Germany partly to blame for Brexit, says CDU leader

Germany’s main opposition party leader has said Berlin and Brussels are partly to blame for Brexit because they were unwilling to offer the UK real concessions before its pivotal EU referendum in 2016.

Friedrich Merz, head of the centre-right Christian Democrats, stopped short of naming Angela Merkel but implied the former chancellor could have done more to help Britain’s then prime minister win the vote — a widely held view in Westminster.

“I remember that David Cameron asked for changes to EU social policy and came back to London empty-handed,” Merz, who polls suggest has a good chance of becoming chancellor next year, told the Financial Times.

“The continental Europeans were not entirely blameless when it came to Brexit,” he added. “We lost patience with the special role that Britain always played in European politics. We didn’t do enough to help them come to a different referendum result.”

Merz, a former BlackRock executive, also praised the UK’s controversial plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda, saying it was “something we could emulate”. “It is clearly going to deter people, especially young men making their way to Europe who have no real prospect of being granted asylum,” he said.

Merz, who was elected CDU leader after the party’s defeat in the 2021 Bundestag election, was speaking to the FT shortly before the party’s annual conference in Berlin, at which he was reaffirmed as leader with 90 per cent of the vote.

The conference is set to endorse the CDU’s first new party programme since 2007. Critics say it represents a pivot to the right, and away from the pragmatic, centrist stance Merkel personified as chancellor.

Merz rejected that claim, saying it wasn’t “a departure” from the Merkel era but “a commitment to the basic values and principles that sustained us through more than 50 years of governing post-war Germany”. 

“We are a conservative party again,” he added. “The CDU was always Christian-social, liberal and conservative at the same time. But we recently hid away the conservative part, rather shamefacedly. Now we’re saying [it] out loud.”

Merz left politics in the early 2000s after losing out to Merkel in a party power struggle and began a career in business, later rising to chairman of BlackRock Germany and becoming a multi-millionaire in the process.  

But he re-entered the political fray in 2018, vying to succeed Merkel as leader of the CDU and finally winning in 2022 at the third attempt.

The CDU is currently Germany’s most popular party, polling at 30 per cent, far ahead of the three parties in Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s ruling coalition. Polls suggest it could be on track to win next year’s election.

Under Merz’s leadership the party has won a string of regional elections, amid mounting discontent with Scholz’s government. But Merz has failed to achieve his ambition of halving support for the far-right Alternative for Germany, which is still polling at 16 per cent — level pegging with Scholz’s Social Democrats — and is poised to perform strongly in three regional elections in eastern Germany this September.  

It is also not clear whether Merz will be Germany’s next leader. Other leading conservative politicians, such as Markus Söder, prime minister of Bavaria, and Hendrik Wüst, leader of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, could still vie with him to become the centre-right’s candidate for chancellor. Both enjoy much higher approval ratings than Merz.

Merz’s comments on Brexit chime with the views of many UK conservatives, who feel Merkel did little to help Cameron win the referendum.

In the months leading up to the poll, Cameron tried to secure new terms for Britain from the EU, ranging from financial services to free movement of people, and relied heavily on Merkel to help deliver it.

But Merkel, and other leaders, gave short shrift to ideas such as an “emergency brake” on EU migration — a policy that, if adopted, might have altered the course of the referendum.

Merz said the European refugee crisis of 2015-16, during which Merkel kept Germany’s borders open to more than 1mn people, many of them Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa, also affected the Brexit vote.

“The refugees were definitely a factor in Cameron’s referendum defeat,” he said. “The right-wing press in Britain made a big deal out of it, every day there were images of people crossing the Channel.”

Merz said he wanted a much closer relationship between the UK and the EU. “We have a plethora of opportunities, at least in foreign and defence policy, that we should explore together,” he said. “We Germans have a huge strategic interest in keeping the UK closely engaged in Europe.”

He also praised the Rwanda model, which has proved hugely contentious both in the UK and Europe. In the draft of its new policy programme, the CDU proposes that asylum-seekers should be sent to a “safe third country”, where they would remain if granted asylum.

“The mere prospect that you won’t end up in the promised land of Germany, and that you’ll have to apply for asylum in a third country — say Albania, if you’re trying to get into Italy, or Rwanda if you’re aiming for the UK — will reduce the number of asylum-seekers,” Merz said.

Merz said he was “firmly convinced” the approach would work. “It’s a signal that we’re just not going to accept everybody here.”

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