines to secure a last-minute deal.

“With Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the British government wants to define for itself what relationship it will have with us after the country leaves,” Merkel said. “It will then have to live with the consequences, of course, that is to say with a less closely interconnected economy.

“If Britain does not want to have rules on the environment and the labour market or social standards that compare with those of the EU, our relations will be less close. That will mean it does not want standards to go on developing along parallel lines.”

Negotiations between the UK and EU are in deadlock over whether Britain needs to tie itself to the EU’s developing state aid rules and common environmental, social and labour standards in return for a zero-tariff trade deal.

Merkel’s ambassador in Brussels, Michael Clauss, recently said he expected Brexit to command most of the political attention in the autumn, fanning British hopes that Germany’s six-month EU council presidency could push the negotiations back to the top of the political agenda before the extension period ends on 31 December.

(January 31, 1961)  Brefusal

The French president, Charles de Gaulle, vetoes Britain’s entry to EEC, accusing the UK of a “deep-seated hostility” towards the European project.

(January 31, 1973)  Brentry

With Sir Edward Heath having signed the accession treaty the previous year, the UK enters the EEC in an official ceremony complete with a torch-lit rally, dickie-bowed officials and a procession of political leaders, including former prime ministers Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home.

(January 31, 1975)  Referendum

The UK decides to stay in the common market after 67% voted "yes". Margaret Thatcher, later to be leader of the Conservative party, campaigned to remain.

(January 31, 1984)  'Give us our money back'

Margaret Thatcher negotiated what became known as the UK rebate with other EU members after the "iron lady" marched into the former French royal palace at Fontainebleau to demand “our own money back” claiming for every £2 contributed we get only £1 back” despite being one of the “three poorer” members of the community.

It was a move that sowed the seeds of Tory Euroscepticism that was to later cause the Brexit schism in the party. 

(January 31, 1988)  The Bruges speech

Thatcher served notice on the EU community in a defining moment in EU politics in which she questioned the expansionist plans of Jacques Delors, who had remarked that 80% of all decisions on economic and social policy would be made by the European Community within 10 years with a European government in “embryo”. That was a bridge too far for Thatcher.

(January 31, 1989)  The cold war ends

Collapse of Berlin wall and fall of communism in eastern Europe, which would later lead to expansion of EU.

(January 31, 1990) 'No, no, no'

Divisions between the UK and the EU deepened with Thatcher telling the Commons in an infamous speech it was ‘no, no, no’ to what she saw as Delors’ continued power grab. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper ratchets up its opposition to Europe with a two-fingered “Up yours Delors” front page.

(January 31, 1992)  Black Wednesday

A collapse in the pound forced prime minister John Major and the then chancellor Norman Lamont to pull the UK out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism.

(January 31, 1993)  The single market

On 1 January, customs checks and duties were removed across the bloc. Thatcher hailed the vision of “a single market without barriers – visible or invisible – giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people".

(January 31, 1993) Maastricht treaty

Tory rebels vote against the treaty that paved the way for the creation of the European Union. John Major won the vote the following day in a pyrrhic victory. 

(January 31, 1997)  Repairing the relationship

Tony Blair patches up the relationship. Signs up to social charter and workers' rights.

(January 31, 1999)  Ukip

Nigel Farage elected an MEP and immediately goes on the offensive in Brussels. “Our interests are best served by not being a member of this club,” he said in his maiden speech. “The level playing field is about as level as the decks of the Titanic after it hit an iceberg.”

(January 31, 2003) The euro

Chancellor Gordon Brown decides the UK will not join the euro.

(January 31, 2004) 

EU enlarges to to include eight countries of the former eastern bloc including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

(January 31, 2007) 

EU expands again, allowing Romania and Bulgaria into the club.

(January 31, 2015) Migrant crisis

Anti-immigration hysteria seems to take hold with references to “cockroches” by Katie Hopkins in the Sun and tabloid headlines such as “How many more can we take?” and “Calais crisis: send in the dogs”.

(February 1, 2016) 

David Cameron returns from Brussels with an EU reform package - but it isn't enough to appease the Eurosceptic wing of his own party

(June 23, 2016)  Brexit referendum

The UK votes to leave the European Union, triggering David Cameron's resignation and paving the way for Theresa May to become prime minister

(January 31, 2020)  Britain leaves the EU

After years of parliamentary impasse during Theresa May's attempt to get a deal agreed, the UK leaves the EU.

But in the interview, held around the enormous circular conference table inside Merkel’s chancellory in order to meet physical distancing rules, the German leader vowed to spend most of her political energy during the presidency on rallying EU member states around a joint economic response to “a challenge of unprecedented dimensions” posed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The coronavirus crisis, which comes in the 15th and final full year of Merkel’s stint at the top of German politics, has not just led to a remarkable upswing for her personal approval ratings, but also an extraordinary pivot away from her conservative party’s deeply ingrained fiscal restraint.

On 18 May, Merkel surprised even party colleagues in her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) by teaming up with Emmanuel Macron to push for a European recovery fund worth €500bn (£448bn).

In front of journalists from the Europa group of newspapers, including the Guardian, Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung, France’s Le Monde, Spain’s La Vanguardia, Italy’s La Stampa and Poland’s Polityka, Merkel said Germany was right to be prepared for “an extraordinary act of solidarity”.

“In a crisis of this magnitude, each and every one of us is expected to do what needs to be done. What needs to be done in this case is something extraordinary. Germany had a low debt ratio and can afford, in this extraordinary situation, to take on some more debt. It is also very important to us to keep the programme within the bounds of the European treaties. We have found a way to do that.”

Her goal, Merkel said, was for the EU’s response to eventually match the multilateral response to the 2008 financial crisis. “These days, we have to do all we can to stop ourselves collapsing into protectionism. If Europe wants to be heard, then it needs to set a good example.”

Merkel and Macron’s initiative faces resistance from Austria, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. Even if they can sway the “frugal four”, in the coming months there is likely to be a scramble for access to recovery package funds.

Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron
Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron are leading the push for a €500bn EU recovery fund. Photograph: Reuters

“Because of the different degrees of damage inflicted by the pandemic, the distribution has to be based on a different formula from the one applied to normal European budgets,” said Merkel. “I hope that this argument will be accepted. This unusual challenge requires us to take an unusual path.

“For countries which are already heavily in debt, more borrowing makes less sense than grants. I am working to convince the remaining countries which have so far been in favour of loans but against grants.”

Some suggest Merkel’s seeming reinvention from arch-austerian to big spender has been forced by the German constitutional court’s ruling on 5 May, questioning the legality of the European Central Bank’s bond-buying programme, and thus the entirety of the EU’s legal regime.

“Without a doubt, European law has precedence over national law – but that does not tell us where the realm of European law begins and ends,” said Merkel. “The essence of the European Union lies in the member states transferring powers. In the borderland between the spheres of jurisdiction of national and European law, friction can occur if the European level defines its limits more broadly than, for example, the German Parliament does. That’s what we are seeing in the ECB case.”

While the ruling of the constitutional court in Karlsruhe represented “a conflict”, Merkel said, it did not fundamentally challenge the legal order of the EU: “That is the nature of the beast, since a nation state will always be able to lay claim to particular powers unless all powers are transferred to the European institutions, which is surely not going to happen.”


Philip Oltermann in Berlin

The GuardianTramp

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