Ursula von der Leyen may be a Euro-federalist, but on Brexit she will be a pragmatist

Ursula von der Leyen may be a Euro-federalist, but on Brexit she will be a pragmatist

As a young and avid German Anglophile who is a paid-up member of both the UK Conservatives and the CDU – the German centre-right and dedicated pro-European party of Chancellor Merkel – I have been finding myself in one or two difficult situations since the Brexit vote.

It can be challenging at times trying to explain to German people how I can be in favour of Brexit – which I am without any doubt after the democratic vote held in 2016 – while also supporting the EU and, in particular, German membership of it – which I also do without any reservation.

However, this rather unique situation has also given me the chance to acquire a much more pragmatic view than that of most of my friends in German conservative politics. Most have been arguing that there must be no re-negotiation whatsoever of the Withdrawal Agreement in general and of the backstop in particular. This is a view which I reject without hesitation.

In fact, it is a highly dangerous opinion to hold, given the world’s fragility and, hence, the need for the closest possible co-operation between the United Kingdom and the EU after Brexit. The various and serious challenges concerning terrorism, Europe’s dealings with China and, especially, Russia certainly are sufficient to emphasise this. The EU27 and the UK are more than partners on these and many other issues; they find themselves in a state of double-sided dependency for each other’s mutual benefit. Therefore, that many politicians from Germany – even from the centre-right CDU – have failed to see the need for compromise and a willingness to understand Brits’ justified problems with the backstop has been a source of great anger to me.

Yet one name which we have heard quite a lot of over the last 24 hours gives me some hope that at least some of the problems at hand might be resolved over the coming weeks and months. It is that of Ursula von der Leyen, Angela Merkel’s Defence Minister for the past five and a half years, who has been nominated by the European Council to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the European Commission.

Whilst the initial reaction of much of the British political Twitterati to Mrs von der Leyen’s nomination has been to regard it as unlikely to break the Brexit impasse, I beg to differ. Yes, it is undoubtedly true that the Brussels-born Merkel ally is undoubtedly in favour of a European army as a long-term goal – something dreaded by many and which arguably played an important role back at the 2016 referendum. Furthermore, her desire to create the so-called – and perhaps equally dreaded – United States of Europe (as expressed in 2011), quite obviously, makes her no less of a Euro-federalist.

So you might ask what exactly it is which gives me reason to hope for that long-awaited progress and it is this: since the Brexit vote, Ursula von der Leyen has proven to be one of the most pragmatic voices in Germany concerning EU negotiations with the UK. Even though her criticism of the Leave campaign is strong, she has been very consistent in her attitude that the decision taken by the British people to leave the EU is irreversible – something that many other prominent figures have disputed by calling for a second referendum.

When she appeared on German TV show Anne Will (Germany’s equivalent of The Andrew Marr Show) back in April alongside Conservative MP Greg Hands and the SNP’s Philippa Whitford, von der Leyen issued a rallying cry for the EU to maintain a willingness to negotiate in order to prevent No Deal at all costs (a scenario which she, rightly, described as the worst possible starting point for UK-EU talks on their future relationship). According to her, it is important for the EU to listen to what the UK – namely the House of Commons – asks for and find a way forward on the basis of it. The so-called Brady Amendment – the only Brexit option that has actually been able to command a majority in the House of Commons – was mentioned during the Anne Will show and could be seen as the basis for such negotiations.

Concerning the future relationship, Mrs von der Leyen referenced the CDU’s manifesto for the European elections (which itself voiced a more pragmatic view on Brexit than previous CDU statements) and her current brief in government: in order to maintain – and improve – European defence, she said on the programme, the EU needed to collaborate intensively with the UK based on shared values. A Joint Vision Statement which she signed with her then-UK counterpart Gavin Williamson paved the way for von der Leyen’s vision of deep co-operation to counter shared threats and answer shared questions. This view is very much in line with the Global Britain agenda of the UK Government, which has consistently argued that Britain will never waver in her efforts for the collective security of the European continent.

Even though she has also described the backstop and its arrangements as a “clever proposition”, the new Prime Minister – whoever it is – can have a pragmatic negotiating partner in Ursula von der Leyen. Unlike some others, she is not driven by an objective to punish the UK, but rather will seek to prevent No Deal from happening by making further talks possible. They, of course, are the stated aim of both candidates battling for the keys to No. 10 and a clear prerequisite for any deal passing the House of Commons.

What distinguishes Ursula von der Leyen from many European politicians is her attention to detail, her willingness to understand others’ points of view and her determination to make Brexit work, yes, for the EU27, but also for its British friends and neighbours as well. Let us all hope that von der Leyen’s Presidency – assuming it is approved by the European Parliament later this month – will allow both sides to overcome the current impasse and, thereby let the UK make a success of Brexit. There is reason for that hope!