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Analysis
Angela May and Theresa Merkel

Angela May and Theresa Merkel

Crisis control: the UK-German tandem 

by David Marsh

Mon 25 Jul 2016

We know the name of Europe’s crisis control tandem: Angela May and Theresa Merkel. The similarities between the German chancellor and British prime minister are evident: born in the mid-1950s; no-nonsense, get-things-done conservatives; clergymen’s daughters; childless, with behind-the-scenes husbands; excel at ejecting troublesome male rivals. They established a good rapport in Berlin last week. Angela (Merkel) told Theresa (May) that the UK could take time over opening European Union divorce proceedings – a concession that countered France’s obvious wishes and pleasantly surprised hardened Whitehall officials.

The most intriguing resemblance is the delicacy and complexity of the multiple balancing acts both women are performing within and outside their countries.

May, a lukewarm Remainer in the referendum campaign, has to manage a corrosive European factionalism in her Conservative party that terminally weakened her four Tory prime ministerial predecessors. She may enjoy a relatively lengthy political honeymoon because she can play a long game over triggering EU exit talks (partly because of Merkel’s acquiescence).

Most likely in the longer run is a ‘halfway house’ between the UK and the EU, with substantial trade and investment, reduced EU budget payments, and restrictions on free movement of people. Such a compromise may affront the Conservatives’ most ardent Leavers. Yet May has deftly prodded three prime Brexiteers, David Davis, Boris Johnson and Liam Fox, into ministerial positions where they will be bound by collective responsibility. If they are part of a successful EU outcome, she will be praised. If they fail, she can destroy them as rivals (particularly Johnson).

Merkel needs dexterity, too, in her own juggling, especially after this month’s spate of violent German attacks, all connected in different ways to immigrants. Merkel has to confront, control and appease those within and outside her conservative grouping who say she has made catastrophic blunders over welcoming a tide of destabilising foreigners from crisis-torn regions.

Merkel is still likely to win the autumn 2017 parliamentary elections, probably with a different coalition partner (favourite: the Greens) than her present Social Democrat allies, faring still worse in polls than her Christian Democrats. But further mishandling over borders and migration, combined with more euro bloc attrition, could strengthen the chances of power in Germany shifting to a left-wing grouping led by the weakened yet threatening Social Democrats. Merkel’s partnership with May’s Britain could be a vital means of preventing this outcome, using the prime minister’s expertise in immigration and security affairs gleaned from her former job as home secretary.

In launching the UK referendum plan in January 2013, then Prime Minister David Cameron ostensibly abandoned Britain’s 200-year-old strategic effort of preventing the emergence of a dominant continental power. The idea was to allow the Europeans to turn the euro area into a stronger, integrated political bloc, with the UK playing no part. Europe’s inability to accomplish that aim has allowed UK Brexiteers to portray the EU as a failure. It has deprived the continent of state powers to fulfil its tasks. And it allows the UK, in exit negotiations, to restart the old ‘balance of power’ game in playing off individual European countries against each other.

With a ministerial team assembled, facing a self-neutralising Labour party opposition, and with every chance of staying in office until the next scheduled election in 2020, May’s political options may widen as the timetable foreshortens ahead of the Dutch, French and German elections next year – while those of her continental sparring partners will narrow.

Because her country votes last in the current sequence, and bears potentially the heaviest burden from Europe’s manifold convulsions, the Berlin chancellor’s room for manoeuvre may be most constrained of all by next year’s German elections. By that time, if not before, Europe could recognise the Theresa Merkel-Angela May duo as the pivot on which much else depends.

David Marsh is Managing Director of OMFIF.

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