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With Merkel gone, Germany gets tough on Brexit

LONDON and BERLIN — Is Britain missing Angela Merkel yet?

Boris Johnson arrives in Bavaria on Sunday for the annual G7 summit of world leaders, hosted this year by the new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. It will be all smiles when the two men greet at the beautiful Schloss Elmau hotel, a luxury spa high in the Bavarian Alps.

But beyond the handshake diplomacy, Johnson finds himself facing a center-left leader who has decided to break ranks with the discreet style of his predecessor Angela Merkel and deliver clear, public rebukes to London over its Brexit maneuvering.

Five senior politicians and officials within Scholz’s administration confirmed the new German chancellor has chosen to adopt a more robust public stance than his predecessor’s sometimes-opaque utterings over Brexit.

This has played out in speeches, public comments and across the airwaves since Britain published the Northern Ireland Protocol bill earlier this month.

The bill would grant British ministers powers to disapply parts of the protocol, a central part of the Brexit divorce deal designed to prevent a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The protocol keeps Northern Ireland inside the EU single market, but means the region must administer checks on goods arriving from the rest of the U.K. — stipulations hated by Northern Irish unionists and the British government.

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a joint press conference with Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz | Ben Stansall-WPA Pool/Getty Images

In their public remarks following the bill’s publication, both Scholz and his hawkish foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, a Green Party member of the German coalition government, made their displeasure crystal clear.

“It is a very regrettable decision that the British government has taken,” Scholz said. “It is a departure from all the agreements we have made.”

“London is unilaterally breaking agreements,” Baerbock added. “And it is doing so for predictable motives of its own. We in the EU cannot accept that.”

In private, Scholz is said to be highly critical of Johnson’s handling of the issue, and fears the protocol bill may lead to a trade war between the EU and Britain. With exquisite timing, the bill will receive its second reading in the House of Commons Monday, just as the second day of the leaders’ summit in Bavaria is getting underway.

Change of style

German officials say there is cross-party consensus in Germany on the need to protect the EU single market — the destination of about 70 percent of German exports — but acknowledged Berlin has dialled up the rhetoric in recent weeks, almost rivalling that of the Brexit-bashing French president, Emmanuel Macron.

It is not just that Scholz is more “direct” than Merkel — who felt frustrated by Johnson on many occasions, but, with some rare exceptions, chose to express her views privately — a German diplomat said.

Berlin has also judged this is the appropriate time to send a “blunter” message that the U.K. must abandon any ambitions to rewrite the protocol, they added. Germany also wants to dispel any suggestion that the row is merely an issue between the U.K. and Ireland only.

In Berlin, the German government has published a detailed explainer on its official website explaining the importance of the protocol to German voters. In London, Miguel Berger, the new German ambassador to the U.K. who previously served as state secretary of the Federal Foreign Office in Berlin, has been given license to tour broadcast studios to make Germany’s case direct to the British public.

“I can tell you there is a lot of disappointment with this bill, especially because we thought with the whole Ukraine crisis this was not the moment to have this debate,” he told LBC Radio Thursday, adding that many European capitals feel “there is space to find a negotiated solution” to the Northern Ireland row after the summer.

Berger was due to travel to Northern Ireland in person Sunday for talks with senior politicians on all sides of the debate.

Another German official warned the protocol “was a prerequisite” for the conclusion of the 2019 Brexit trade deal, and said Berlin “regards efforts to unilaterally suspend the Northern Ireland protocol as a breach of law and a breach of trust.”

“In the event that the United Kingdom persists with this legislative project, the EU will consider all options,” the official added. “This explicitly includes measures under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement” — a reference to sanctions options built into the agreement, such as imposing new tariffs within a month, or suspending the entire trade deal with nine months’ notice.

From words to action

Resorting to such public threats is not easy for Germany, where there is growing frustration at the post-Brexit deterioration of its bilateral relationship with the U.K. on almost everything bar defense cooperation against Russia.

German-U.K. trade has now fallen for five consecutive years, and Berlin is worried about growing industrial decoupling — companies in each country reducing their interdependency — following Britain’s EU departure. Britain is on course to drop out of the list of Germany’s top 10 trading partners for the first time since 1950.

A senior EU official said the change in the tone of Germany’s warnings has not yet translated into a tougher stance inside the room where EU member countries discuss the bloc’s response to Britain’s actions.

But Malcolm Chalmers, deputy director at the RUSI think tank and an expert in British security and foreign policy, said the dynamics between the U.K. and the EU capitals “have changed significantly” as a result of Johnson’s bill. He cautioned London should not bank too much on Germany’s obvious interest in maintaining exports to Britain.

“There’s a risk that the U.K. will underestimate the willingness of the European Union to retaliate with economic measures to further restrict the U.K.’s access to European markets, including potential tariffs,” he said.

Many in Berlin wonder how far Boris Johnson is planning to actually go with the bill, and say the answer will determine the intensity of the EU’s retaliation.

Thomas Hacker, a trade policy lawmaker from the Free Democratic Party — one of Scholz’s two coalition partners — believes the prospect of economic turmoil means Johnson will ultimately be forced to back down.

“Boris Johnson will look at the overall economic situation, post-COVID, with inflation, the economic impact of the Ukraine war,” Hacker said.

“I don’t think he can afford a trade war. In my view, the current moves are more domestically motivated. If things come to a head, the EU can suspend the trade agreement — Johnson won’t let that happen.”

Keep calm and carry on

In London, Germany’s message has thus far been received with little more than a resigned shrug.

A U.K. official described the international response to the bill as “mixed … but basically what you would expect.”

The prime minister’s spokesman claimed he hadn’t seen the specific German remarks about the protocol bill, but said the U.K. government remains “confident” it has found “the right approach to fix the long-standing problems with the protocol as it has been enacted.”

“We believe it is legal, it abides by international law,” he added. “We also want to keep negotiating with the EU to find a negotiated solution.”

James Cleverly, the U.K. minister for Europe, said British officials have been careful to explain their issues with the protocol to their EU counterparts, and stressed that cordial relationships with member countries have been maintained.

“They do listen,” he told a parliamentary committee Tuesday. “They listen intently, and genuinely seek to understand.”

Quite how much that listening exercise helps Boris Johnson in Bavaria this week, surrounded by unimpressed EU leaders just as his protocol bill returns to Parliament, remains to be seen.

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