Angela Merkel exerts a fascination on much of the British political class. In part, that’s a result of a longevity. She came into office when Tony Blair still had positive approval ratings, George W. Bush’s Republicans controlled all three branches of government, and Jacques Chirac was President of France. It’s possible that she might be kept out of office next year by a coalition of the defeated left, if the numbers are there for a “red-red-green” coalition (the centre-left SPD, the left-wing Die Linke and the environmentalist Greens) but no-one expects her to finish anything other than in first place in terms of votes cast.
At the European Union negotiating table, your personal popularity and the performance of your country’s GDP are important symbols of virility and contribute to your ability to get your way, as does the number of votes you wield in qualified majority voting and the amount you pay into the European Union. So Merkel’s hand is strong, and she will play a major role in Britain’s Brexit negotiations, but she will not be the only major player either.
The latest row – in which the British government has reportedly been “slapped down” by the Germans over attempts to guarantee the rights of British nationals living abroad and EU nationals resident in the United Kingdom now – is illustrative of the problem.
The bulk of British expatriates in the European Union live in Spain – the fourth destination worldwide for British immigrants, after the United States, Australia and Canada – then Ireland, then France – seventh and eighth – respectively. Germany is ninth.
The bulk of European nationals living in Britain are from Eastern Europe, though some 270,000 Germans do reside here.
Merkel is powerful, but Berlin can’t negotiate on behalf of Madrid, or Warsaw, or Prague.