When she visits Berlin this evening on her first foreign trip since becoming UK prime minister, the most pressing question Theresa May is likely to face from Angela Merkel will be how and when she intends to extract Britain from the European Union. “It’s up to Britain to make clear how it wants to structure its relationship with the EU in future,” Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert stressed, ahead of the visit, making it clear the onus was on Britain, not the EU, to make it work.
The refugee crisis, political developments in Turkey as well as the fight against terrorism will be high on the two leaders’ agenda, after May has received military honours in front of the chancellery, and the two women sit down together for a working supper. But the unspoken issue will be Brexit, even though discussions on that will be kept brief under the rules set by the EU that only once article 50 has been triggered can negotiations over the exit conditions begin.
Merkel’s priority will be to press home the message delivered by her foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, that an exit request be delivered as soon as possible, as well as repeating her own insistence that it is up to Britain to suggest how it should be carried out.
May and Merkel’s encounter is a historic one, being the first time Britain and Germany have simultaneously had female leaders.
Much has been made already of the apparent similarities between the diligent, ambitious leaders. Both are the daughters of pastors and are childless. Both are viewed as being skilled at getting what they want. “These skills and biographical similarities will help form a bond between May and Merkel,” said Stefanie Bolzen of Die Welt.
When Merkel made her first visit to the UK as newly elected German chancellor in 2005, she was quickly referred to as Germany’s Margaret Thatcher. No one makes such a comparison any more. Instead May is referred to as Britain’s Merkel and it has even been suggested has modelled herself on her German counterpart, not least in her maiden speech in which she expressed her wish to “make Britain a country that works for everyone”, which had strong echoes of Merkel’s social market tendencies.
But it remains to be seen whether their relationship will warm or cool over what are likely to be highly complicated and drawn-out Brexit negotiations that will dominate their cooperation.
In a nod to the potential convivial relationship the two women might have, as well as their unlikely rises through the ranks of male-dominated conservative parties, a Berliner Zeitung cartoon depicted them drinking cups of tea, with Merkel telling May “Simply let the men get on with their thing ...” and May, fresh from taking over from David Cameron, finishing her sentence with “... and then you end up getting their jobs!”.
Read more: The Guardian