At least three elements in the past couple of days have led me to think that the relationship between European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Germany may be cracking.
Merkel asked Juncker to delay publication of revamped EU integration plans
Earlier this week, Italian daily La Repubblica reported that Juncker may consider quitting his post “within the next four weeks.” The potential casus belli is a ‘White Paper’, due for release on March 8, where the Commission would outline its revamped plans for the future of EU integration ahead of the celebrations for the sixtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome on March 25.
However, according to La Repubblica, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who both face elections this year, have asked Juncker to delay the publication of the White Paper until at least after the Treaty of Rome anniversary – which would deprive the Commission’s proposals of a vital showcase. La Repubblica suggests that, if the Chancellor were to reiterate her request to leave the White Paper in a drawer for the time being, Juncker would consider resigning.
Unsurprisingly, the Commission called the story “pure fabrication” and “fake news”.
However, the idea of Merkel being wary of opening a big domestic debate about the future of European integration with a general election only a few months away does not sound far-fetched.
Berlin concerned throwing €60bn Brexit bill at UK too early on could scupper talks
The story in La Repubblica was followed by a separate one in The Times, suggesting that Germany is siding with the UK to prevent the Commission from presenting Theresa May with a €60bn ‘divorce bill’ immediately after the Prime Minister triggers the Article 50 EU exit mechanism. German ministers are reportedly worried that such a move would poison the Brexit negotiations from the outset, as the public backlash in the UK might even prompt Theresa May to walk out of the room. Incidentally, we understand this concern is shared by other European capitals.
As a reminder, the Commission’s position is that the ‘divorce bill’ should be fully settled before the discussion about future trading relations between the UK and the EU can even begin. However, already in July last year Merkel said during a joint press conference with Theresa May in Berlin that she could envisage a “parallel process” – i.e. discussing the UK’s future relationship with the EU alongside the divorce – adding that “a good preparation [of the Brexit negotiations] is important and is also in the interest of the EU.”
Merkel ally slaps Juncker’s wrist for threatening UK with “very hefty” Brexit bill
The Times’ story has been corroborated within the following 24 hours. Speaking to the Belgian parliament yesterday, Juncker said:
„The Brits are bound to respect the commitments they have taken part in making. Therefore, the bill is going to be […] very hefty“.
„I am not very happy, to be frank, with the statement of Jean-Claude Juncker […] It’s not very smart now to start these negotiations with such amounts which are mentioned […] I fear in a certain way that this harsh pressure which is now put from the EU Commission on the UK isn’t in Germany’s interests“.
A clear rebuff, and a significant one coming from the largest net contributor to the EU budget – which by definition has more than anyone else at stake in a negotiation over money.
What’s going on between Juncker and Berlin?
There are, in my view, two possible answers. This could either be a textbook example of good/bad cop, with Germany happy for Juncker to go ahead and play the bad cop – so that the position of Berlin and other national capitals appears more reasonable to the UK when the Brexit talks begin. Or it could be a case of Berlin genuinely growing tired of Juncker going off script, particularly ahead of a crucial negotiation with the UK – which Germany considers as a valuable partner that needs to be kept as close as possible to the EU after Brexit. If the latter is true, then the rumours of Juncker considering an early resignation may not be science-fiction after all – especially since Merkel was instrumental for him to get the job back in 2014.
Irrespective of whether Juncker quits or not, the broader point remains that Germany – and national governments more generally – clearly want to be in the driving seat all the way through the upcoming Brexit negotiations, and are therefore not keen for the Commission to seize the opportunity to push its own agenda. Furthermore, Mayer’s words in particular clearly challenge the still surprisingly common narrative that other EU member states will attempt purposefully to ‘punish’ the UK to send a message to the respective electorates.
Vincenzo Scarpetta is Senior Policy Analyst at Open Europe.