In Brexit fallout, Merkel opts to keep calm and carry on

German chancellor Angela Merkel attends a joint press conference with the Ukraininian Prime Minister after talks at the chancellery in Berlin on June 27, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / John MACDOUGALL

German chancellor Angela Merkel attends a joint press conference with the Ukraininian Prime Minister after talks at the chancellery in Berlin on June 27, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / John MACDOUGALL

Britain’s shock decision to leave the EU forces German Chancellor Angela Merkel into action to save the bloc, but true to her reputation for prudence, she has pledged to avoid both haste and vitriol.

Outraged by the result of the British vote, the bloc’s leaders have multiplied calls for London to leave the European Union swiftly.

Britain’s planned departure was “not an amicable divorce” said European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, stressing that it should be quick.

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault also joinly called for ambitious steps to strengthen the European Union.

But in the heated cacophony, the leader of Europe’s biggest economy made a strong call for calm.

In her first statement Friday as the outcome of Thursday’s referendum hit home, Merkel warned against drawing “quick and simple conclusions” saying they would “only further divide Europe”.

Speaking on Monday, she said Europe could “not afford to have a long period of uncertainty” which would “not be good for either the EU’s 27 member states or Britain”.

But she said it was understandable that London needed time.

“I also understand that Britain needs a certain period of time to analyse the situation.”

– ‘Giving Cameron time’ –
While Britain considers its options, the German leader also insisted no backroom deals be done before London triggers Article 50 to formally start the process of leaving the bloc.

“There cannot be any informal talks before Britain gives its notice. That, to me, is clear,” she said.

Britain’s notification will set the clock ticking on a two-year period of negotiations within which a basic withdrawal agreement should be made.

After that “the treaties shall cease to apply to the state in question” — or in layman’s terms, Brexit will become a reality, unless all the parties unanimously agree to extend the talks.

German conservative daily Die Welt said that taking time to reflect is Merkel’s signature approach.

“Be it in the euro or in the refugee crisis, Germany has always sought to buy time, in order to solve problems,” it said. “Now in the Brexit crisis, she has given Cameron this time.”

The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung also backed Merkel’s approach, arguing that there is “no rational reason” to force Britons into quick exit negotiations.

“Indeed, that would miss the real lesson of the Brexit vote. European politicians instead need to find a solution to the demands of the public — and they need to realise that European citizens want ‘less Brussels’ and not more,” it added.

– Dangerous to placate –
But some saw Merkel’s position as a sign of dithering and weakness.

Business weekly Handelsblatt said she had, in recent days, “appeared to be conspicuously helpless”.

“It is understandable that the chancellor would seek to calm nerves at a time of great uncertainty. But trying to placate is also dangerous,” it noted, warning of the growing popularity of populist, far-right and eurosceptic parties.

Britain’s vote to leave means Germany has lost an important ally, particularly on economic issues, analysts said.

“Britain has always taken a market-oriented position in EU negotiations,” said Friedrich Heinemann of economic think-tank ZEW.

“With its exit, the balance of power in the European Council and parliament would shift towards countries that are critical of markets.”

Germany would also likely be forced to shoulder a bigger weight, given that fellow European heavyweight France is struggling with a wave of security pressures from Islamic extremism as well as social strife over economic reforms.

Brexit effectively meant Germany would be “condemned to take on the leadership role it never wanted,” news weekly Der Spiegel said.

Earlier on Monday, the French and German foreign ministers unveiled a joint position paper outlining ambitious steps to strengthen the EU, with Merkel’s spokesman saying she believed it would help shape the way forward for the bloc.

For now, however, the German leader is keeping her cards close to her chest.

She has said she would unveil her position on how to take Europe forward during a special session of parliament on Tuesday — and only after a meeting with France and Italy’s leaders.

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Angela MerkelBrexitBritain
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