Angela Merkel’s arrival in Dublin on Thursday for talks on Brexit marks her most significant intervention yet in one of the biggest crises the region has ever faced.
More than two-and-a-half years after the U.K. voted to leave the EU and just eight days before the country is set to crash out without a deal, Merkel is meeting with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to discuss the threat a no-deal Brexit poses to Ireland and the wider union.
While some may be surprised that Germany’s chancellor has so far taken such a back seat during Brexit negotiations, experienced Merkel-watchers say her inaction is emblematic of her 13-year reign as Europe’s most powerful leader — a period characterized not by action, but a lack of it.
“She delays and delays,” Hans Kundnani, an associate fellow at the Institute for German Studies at Birmingham University, told VICE News. “Germany and Europe have faced a series of crises over the last decade and in each of them she has sought to avoid taking a big decision.”
Merkel’s visit to Dublin will focus on what has proved the most intractable issue of Brexit negotiations over the last two years — the Irish border.
A proposed “backstop” arrangement included in the withdrawal agreement negotiated between the EU and the U.K. is designed to prevent a return to a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which remains part of the U.K. But Varadkar, who has insisted there will be no return to a hard border — a symbol of decades of violence in the North ended by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 — has not laid out what Ireland would do in a no-deal situation.
During an EU summit last month, Merkel reportedly criticized Varadkar for not doing more to prepare for a no-deal situation, and officials speaking to Bloomberg suggested her visit to Ireland was designed to put more pressure on the Irish government to ensure plans are in place should the U.K. crash out of the EU on April 12.
"I think she has been taking a line [on Brexit], but she tends to take a back seat rather than a front seat,” Quentin Peel, an associate fellow with the Europe Programme at London-based think tank Chatham House, told VICE News.
Merkel’s reluctance to take decisive action is something that has characterized her time as chancellor of Germany, and it has not gone unnoticed around the world.
“German voices are simply absent from the big debates of our time," Julianne Smith, who worked as a national security official in the Obama administration, wrote in the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung last month.
Critics say German inaction on crises such as the Greek financial collapse, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the collapse of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) are examples of Merkel’s foreign policy mistakes. Now Brexit may be added to the list.
But her first visit to Ireland in over five years suggests Merkel’s approach to foreign policy has changed — the result of her decision to step down when her term runs out in 2021.
“I think she is more liberated by her imminent departure from office than she is constrained by it,” Peel said. “She is behaving in a more forthright manner than she used to do, so maybe the fact that she is coming to Ireland, maybe she is looking to solve problems.”
This new approach can be seen in her decision to travel to Athens to intervene in the Greece-Macedonia naming crisis and giving an uncharacteristically passionate speech at the Munich Security Conference.
But with time running out, Merkel’s lack of direct action to date means her ability to now influence how Brexit will unfold is limited.
“Short of giving the U.K. this mythical deal that the Brexiters thought they were going to get three years ago, there probably isn't much she can do” Nigel Driffield, Professor of International Business at Warwick Business School, told VICE News.
Cover Image: Chancellor Angela Merkel during a press conference on 03 April 2019. Photo by: Martin Schutt/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images