Remarkably little is published in the British press about reactions on the German side to Brexit developments, so, following Johnson’s meeting with Merkel, I thought I would gather together a few thoughts and observations about how the event has been written up in Germany.
The first, perhaps least surprising thing to say is that most of the commentary has been extremely suspicious of Johnson’s motives. Andrea Ross writes in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that Johnson’s claims about wanting a deal are largely a game of “passing the buck” in attempt to shift the blame for a bad outcome on other EU member states. Ross also writes in defence of Steinmeier, the German President, who said that Johnson’s latest gambit is made in bad faith. This is particularly striking, as Ross notes that doing so is a breach of diplomatic protocol. It’s also worth keeping in mind that the Frankfurter Allgemeine is a conservative newspaper and Steinmeier is from the SPD.
Ulrich Ladurner goes one step further writing in Die Zeit. In an article bearing the headline “scapegoat- no thanks!” he states that “the populist and dogged opponent of the EU seems not to be interested in a real solution”. Cathrin Kahlweit says much the same in the left-liberal Süddeutsche Zeitung. “ [Johnson] knows full well that border and customs controls are unavoidable in the event of a no deal because of international law, but claims the government in London has no intention of putting up controls, so if they are put up, Ireland and Brussels will [according to Johnson] be to blame.”
In the same article Kahlweit also addresses the way in which the meeting between Johnson and Merkel has been discussed in the British press, arguing that it has been intentionally misreported. “The British media,” Kahlweit writes, “misunderstands a remark made by Merkel at her meeting with Johnson, and likely not entirely unintentionally”. Kahlweit describes “nonsense and confusions of language” which contribute to a “hysterical spin which is presented to the British public.” Merkel remarked that “it has been said that a solution [to the Irish border problem] will likely be found in the next 2 years. But it could also be found in the next 30 days.” This has largely been reported in the British press as an ultimatum, whereas it should, Kahlweit writes, be understood as underscoring that the backstop is a placeholder solution. Her remark was meant to emphasise both that such a solution is temporary and could be replaced at any point, but that until a replacement is found it would have to remain in part of an exit agreement (an article in Die Zeit makes a similar point here). Kahlweit singles out the Sun and the Telegraph for particularly misleading headlines. This is another example of the asymmetry in Brexit coverage in the UK and Germany- while theBritish press is largely uninterested in what is written in German newspapers, the same is not true the other way round.
Die Welt’s reporting notes the disconnect between the appearance and reality of the meeting, but is more focussed on how Johnson wanted it to be portrayed, rather than how it actually appears in the British media. Their video report states Johnson gave the impression “he was celebrating a victory”, but in reality he “is leaving the meeting with empty hands”. Merkel’s previously mentioned remarks were similarly alluded to as signalling that scrapping the backstop is not an option. An accompanying article refers to Johnson’s letter to Tusk demanding an alternative set of arrangements to the backstop, but “what he means by this is left unanswered”.
This is likely rather unsurprising to most readers, but its nonetheless significantly underreported in the British press. Perhaps even less reported is the fact that Johnson, as mayor of London, was actually talked of rather favourably in the German press. The stories of a classically educated, bumbling eccentric were not that dissimilar to those on this side of the channel, albeit with somewhat less interest. Whatever charm this persona may have had has, rather unsurprisingly, lost its appeal.