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Do you remember the time when we were told that Germany would be on our side over Brexit? It wasn’t that long ago. Germany industry, we were assured, would strong-arm Berlin into giving the UK an easy ride during the negotiations so that Vorsprung durch Technik could continue to resound in car showrooms from Land’s End to John O’Groats.
It was never really true. German industry, including the big carmakers, have all said that while they deplore the prospect of reduced sales in the UK, they assign greater importance to the integrity of the single market, meaning that they would accept tariffs and other customs barriers as the inevitable, if grim, price of Britain’s departure from the EU.
German banks have taken a similar line. Indeed, Frankfurt, like Paris, is working hard to attract as much business as it can from London in anticipation of the City’s loss of passporting rights into the Eurozone.
Yesterday, however, things took a distinct turn for the worse. Martin Schulz, leader of the left-of-centre SPD and former President of the European Parliament, has struck a deal with Angela Merkel – now set to remain Chancellor for a fourth successive term – that we are informed will make him German foreign minister, with the right to speak for Berlin on Brexit.
Schulz is the mirror-opposite of a eurosceptic. He is a dyed-in-the-wool europhile. He has never met a Brussels directive he didn’t like. If anything, he distrusts the European Commission because it is not sufficiently dirigiste. He wishes to see the powers of the Commission increased, not diminished. Ditto the Parliament in Strasbourg. Like Emmanuel Macron in France, he is determined to strengthen the Eurozone by way of political and economic, as well as monetary union.
No one could accuse him of hiding his light under a bushel. Speaking to his party conference in Berlin in December, he called for a constitutional treaty aimed at establishing nothing less than a United States of Europe.
“Such a constitutional treaty,” he said, “has to be written by a convention that includes civil society and the people. This constitutional treaty will then have to be put to the member states and those that don’t approve it will automatically have to leave the EU.”
He went on: “We don’t need a European austerity diktat, we need investments in a Eurozone budget. We need a European finance minister who curbs the race to the bottom in tax policy and ends the insufferable avoidance of tax. We need a European framework for a minimum wage that ends wage dumping.”
Until the general election four months ago, in which both her own Christian Democrats and the SPD lost ground to the far-Right, Angela Merkel was able to resist most such rhetoric and to advance a more softly-softly approach to Europe. The Socialists may have been part of her governing coalition, but, under Sigmar Gabriel, they were pragmatic and unwilling to rock the boat. All that has now changed.
Today, with her freedom to manoeuvre restricted by the terms of a second grand coalition, the Chancellor has handed day-to-day control of foreign policy to the pro-European Left, led by Schulz. The fact that Schulz thought in the days and weeks following the election that the SPD was scuppered and that his days as leader were numbered will only add to his resolve to hit the ground running while raising the banner of a Socialist Europe.
Jeremy Corbyn, eat your heart out.
Such hope as remains for British interests lies in two developments. First, there is the fact that the anti-EU Alternative für Deutschland is about to become the offical Opposition in the Bundestag. The strongly nationalist AfD is sensitive to Britain’s plight and opposed to the whole idea of a United States of Europe. Second, the new finance minister is expected to be the SPD’s Olaf Scholz, currently the mayor of Hamburg, the most anglophile city in Germany. Scholz, unlike his near namesake, is pro-European alright, but much more emolient than Schulz and likely to do what he can to oil the wheels of Anglo-German compromise.
The problem for Theresa May is that Schulz, if confirmed as foreign minister, will take up his job at almost the precise moment at which Britain has to declare its position on a future relationship with Europe, with Europe poised to respond. Mrs Merkel, entering the final phase of her leadership, may yet exert herself to minimise, or at any rate moderate, growing anti-British sentiment in Brussels. But her hand will be weakened by the bearded fanatic at her side, urging her to throw the British out of the temple and return to the true faith.
Trying times could lie ahead.