German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to exit politics over two years will weaken her EU power – but Irish officials are confident her Brexit pledges to Ireland still stand.
The Irish Government believes Ms Merkel’s surprise announcement that she will begin withdrawing from politics will also have a negative effect on on Brexit, though it still remains on a knife-edge.
Officials in Dublin said they were happy Germany’s policy on Brexit remained fixed, with broad consensus inside the governing coalition. Whoever replaces Ms Merkel in December as leader of the CDU – the main coalition party – is not likely to change its stance.
If Ms Merkel does stand down as party leader in December, but continues as chancellor until her term expires in 2021 as planned, her full exit from public life would also coincide with the expected end of transition periods in any emerging EU-UK divorce deal.
“It is clear Chancellor Merkel has always wanted ‘an orderly Brexit’ and she would clearly want that to be part of her own legacy as she departed the scene,” one Brussels diplomat told the Irish Independent. But there is growing scepticism she will not succeed in seeing out her term of office.
Speaking last week, before news broke of her planned slow exit from politics, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar recalled sitting beside her at dinner at an EU leaders’ summit in Salzburg on September 19.
He said Ms Merkel told him Ireland would never again enjoy such a level of EU solidarity on any issue as it has on its interests around Brexit.
The Taoiseach also stressed that neither Ms Merkel, nor any other EU leader, had linked Irish concerns about the future of the Border to demands that Dublin change its stance on EU corporate or digital taxes. He indicated he would not have been unduly surprised if the issues had been linked.
Other officials also pointed to express assurances given by the chancellor when the two leaders met in Berlin on April 16 last.
She specifically pledged to help Ireland safeguard its interests in the Brexit talks and said she was aware of Irish concerns including the “very important issues of war and peace”.
As things stand, there are now no formal Brexit negotiations going on between the EU and the UK. But Brussels sources say “informal contacts” are continuing.
Diplomats will know by Friday whether a special Brexit summit for mid-November is to be definitely ruled out.
The focus this week has been on allowing British Prime Minister Theresa May to get her budget through the London parliament, the more so since the Democratic Unionist Party had threatened to withdraw its vital support over Brexit compromises.
EU officials have noted the budget unveiled by Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond assumes a Brexit deal will happen.
Mr Hammond, an advocate of a “soft Brexit”, had warned if there is no deal his budget plans will have to be radically altered.
If the November summit does not happen, the effort would move on to an EU leaders’ summit on December 13-14 in Brussels. If there is a compromise, it will be rolled out in advance, and Mrs May will then be faced with the prospect of trying to drag whatever deal she gets through Westminster amid opposition from ultra- Brexiteers and very possibly the DUP.
There is no confidence she can succeed but hopes will turn on excluding all other options and making it “a back me or sack me” choice.
It is also hoped that pressure from UK business and trade unions, horrified at the economic carnage of a no-deal Brexit, could help tip the balance in favour of UK parliamentary approval.
Brussels officials also expect the EU to publish more details of fall-back plans to manage a no-deal Brexit in the coming weeks. This will again increase pressures and feed political speculation.
“But that is part of war-gaming aimed at advancing arguments for a finding a workable compromise,” one source said.
Despite her own assurances that she will continue working to the end of her four-year term in 2021 as head of the German government, Ms Merkel is now widely seen as a lame duck and hopes of getting compromises on other key EU issues at next month’s leaders’ summit have been dented. One senior Brussels source said she “had no hope of making 2021”.
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