How will Merkel manage Brexit with UK PM Theresa May? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 13.07.2016
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How will Merkel manage Brexit with UK PM Theresa May?

Pastors' daughters, ambitious and hard-working: Much has been made of the parallels between Angela Merkel and the new British prime minister. Observers wonder how their enforced cooperation will play out in Brexit talks.

Like many newspapers, the "Berliner Zeitung" has decided that the most interesting thing about Theresa May is that she is a woman. A cartoon in Wednesday's edition of the newspaper has Angela Merkel and Theresa May conspiring over a cup of tea, like a pair of patient, cunning housewives (gender stereotypes are as inevitable in German political commentary as caricatures of nationalities): "You just have to let the men DO their thing ..." Merkel says to May, who then finishes her counterpart's sentence: "... and then at some point you GET their jobs."

It's easy to see parallels between the heads of government. Both Merkel and May rose to power in their respective conservative parties by waiting out male-dominated ego battles. Merkel was the last woman standing after Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Wolfgang Schäuble caught the wrong end of the Christian Democratic Union's donation scandal in 1999, and became chairwoman of the party in April 2000.

Like Margaret Thatcher, the first woman to serve as Britain's prime minister, both Merkel and May have been commonly portrayed as outsiders in patriarchal, privileged, tradition-fixated political institutions who had to fight their way up by deploying a formidable work ethic and sheer ambition. The fact that details in their biographies match - Thatcher and Merkel both have science degrees; Merkel and May are both Protestant clergymen's daughters - have helped to reinforce this.

Großbritannien Theresa May vor 10 Downing Street

May has become head of the Conservative Party after a male-dominated ego battle

Pragmatists

In addition to the shallow parallels, Merkel and May do share a number of genuine similarities. "I think the comparison is fair," said Josef Janning, senior political analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "They share a low-vision politics: the pragmatic focus on the immediate and the next step - and not these lofty, visionary ideas about a decade from now."

Another quality that might endear May to the German leadership is her authoritarian reputation in the Home Office, where she enforced hard-line stance against immigrants and expanded state surveillance. "She is a classic minister of the interior," Janning said. "And a classic minister of the interior, at least in the German view, is a law-and-order person. That is what the Interior Ministry is all about: enforcing the law. Schäuble as interior minister was someone like that, and (current Interior Minister Thomas) de Maiziere tries to be someone like this."

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May's reputation for competence is one of the reasons why there is likely to be all-round relief in the German cabinet at the news that Britain's Conservative Party leadership battle came to an unexpectedly swift conclusion - particularly considering the alternatives: the faux populist showman Boris Johnson, the inexperienced MP Andrea Leadsom and Justice Secretary Michael Gove, who had infamously suggested that the British people are "sick of experts." All three candidates were determined Brexit campaigners championed by the right of the party.

"Maybe a bit more rationality will come back into the debate," Herbert Reul, chairman of the CDU's faction in the European Parliament, told "Der Spiegel."

Janning has a similar take: "I think the reaction (in Germany) is positive because it is better than a drawn-out leadership process. This now means there is more momentum in this than had been feared or expected after the vote in late June. Now it looks like the ball will get rolling."

More CEO than leader

May might not be in a rush. She was on the "Remain" side of the UK's fateful referendum on EU membership - though not with any fervent passion, which makes her something of an unknown quantity in the tortuous Brexit negotiations to come.

Deutschland Berlin PK Merkel Renzi und Hollande

At least two years of complex negotiations lie ahead for the European Union

"It means she has to win on both ends of the spectrum: She is neither one that the 'Remainers' consider one of them, or that the 'Leave' faction consider one of them," Janning said. "Her pragmatism allows her to implement whatever the decision is without having to find complicated narratives to argue why she is now doing this; she's doing this because this was the decision and she's implementing it. She is more of a CEO than a traditional leader - a CEO always has to seek the approval of the board."

On Tuesday, Merkel reacted to news of May's presumed coronation with her signature reserve. There were no congratulations or warm statements about "looking forward to positive cooperation" with May. "The task of the new prime minister will be to win some clarity on the question of what relationship Britain wants to build with the European Union in future," she said following a meeting with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.

In fact, there are plenty of reasons to think that, similar backgrounds and political personalities notwithstanding, things might not be as harmonious between May and Merkel as the "Berliner Zeitung" cartoon makes out. For one thing, both leaders are under pressure to stay tough as the European Union risks devolving into a country-by-country pursuit of national interests.

"It depends on how May uses her pragmatism," Janning said. "If she pursues a rather realistic approach to what Britain can expect from the EU in return for getting access to the single market, then I believe they could get on rather well. But, if she uses her pragmatism to try and maximize the outcome for Britain at the expense of others, she will not get on well with Merkel."

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