BERLIN — London wants Berlin to help avoid a generational “fissure” between the U.K. and the EU over Brexit.
That’s according to Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who is the first in a group of Theresa May’s most senior ministers to fan out across the Continent this week to sell the prime minister’s new Brexit plan. Hunt used the trip to issue a warning about the risks of sleepwalking into a no-deal scenario and to avoid the narrative that he is a soft touch compared with his predecessor.
If Hunt’s counterpart Heiko Maas was pleased to welcome Hunt as Britain’s new top diplomat, as opposed to his bombastic, and sometimes abrasive predecessor Boris Johnson, he was too polite to say so in public. Johnson resigned two weeks ago after telling Cabinet colleagues that selling the new Brexit plan would be like “polishing a turd.” Last year, he had told Brussels that the EU could “go whistle” for a hefty Brexit financial settlement from the U.K.
Unlike Johnson, the suave Hunt is not a Brexit true believer, having backed Remain at the 2016 referendum. But he is a pragmatic politician, now fully behind Brexit, who was schooled by a bruising six-year tenure as health secretary — one of the most difficult jobs in British politics — on how to drive a tough bargain.
“This is not about a charm offensive,” said Hunt following talks with his German counterpart Heiko Maas at the Foreign Office in Berlin.
“We want a friendship, similar to that between Australia and New Zealand, Germany and Switzerland,” said Hunt of the post-Brexit bilateral relationship, describing Germany as one of Britain’s “best friends in the world,” standing “shoulder-to-shoulder” for a rules-based world order since 1945.
Then came the punch.
“Without a real change in approach from the EU negotiators … we do now face a real risk of a Brexit no deal by accident,” said Hunt, arguing it would hurt British public attitudes to Europe for a generation, potentially creating a “fissure” across the Channel.
He followed that up with a tweet claiming that that “only person rejoicing” in the event of a no deal Brexit would be Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The European Commission is leading talks on Brexit and has reacted frostily to May’s Brexit plan — hammered out with top ministers at her Chequers country residence two weeks ago. Hunt’s implicit message is a request for Berlin to inject some pragmatism into the Commission and lead negotiator Michel Barnier’s approach.
Last week, Barnier offered a forensic dissection of the U.K.’s plan through a series of pointed questions about how the scheme would work in practice. He did not reject it outright, but the message was clear.
Maas — who cut short his holiday to host his opposite number — offered a cautious but noncommittal welcome to May’s new plan, saying the Berlin “exchange of views” is important with “regards to the current political situation in Britain” — a not-so coded reference to the political turmoil in the U.K. over the Chequers plan, which brought about two U.K. Cabinet resignations.
He said Berlin does not want a “disorderly Brexit” and that the Chequers white paper does include “concrete ideas” on how to configure a future relationship. But he said it is too early to assess whether the plan will work, and that key issues like the Irish border remain unresolved.
But Hunt had a warning about potential brinkmanship from the EU in the Brexit negotiations. “Many people in the EU are thinking they just need to wait long enough and the U.K. will blink. That’s not going to happen,” he said. “[A no deal] would be challenging economically. But in the end we would not only find a way to survive but to thrive.”
Hunt’s visit is the first in a flurry of diplomatic activity this week. Cabinet Office Minister and key May ally David Lidington will be in Paris on Tuesday, while new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab is back in Brussels on Thursday. May herself will meet Austrian Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz in Salzburg on Friday, and she will also meet the Czech and Estonian leaders.
The aim is to persuade national capitals to back her plan, which would keep the U.K. in step with some EU regulations governing the goods trade, despite skepticism from Brussels.
Earlier on Monday, Stephan Mayer, a junior interior minister from the conservative Bavarian CSU, sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, told the BBC the Chequers plan is both “workable” and a “deeply appealing and interesting approach.” His softer line is consistent with his party’s more welcoming approach to the U.K., but Merkel’s government has so far adopted a hard line on defending the integrity of the single market.
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