When people talk about Brexit in Britain, one politician holds an almost mystical sway: the German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel fascinates the political class, as well she might: she is unquestionably Europe’s most electorally successful active politician, and one of the underappreciated aspects of European diplomacy is that the size of a politician’s mandate and standing at home increases their wattage on the European stage.
But wattage or no wattage, Merkel is still only one of 27 politicians, and while she is currently first among equals, if British foreign policy under the Conservatives has had one major blindspot, above all, it’s been a believe that to square Merkel was to square Europe.
Now that same blindspot is powering the more optimistic arguments about the Brexit talks. To get a good Brexit deal, Britain needs Merkel – and what matters to Merkel is the sale of German cars, which will be hit badly if Brexit leads to tariff barriers between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
It’s a lovely idea, certainly, but it’s wrong. Since the Second World War, for fairly obvious reasons, Germany has wanted to avoid acting alone in foreign policy terms, and since reunification, even more so. Don’t forget that both Francois Mitterand and Margaret Thatcher, the President of France and Prime Minister of Britain respectively at the time both feared the formation of a unified Germany when the Berlin Wall fell. For Germany, no matter who is the Chancellor, what they need is to be able to act in concert with another European power.
With Britain gone, that increases Germany’s dependency on France. Unsurprisingly, the French government is not that worried about whether or not the German car industry feels the pinch of a Brexit vote. What will worry the French president during Britain’s exit talks is Marine Le Pen.
Barring a miracle, Le Pen will secure the best presidential performance of a fascist candidate in the history of the Fifth Republic. There’s a distinct possibility she will actually become President, which will at least render the question of what exit deal Britain gets moot, because that will almost certainly trigger the disintegration of the European Union. But if, as currently looks more likely, she is seen off, whoever is President of France after 2017, whether that is Alain Juppé, Nicolas Sarkozy, Emmanuel Macron, or, less plausibly, the current incumbent Francois Hollande, their major priority will be finding a way to keep Le Pen in her box.
A large part of that will be in demonstrating that you can’t get a better deal from the European Union by being outside it. Juppé, Sarkozy, Macron or Hollande won’t much care about the cost of a German car if they think they may end up having to flee the country in one.
And they’re not alone. Matteo Renzi, the Italian Prime Minister, has his own Eurosceptics to think of, in the shape of the Five Star Movement. The Austrian government will either have a far-right president or have narrowly escaped one. The Scandinavian governments are all looking over their shoulders at their own Nigel Farages.
And keeping those movements at bay is going to be far more important to all those governments than the good opinion of Angela Merkel, or the condition of the German car industry.