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Germany: EU's negotiating position is strong

Jefferson Chase
March 29, 2017

The German government says the European Union is well prepared for friendly but tough talks with the UK. But while much about Brexit still remains to be determined, the Europeans think that they have the advantage.

Flagge von Großbritannien an der Siegessäule in Berlin
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/S. Pilick

In his official statement after British Prime Minister Theresa May officially triggered the UK's application to leave the European Union, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said that Berlin was glad the waiting was finally over.

"The EU-27 made good use of the run-up to the formal British application," Gabriel said. "We know what we want. We have a clear differentiated negotiating position and will give the EU Commission a strong mandate."

Theresa May: 'There can be no turning back'

The EU, and not Germany, will negotiate the specifics of Brexit with London, but the views of Germany - the bloc's biggest member - will carry considerable weight. Now that the process is officially underway, the next step is for the other 27 EU countries to agree a mandate on the principles according to which the bloc will attempt to hammer out a favorable agreement. That should take place by late April.

Gabriel said negotiations would be carried out without acrimony.

"The sentence 'Let's stay friends,' which often rings hollow in personal relationships, is the right one here," Gabriel said. "We need one another. We should do everything to continue to maintain good, friendly relations with London in the future."

But just as in a romantic relationship between individuals, there are limits to how far the post-Brexit friendship between the EU and the UK will go."

First the divorce, then further talks

In a speech in Berlin on Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said that the two sides will first have to agree on the modalities of how Britain will exit the bloc before they can move on to a new arrangement between London and Brussels.

"Only when these questions are cleared up can we - hopefully soon - talk about our future relationship," Merkel said.

Merkel added that the EU will negotiate in a "fair and constructive manner." It's no secret that the EU, led by Germany, will not agree to let the UK retain access to the European common market unless they guarantee free movement of goods, capital, services, and people. German and EU representatives, including Merkel herself, have said on various occasions that there will be no "cherry-picking."

SPD Sigmar Gabriel
Gabriel struck a confident tone in Berlin on WednesdayImage: picture-alliance/dpa/U. Baumgarten

Being a close friend is "something different" than continuing to remain a member of the family of 27, say sources within the German Foreign Ministry, adding "Hopefully that's clear to the British."

One thing that is crystal clear is that there isn't much time available to negotiate the myriad of often minute legal details Brexit will entail. According to Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which May has now triggered, an agreement must be reached within two years.

"The schedule is damn tight," Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schäfer said in Berlin on Wednesday. "Both sides know that."

It is theoretically possible that the UK could extend its membership in the EU beyond that point, while still pursuing the ultimate goal of a divorce, but there is no interest in Berlin in any sort of transitional agreement.

It is unclear how the two sides will negotiate British shares in EU financial obligations that were agreed before Brexit but may not come due until after London has left the bloc. Such obligations could take as many as seven years to arrive. Who will pay what is likely to be one of the toughest points in the Brexit negotiations.

UK Brexit Protest in London
Critics say that the UK is making a huge mistakeImage: picture alliance/AP Photo/K. Wigglesworth

'Reckless' Brexit

In general, the tone in Berlin in the wake the official triggering of Article 50 was one of confidence. The German government believes that London has made a massive mistake in deciding to leave the bloc.

"Even today it is perhaps difficult for many people to understand how anyone could think, particularly in these uncertain times, that he would be better off standing alone between two worlds," Gabriel said.

Other sources in the Foreign Ministry were blunter, saying that both London and Brussels knew that the UK's decision to break away from the bloc amidst lots of global uncertainty was "to say the least reckless."

Conversely Berlin is satisfied about the general agreement about Brexit both within the German government and the other 27 EU member states. Government officials hope that will give the bloc a strong hand in the tough negotiations to come in the next 24 months. 

Gabriel will be traveling to London next week - his first such visit since becoming Foreign Minister in late January.

Deutschland Flughafen Düsseldorf Passkontrolle EU Bürger
One priority is to clarify the status of EU citizens in the UK and vice versaImage: picture alliance/dpa/F. Gambarini

Expert: UK "not fully prepared"

Bert van Roosebeke, a finance and Brexit expert at the Center for European Politics, says that Britain's position going into negotiations is hardly ideal.

"My sense is that the people of the UK aren't fully prepared for this issue," Roosebeke said in Berlin. "There are many educated people in the middle class who think or who have been told 'We're leaving the EU and we're paying nothing.' The idea that one would have to pay 'x' billion to fulfill their commitments when they leave is completely new to them."

Some people have put forward Norway and Switzerland as models for how a post-Brexit UK could interact with the EU. But neither country's deal with the bloc could be adopted in its entirety.

"Norway has access to the EU market, while interacting with EU as ac third country, both of which UK wants," Roosebeke explained. "But Norway accedes to Schengen, and it has a one-to-one recognition of EU laws - neither of which UK wants."

As a member of the bloc, the United Kingdom was allowed to opt out of the Schengen Agreement, which largely did away with passport checks at internal EU borders. There will be no more opt-outs for the UK - other than the overarching one of leaving the European Union entirely.

Brexit begins – DW's Georg Matthes and Barbara Wesel