Britain officially left the European Union on January 31 following more than three years of intense negotiations between the two sides, which saw them finally come to terms on the withdrawal agreement and political declaration. The focus then quickly shifted to talks on a post-Brexit trade deal and the terms of the future relationship between London and Brussels, which began in March. But three months on, little progress has been made, with both sides trading brutal blows over each other’s negotiating positions.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has continued to lash out at the UK, bemoaning the lack of progress being made in talks and criticising Britain for demands made over what should be included in any trade deal.
Mr Barnier has also been left furious by the insistence of Boris Johnson and the UK’s chief negotiator David Frost that an agreement must be signed before the end of the transition period on December 31, 2020 – a deadline both sides have now accepted.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has had little direct involvement in negotiations since taking over from Jean-Claude Juncker at the end of last year, although she was part of high-level talks with leaders via a video conference call on Monday.
French President Emmanuel Macron has also been vocal on Brexit, and has warned the UK on several occasions around demands made in a trade deal, particularly for access for EU fishermen to British waters after the transition period.
But it is German Chancellor Angela Merkel who has now appeared as a front-runner to play an influential role for the EU in striking an agreement with the UK.
Germany is taking over the six-month rotating presidency of the European Council of the EU on July 1.
This has raised hopes among officials on both sides of the post-Brexit trade negotiations that a deal can indeed be struck.
Mr Barnier continues to lead talks for the EU and although there are no plans by member states to change his negotiating mandate, the European Council presidency still plays a key role in maintaining unity among the 27 countries and finding political compromises where needed.
German ambassador to the EU Michael Clauss told a recent panel discussion by the European Policy Centre he expects the ongoing Brexit negotiations “to absorb a lot, or most, of the political attention” of the German Council Presidency.
Jürgen Hardt, the foreign policy spokesperson of Ms Merkel’s CDU/CSU coalition in Germany, said: “If Prime Minister Boris Johnson is most likely to trust a foreign head of Government, it is Merkel.
“She has always respected the vote of the British people, even if she thinks it is wrong.”
He added: “What Johnson can certainly expect from Angela Merkel is that she will do her best to support him in pursuing his Brexit policy as long as it does not conflict with the fundamental interests of the EU.”
The German intervention and in particular that of Ms Merkel has also raised hopes in the UK that a Brexit deal can finally be struck.
Conservative MP David Jones, a former junior Brexit minister who also serves as deputy chair of the European Research Group of Brexiteer backbenchers, said: “Angela Merkel has historically shown herself to be a pragmatist and less doctrinaire than, for example, [French President Emmanuel] Macron
“She recognises the reality of the U.K.’s departure and understands the mutual importance of Anglo-German trade.
“I would expect the German presidency to reflect Merkel’s pragmatism; it comes fortuitously in the final stages of the future relationship negotiations.”
But despite words of hope that an intervention from Ms Merkel could save a Brexit deal, Mr Hardt warned: “She has his (Boris Johnson’s) ear.
“But she cannot spare the British the fact that some castles in the air and irresolvable contradictions that were promised as part of Brexit will fall apart.”
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