Howard Davies: The Germans don't care about Brexit

MT's diarist on Angela Merkel and a divorce through lawyers.

by Howard Davies
Last Updated: 26 Jun 2017

Things are looking pretty good for Mrs M.

Her new chief rival has chosen a more left-leaning approach than his predecessor, but with a few feints to the left herself she seems well on course to seeing him off. There is no meaningful opposition within her own party. For a time her liberal approach to immigration, and enthusiasm for Europe, looked to be losing her popular support, but her refusal to compromise with the Eurosceptics, and belief that a humanitarian policy on migrants and asylum-seekers was in line with the underlying beliefs of her people, look to have been well-judged. The siren voices of the populist right, in the right-wing press and in splinter parties, now seem shrill and lacking in resonance.

The economy is on the up, growing at well over 2% a year, and unemployment is below 4%. Real incomes are rising too. The upcoming election looks to be well-timed, and local poll results have confirmed that recently.

Mrs M is in that happy position of being able to choose her own retirement date.

So it's happy days on the Unter den Linden. The early summer sun was shining when I dropped by, and the Germans were feeling quite chipper about the world, or as chipper as Germans ever allow themselves to be. (Even the German word the dictionary gives you for chipper, munter, doesn't sound very upbeat.)

One tricky consequence for us is that they are not very interested in Brexit. For a while it was front-page news, when the fear was that other dominoes would fall. But the Dutch and French resisted that temptation, and the 27 have come together quite easily and agreed a tough common negotiating position. The problem is now seen as one for Brussels to resolve. Mrs M is much more interested in developing her relationship with Monsieur M in the elysee. They have serious business to transact, as they try to complete the Eurozone, and deal with the continued travails of Italy and Greece. The latter still has the potential to derail the whole project, as the Greeks continue to need bailout after bailout. The memory of dealing with Mr Varoufakis continues to send shudders through German politicians and officials.

Dealing with our Brexit bill, or the continuing rights of EU citizens to NHS healthcare for their dependents back home, is a fourth order issue. Of course at some point the European Council will pull an all-nighter to dot the 'i's and cross the 't's, but we chose to handle this divorce through lawyers, so that is the way it will be.

There is something odd, though, about the idea of Berlin as Europe's capital. Even 28 years after the fall of the wall, the East is still a building site, and is curiously empty. You can just walk into a restaurant and get a table, without having to answer harassing phone calls and texts demanding confirmation of your booking. I have forgotten when that was last possible in London. There are some tourists, but you can walk from the central station (almost empty at 5pm on a Tuesday) to the Brandenburg Gate and not see a single French school party, or coachload of Koreans. Nor can you find a single place to buy a Magnum Classic.

I know that Albert Speer did not include icecream stalls in his grand plan for Germania, but they have had 70+ years to make a few changes.

The surprising fact is that things take a long time to happen in Berlin. They began to plan for a new airport in 1991. The idea was to replace all three existing small airports, with a new all-singing, all-dancing hub. After decades of legal disputes it was ready to open in 2012, but failed to get approval from the fire brigade, who insisted on fundamental changes. Since then, there have been quite unbelievable shenanigans, including a poisoned whistleblower and more resignations and firings than even our government can manage. Maybe, just maybe, it will open in 2019, but no one is holding her breath. In the meantime, Tegel and Schonefeld struggle on in shambolic fashion.

What a sad contrast with our own decisive and speedy approach to planning new aircraft capacity for London.

But there is more to Germany than Berlin Mitte. For reasons I can't now recall I have a long-term mission to cycle the length of the Rhine. No one else in my family shares this odd ambition, so I steal a long weekend now and again, and do it in stages. This time I started in Bonn and went south.

There is something exciting about a working river. The container barges are massive. Lots of coal, too, no doubt as a result of Mrs M's sudden decision to scrap nuclear power after Fukushima. The Donald would find that encouraging. But the best bits are the white asparagus, the Ahr Pinot Noir, and the schlosses.

My personal favourites are the twin castles of Liebenstein and Sterrenburg, known as the 'hostile brothers'. The story is that a father built a separate castle for his younger son, walled off from the main one, because the two brothers argued over a woman. As the father of two sons a long way apart on the political spectrum, I can empathise with that idea. Sadly we have never financially been in a position to build another house next door. And it is fair to say that neither of mine has yet been on a crusade and returned with a beautiful Greek princess on his arm, which was the proximate cause of the fight. Germans and Greeks have never been meant to mix, it would seem.

Howard Davies is chairman of RBS. Follow him on Twitter: @howardjdavies


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