17 November 2017

Brexit Secretary David Davis’ speech at a conference in Berlin yesterday received only limited attention in German media. Partly because it took place the same night everyone was waiting for a make-or-break decision in German coalition talks, and partly because he wasn’t expected to (and didn’t) deliver any major news.

Nevertheless, some papers used the occasion to comment on the current stand of Brexit negotiations. Among them: the official magazine of the Christian Social Union (CSU), the governing party in the German state of Bavaria and a member of Germany’s current federal government. While the Bayernkurier is hardly known outside Bavaria, its close relationship with the CSU – the magazine is owned by the party, published by its Chairman Horst Seehofer, and has its offices in the party headquarters – makes it a good source on current thinking in the party.

In a leader published yesterday, titled “Brexit – Germany’s Risk”, the paper’s foreign editor Heinrich Maetzke voices his scepticism about the current negotiating position of the EU. He warns that “Brussels demands from London [a payment worth] at least six full annual net contributions to the budget and a customs border between England and Northern Ireland. This cannot go well.” To solve the issue, he proposes “a Brexit interim solution and time for real negotiations.”

Instead of the fixation on the so-called “Brexit Bill”, Maetzke says the “most important number” in German negotiators’ minds should be €50.5bn – Germany’s 2016 trade surplus with the UK – €9.3bn of which stems from Bavaria alone. Matzke cautions that “Germany has much to lose with Brexit.” In his view the “negotiations are going badly”, and for Germany’s export economy, a “hard Brexit would be a shock.” To avoid this, he advises Brussels and London to “agree on a transition period, during which a free trade agreement will be negotiated, perhaps similar to the one between Canada and the EU. “ But, he writes, “there is a problem: EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier is not yet allowed to negotiate this.”

Maetzke goes on to state that Michel Barnier “blames the Brits for this [poor progress in negotiations] it is not that easy […] Brussels demands that the UK pays another six – or even ten – annual contributions after it has left. Brussels thinks it is in the right. But what is also completely clear: no British government and no British voter could ever accept this.” He concludes, “The British negotiating position is not as confused as Brussels likes to pretend […] Berlin should become more active now, and urge Brussels to show more flexibility and creativity in the negotiations. The British market and Germany’s and the EU’s exporting economies are at stake.”

The UK government should not get carried away by such articles. They are currently few and far between in the German press, and the CSU has always been the German political party most inclined to sympathise with British frustrations with Brussels. The CSU is currently embroiled in protracted coalition talks in Berlin, where it will be but one of three junior coalition partners vying for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s attention.

Nevertheless, it serves as a reminder that Germany’s political establishment is not universally happy with the way Brexit negotiations are currently being handled by the European Commission. Yes, German industry and politicians are determined to protect the integrity of the Single Market on which Germany’s economic and foreign policy is built, but, at the same time, there are many that also see the economic and political damage a ‘no deal’ Brexit would do to a relationship with an important partner.