Angela Merkel is due to receive May on the steps of her office at midday for what her spokesman Steffen Seibert described as an attempt to seek a further extension of article 50. The two leaders are expected to hold discussions over a working lunch in a dining room in Merkel’s office suite on the seventh floor of the chancellery building.
May’s whistlestop visit, squeezed in before a reception with Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Tuesday evening before the EU council summit on Wednesday, is the latest of no fewer than five similar emergency meetings hosted by Merkel over the past three years since Britain’s EU referendum, as May has sought help from her German counterpart over Brexit.
On May’s last trip, in December, the world’s media made much of the fact that the door of her car got stuck while Merkel looked on from the red carpet, leading to copious quips about May’s inability to exit.
“The basis of the talks is the request of Theresa May to the EU for a further Brexit deferral,” Seibert said on Monday. “Unity in the EU in the Brexit question is important for Germany, and it is in this spirit that the talks will take place.”
On the domestic stage, Merkel is under pressure to join Macron in his hardline stance and make no concessions to the UK. The Free Democratic party’s foreign policy spokesman, Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, said granting Britain an extension without May laying out concrete plans for how she would use the extra time could be “highly damaging” for the EU.
Franziska Brantner, a Green MP and member of the German parliament’s European affairs committee, said: “Giving in to the Brexit madmen only creates more madness.” If the EU gave the UK a carte blanche extension, she said, it risked “bringing the Brexit crisis to the continent”.
Manfred Weber, the lead candidate of the CDU’s bloc for the European parliament elections, also criticised those rushing to offer Britain a further extension. “There must not be an extension of the deadline without further clarity on what the goal is,” he said.
Asked what could be expected to come out of Tuesday’s discussion in Berlin, Helmut Scholz, an MEP for the leftwing party Die Linke, said May would be at pains to seek German support for a further Brexit delay and could expect to receive Merkel’s blessing.
“I believe she will get the delay she seeks, because it’s in no one’s interests that a no deal will in any way determine the future relationship between the EU27 and the United Kingdom … but before one agrees to such an extension, it’s important to be clear from the British side why and wherefore it will use this extension.”
May heads to Paris on Tuesday knowing that the French have long taken the hardest line among the EU27 against any further extension. Increasingly frustrated by the deadlock in London, Macron has argued that the bloc must demand from the UK a clear plan with credible political backing before agreeing to a second postponement.
He believes a new extension would add to the uncertainty facing business, risk contaminating critical European election campaigns, and serve only to distract the EU from a raft of other pressing problems.
A far longer “reset period”, allowing time for the British to reflect, might be preferable – except it brings with it the risk of Britain taking the EU’s decision-making hostage, influencing delicate debates such as the choice of a new commission president or the terms of the budget.
Behind the scenes, Paris has therefore been arguing forcefully that unless it can find a stable majority for a fresh Brexit plan by 12 April, the UK should be allowed just a fortnight’s grace before it leaves, to allow the markets to factor in a no-deal Brexit.
Many do not believe that Macron – as Charles de Gaulle did, twice, when the UK first tried to join the EU – ultimately will say non. “Pushing Britain out would give him short-term headlines but would be bad for the EU, for France as a frontline state and of course for the UK,” said Peter Ricketts, a former British ambassador to Paris.
Others are not so sure. “The president is certainly trying to exert the maximum pressure on the British to come up with a concrete plan,” said a French official. “The last thing anyone wants is for Mrs May to turn up in Brussels on Wednesday empty-handed. To an extent he is also playing the bad cop – but only to an extent.”
Faced with a more conciliatory line from Germany and, above all, with the heartfelt pleas of Ireland, Macron may well pull back from insisting on an early UK departure, but only if May can promise that an alternative plan is as good as in the bag and that the UK will not interfere in the EU’s affairs.
“He will not want to fracture EU unity or to be blamed for a no deal,” said one EU diplomat. “But I would expect the horse-trading to be quite intense. France will need to come away with something. And Macron will want firm guarantees. This won’t be automatic.”