UK Prime Minister Theresa May hopes her Brexit talks with European Council President Donald Tusk will yield something to write home about. But what impact could Germany's political vacuum have on any progress?
With a key EU summit looming in mid-December, Theresa May is under pressure to come up with some tangible results. As expected though, the signals are mixed. The main sticking point remains the issue of reaching a financial settlement of what Britain owes to the EU that both sides can live with.
According to some British press reports, May is now willing to offer around 40 billion pounds (45 billion euros, $53 billion) — double the original figure. EU negotiators say they're encouraged by the offer even though it still falls short of the EU's maximum demand of 60 billion euros ($71 billion).
In return, May wants guarantees of opening negotiations on a post-Brexit trade deal, arguing that she needs this kind of commitment to counter the domestic backlash she is likely to face for raising her financial offer. Speaking to reporters in Brussels ahead of a summit with ex-Soviet states on Friday said she would talk to Tusk about the "positive negotiations we're having," but made it clear that "we must step forward together. This is both for the UK and for the EU to move on to the next stage."
Cashing in on Germany's perceived weakness?
However, that next move forward may be hampered by events in Germany as the country grapples with its own political crisis.
Germany's woes have prompted certain parts of the British media and leading Brexiteers like Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg to gleefully suggest that May should exploit Germany's political impasse and Chancellor Angela Merkel's perceived weakness to gain an advantage in the Brexit talks.
That stance could backfire badly. Even though Germany — like the rest of the EU — has deferred responsibility for the talks to the EU's negotiator, Michel Barnier, it's the EU leaders who ultimately decide on how to proceed. And as in other matters all eyes are usually on Angela Merkel. Despite her firm stance on Brexit red lines, she has shown flexibility and understanding for May's predicament. But against the backdrop of her own political dilemma, her focus is understandably elsewhere.
"I don't see any possibility of the UK being able to benefit from what's going on in Germany," says Dr Charlotte Galpin, Lecturer in German and European Politics and Deputy Director of the Institute for German Studies at the University of Birmingham. "If anything, the situation will make it harder. There are far more important issues on the agenda in Germany than Brexit which was already quite far down on the list of priorities."
By that token, the Schadenfreude in Westminster could be short-lived. Merkel's room to maneuver is limited and it's unlikely she'll be able to call the shots at the December summit in terms of determining that sufficient progress has been made to move on to the next stage of talks. "I think the UK government has placed a lot of hope that Germany will lead the way out for the UK, but I think it was always going to be pretty minimal what Germany was able to do," says Galpin.
May caught in a bind
While she awaits developments in Berlin, May's high-wire act is now to keep business happy and on her side, and at the same time avoid alienating her Brexit base which wants a sharp and clear break from Brussels. Not an easy task, says Galpin. "May is under pressure from business who have made it clear that they need certainty by the end of the year. Certain reports are saying that the goverment is prepared to be more flexible on the issue of finances, but it's unclear whether that will be enough for the negotiators."
After Friday's talks May will have another opportunity to make her case with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on December 4. Given the history of their past meetings, those hoping for a breakthrough should probably not hold their breath.