Germany is growing increasingly exasperated with Britain’s bravado over Brexit, prompting a rethink in Berlin over how hard to push London during negotiations on leaving the EU.
Top officials, ministers and diplomats in Berlin are anxious that Chancellor Angela Merkel’s desire to maintain good relations with Britain should not be seen as a green light for unrealistic UK negotiating demands, or a licence for Britain to abuse its EU rights while it is still a member.
The hardening mood is a warning that Germany’s relative patience and equanimity with Britain is not endless. A top EU diplomat signalled that other EU states might retaliate if British politicians persisted with their rhetoric.
The irritation with Britain was summed up on Friday by Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s powerful finance minister, who publicly mocked Boris Johnson, Britain’s foreign secretary and Brexit campaigner. To the annoyance of some in Berlin, Mr Johnson had claimed it was “baloney” that the UK could not get a free trade deal if it ended free movement for EU workers.
“We’ll happily send her majesty’s foreign minister a copy of the Lisbon treaty,” Mr Schäuble joked at a news conference with Michel Sapin, his French counterpart. “He can then read about the fact that there’s a certain connection between the single market and the four freedoms. At a pinch, I can talk about it in English.”
Berlin accepts that it is Mrs May that will set policy, not Mr Johnson or other cabinet ministers voicing hardline positions. However, the German government is concerned that Brexiters are poisoning the atmosphere with disparaging remarks about the EU. London has long seen Berlin as its most important champion in finding a mutually beneficial Brexit settlement.
One person familiar with the chancellery’s thinking said: “This is not just Schäuble. There is irritation across the government.”
A particular worry in both Brussels and Berlin is over Britain potentially exploiting its voting rights within the EU to sow division among member states or block policies that the EU-27 want to pursue. One senior EU diplomat warned it could force the EU to hit back in areas such as financial services legislation.
Meanwhile, to the frustration of UK officials, EU diplomats have flatly refused British overtures to start informal talks on the shape of a potential deal; this has included rejecting offers to establish technical working groups on Brexit.
These concerns extend to other EU states. Marco Piantini, senior adviser to Italian premier Matteo Renzi, questioned the UK’s emphasis on immigration controls in its new arrangements. He said: “If it’s about negotiation, building walls is not a great tactic. And I wonder how much this would have to do with the logic of the free market.”
Ms Merkel’s officials say there is no change in Germany’s position and there will be no preliminary talks before Mrs May launches Article 50 negotiations — as the chancellor made clear in the summer.
Michael Fuchs, a senior MP in Ms Merkel’s ruling CDU party, was among those warning about the effects of Mr Johnson’s claims. “When Boris Johnson makes ambitious statements such as ‘the EU would never dare to touch our banking passport’, it suggests a lack of experience in diplomacy,” he told the FT. “ ‘In’ means ‘in’ and ‘out’ means ‘out’ and there’s simply no free lunch. Without freedom of movement, I do expect the UK will lose the banking passport.”
He added: “I’m a fan of the UK, but the British must agree to meet us on an equal footing. They can’t simply do what they wish and expect us to go along with them.”
Jörg Asmussen, managing director in Germany of Lazard, the financial advisory firm, said that a hard Brexit might be easier to achieve than a soft Brexit because the aims would be clearer. For business an early deal was important. “As long as uncertainty persists, it is bad for investments and jobs,” he said.
Additional reporting by James Politi in Rome and Guy Chazan in Berlin
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