BERLIN, GERMANY - APRIL 09: German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets British Prime Minister Theresa May upon May's arrival at the Chancellery on April 9, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. May is meeting with both Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron today to discuss Brexit ahead of tomorrow's summit of European Union leaders in Brussels. (Photo by Omer Messinger/Getty Images)
Angela Merkel (right) and Theresa May in Berlin on Tuesday. Mrs Merkel appears to favour a relatively long extension of Article 50 © Omer Messinger/Getty Images

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Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, the German and French leaders, are expected to outline rigorous conditions for a Brexit extension when each hosts Theresa May, the beleaguered UK prime minister, in their national capitals on Tuesday.

Any arrangements that extend the UK’s EU membership into the second half of 2019 will require London to be, in effect, a passive onlooker, unable to influence the bloc’s policies and personnel appointments in any way.

As angry Conservative party hardliners scheme against her at Westminster, Mrs May’s first stop is in Berlin, where there is dismay at the UK’s inability to solve its Brexit muddle, mixed with a certain bewilderment and amusement at the expense of the British.

On Monday Germany’s WDR television network broadcast a panel discussion of Brexit under the title: “Sorry, dear Britons: who now takes you seriously?”

Less frivolously, Ursula von der Leyen, Germany’s defence minister, cautioned that a hard Brexit would be “the worst possible start” to the close long-term EU-UK relationship that Berlin holds desirable.

Ms Merkel, Mrs von der Leyen and other ministers appear to favour a relatively long extension of Article 50, the legal instrument that governs a state’s departure from the EU. That may mean until the end of the year — a timeframe longer than Mr Macron is thought to prefer.

If so, however, this should not be interpreted as an expression of German goodwill towards Mrs May or German readiness to go the extra mile to accommodate UK wishes. On such points politicians and commentators in London consistently misread the motives behind German policies.

For Ms Merkel, Donald Tusk, the European Council president, and other EU leaders, the case for extending Article 50 rests primarily on the need not to risk destabilising the EU by allowing London to slide into a disorderly Brexit. Their motives are economic and geopolitical.

Although the economic impact would be more severe in the UK than in most EU27 countries, there would be some negative consequences for Germany. As this ING bank report explains, the fallout might be worse for smaller states in central and eastern Europe, whose economies are closely tied to the German car sector.

But the worst-hit EU country, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, would undoubtedly be Ireland. At stake there is not just economic prosperity but peace on the divided island. This explains the strong language of Leo Varadkar, the Irish premier, who warns that any country that vetoed a delay to Brexit “wouldn’t be forgiven”. 

Having promised last week that he would “never abandon Ireland and the Irish”, Mr Macron will surely agree to an extension of Article 50, however intense his frustration with the British.

In London some wild rumours are going round to the effect that Mr Macron might try in a Machiavellian way to keep the UK in the EU. By refusing to countenance an extension of Article 50, he would cause the UK to crash out on Friday — except that a majority of British MPs, horrified at this prospect, would not allow it and would instead vote to revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU.

However, this seems a far-fetched scenario. More probably, the EU27 will grant Mrs May an extension at their emergency Brussels summit on Wednesday — but with a view to guiding the UK out of the EU, not keeping it in.

Further reading

The success of Erasmus+ will be very difficult to replicate

“Any national programme to replace Erasmus+ faces an enormous challenge in matching the enhanced employment opportunities, better language skills and stimulus to quality learning and teaching it already offers.” (LSE Brexit blog)

Brexit is just one front in Europe’s battle for its soul

“We British Europeans should be under no illusions: the cupboard of goodwill is almost bare. Sickness metaphors abound. Brexit Britain is now seen as a poison, a gangrenous limb, a cancer to be cut out — the body of Europe healthier without it.” (Timothy Garton Ash, Guardian)

How would a ‘hard’ Brexit hurt France?

The economic impact of a 20% decrease in trade with the United Kingdom would be absorbed by the French economy as a whole in 2019, but it would nevertheless be significant; growth would be cut by 0.2 percentage points.” (ING)

Hard numbers

Shoppers hold back spending as uncertainty hits sentiment

Growth in UK retail sales slowed markedly in the first three months of this year as Brexit uncertainty made shoppers more cautious, an industry body said.

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