When Angela Merkel delivered her shot over the bow toward Washington, DC, following her encounter with Donald Trump, it was not only aimed at that city but also across the English Channel. Her comments were kept generic, “the times in which we could fully rely on others are to a certain extent over,” but then adding that “Europeans need to take their fate in their own hands in friendship with the U.S. and the UK.”
The fact is that most Germans think the Brits have made a huge mistake in exiting the EU and those preparing to negotiate that complicated process with London are short on patience.
The elections in the UK on June 8 are only going to underscore that attitude. The fact that the British campaign debates have been surprisingly less about Brexit and more about standard domestic policy debates is illustrative of the ambiguous outcome of last year’s vote. Theresa May may win, but her narrowing lead leaves the UK with a chance that she won’t get much of a boost and her negotiating stance with Brussels will be weakened.
The more important implications may be seen in the results of the recent French elections and the probability of a win for Merkel in the German elections in late September. Regardless of what coalition emerges, the intensity with which Merkel delivered her broadside critique suggests that a strategy to reset Franco-German relations is on her mind as a tool to strengthen the EU in dealing with unpredictability in London and Washington. That signal needs to be sent clearly now to Paris as President Macron prepares for the upcoming National Assembly election. That will also involve hard-nosed negotiations. But there is no doubt about the commitment both leaders share when it comes to Europe.
Can both Trump’s polemics aimed at Merkel and Downing Street’s confrontational attitude toward the Brexit negotiations enhance the possibility of a renewed boost for EU popular solidarity? The spectacle of Trump’s appearances in Brussels and in Taormina may remind some Europeans what they like most about Europe. The ambivalent decision in the UK to reject that Europe in a time of increasing uncertainty and hence to lose influence over it may do the same. The impact of another terrorist attack in London may only confirm what the campaign has been about so far in the UK. But it is unlikely to change people’s minds on either side of the debate.
If the rest of Europe is to believe that it is better to be under an EU umbrella than the British think they will be without it, it is going mean that the Merkel-Macron approach needs to be persuasive in making that case amid twenty-seven member states which are not on the same page.
Nothing is a given in these current volatile environments. There is a great deal of uncertainty on both sides of the Channel.
If Theresa May loses the election on June 8, whatever lose means, it may only underline the fact that Brexit represents more what a lot of voters don’t want rather than what they are in favor of. In the coming months, Merkel and Macron will have to figure out how they can deal with that same challenge.
Dr. Jackson Janes is the President of AICGS. Follow him on Twitter @DrJJanes.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.