Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Dublin on Thursday to meet with Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Leo Varadkar.
Brexit and the effects on EU-member Ireland with its UK-member Northern Ireland were high on the agenda.
“Let me say, we will simply have to be able to do this [both preserve the single market and avoid a border in Ireland],” Merkel said. “We have to be successful. We hope for a solution. But we simply have to be successful.”
Merkel expressed a personal understanding of the presence of borders and walls: “I personally come from a country that was for many years divided by a wall. I know what happens once borders, once walls fall. A heavy death toll has happened here.”
Merkel, as expected, expressed strong solidarity with Ireland. “Every step of the way we will stand together, we will walk together,” she said. “We worked together as 28 [EU member nations] for a long time and now we are 27. I wanted to demonstrate with my visit that we will continue to stand together as 27.”
However, she stopped short of saying that regardless of what happens, no hard border would be reimposed in Ireland. “We will do everything in order to prevent a no-deal Brexit, Britain crashing out of the European Union. But we have to do this together with Britain and with their position that they will present to us.”
Varadkar said he still wanted the Withdrawal Agreement ratified, but also acknowledged that a no deal scenario had to be anticipated.
“Both Ireland and Germany want to have a future relationship with the UK which is close and comprehensive and as deep as possible, and we would like to see the Withdrawal Agreement ratified so that we can begin the negotiations on a new economic and security partnership without further delay,” he said.
“There is very little time left and we have to prepare ourselves for all outcomes.”
Soccer, the bailout and beyond
Ahead of Thursday, the high point to date of Angela Merkel’s relationship with Ireland came during the 2012 European Football Championships.
Ireland was in the teeth of a brutal economic recession at the time and many in the country associated the austerity measures being imposed with the frugal German chancellor. So when a group of young Irish football fans at the tournament made a large banner that said “Angela Merkel thinks we’re at work,” it quickly became an online hit.
Seven years on, and Merkel’s Irish connection has become altogether more serious.
As well as their own talks, Merkel and Varadkar took part in a roundtable discussion with people representing communities from both sides of the Irish border earlier in the afternoon.
Those who took part said they were impressed with Merkel’s grasp of the issues around the Irish border.
“I think everyone who was there could not but be impressed by how much the Chancellor knew,” said Peter Sheridan, the CEO of Co-operation Ireland, a charity dedicated to securing peace on the island of Ireland. “I think her own background, living on one side of a wall, helped her to understood the stories, the very personal stories, that people shared with her.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar with Chancellor Angela Merkel
Merkel and Varadkar met at Farmleigh House, a stately building located in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. Security for the short visit was quite tight, but on a bright and blustery morning in the adjoining Dublin district of Stoneybatter, residents and commuters weren’t overly exercised by the impending presence of one of the most famous and powerful politicians in the world.
“Angela who?” said one young man out walking his dog. “Is it about this Brexit? I don’t bother with any of that, it’s just myself and himself I focus on,” he told DW, pointing to his dog.
But while quite a few people weren’t aware that Merkel was coming, almost everyone was well aware of her motivations for making what is her first trip to the island in five years.
“I presume it’s to do with Brexit,” said Josie, another dog walker. “Hard borders and backstops and whatever else they are talking about. I think she would be interested or keen that there wouldn’t be a hard border.
“I think she’s OK, she’s fair. She’s serious but she’s also down to earth. I think we can rely on her and the rest of the EU and I think that’s the general feeling in Ireland. I think they are all fed up of the British,” she said.
Eleanor, a retired former civil servant living in the southern Dublin suburb of Dun Laoghaire, was slightly less optimistic about the outcome of the powwow in the park.
“Merkel wants to stress that if and when the UK is a third country, suitable arrangements will have to be made to protect the single market and the customs union. She may, like me, have tired of Leo and Simon’s (Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney’s) mantra of ‘no hard border in Ireland.’ I think she’ll make some soothing noises about solidarity and possibly EU support after Brexit in view of Ireland’s special vulnerability.”
‘If she didn’t back Ireland on this issue, I would be flabbergasted’
Given Merkel’s undisputed status as the most influential politician in Europe, her interventions into the Brexit and border question have been closely watched in Ireland.
Reports of a phone call between her and Varadkar back in January — at the height of a particularly tense time around the whole question of the Irish border “backstop” — raised several Irish heartbeats a few notches.
There has been occasional speculation, not just from ardent Brexiteers, that Merkel’s innate pragmatism could lead to her putting pressure on the Irish government to ease their position on the backstop question and help get a deal done.
“I think Ireland is becoming an issue, they just want to get it through now,” said Ciara, as she made her way to work. “I think we’re the weaker link in this situation.”
However, Chris, the man walking to work with her, was more optimistic. “I think she might be here to support us. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Overall, the people DW spoke to ahead of Thursday’s meeting had a positive image of Merkel, with several pointing to her experience of a divided Germany — and her reaction to the migrant crisis — as evidence that Ireland could rely on her solidarity.
“Considering she is not my cup of tea, I think she played a blinder in terms of the migrant crisis. Compared with every other leader, she has been startlingly brave,” said Mick, 61.
“She also understands what it is to have a country divided, by a partition that lasted a lot shorter than our own. She probably has demands in terms of the single market, protecting the integrity of the market. But she will have certain support for government dilemmas in this.”
For Martin Smith, a Scot who moved to Ireland 15 years ago, the idea that Merkel could be anything other than fully supportive of the Irish position with regard to Brexit and the reimposition of a border was unacceptable.
“I’d say she’d have to take Ireland’s side,” he said. “If she didn’t, then what is the point in Europe? I have always been behind Europe. As a Scotsman, I’d never call myself British! If you are part of Europe, you are part of Europe. The Irish border issues need to be defended by Europe. If she didn’t back Ireland on this issue, I would be flabbergasted.”
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