Will Germany help or hinder Brexit? British Conservatives tend to assume that in the end, Angela Merkel will turn out to be an ally.
David Cameron made that error. He expected more help from Berlin than he received. The concessions which would perhaps have persuaded the British to remain in the European Union were not forthcoming.
Berlin thought he was mad to have conceded the referendum. There is no knowing where that kind of gamble will end. For it takes power out of the hands of the political class and puts it in the hands of the people.
Perhaps now the British have voted to leave the EU, Merkel will help to ensure that the whole thing passes off with as little disruption as possible. The pragmatic case for minimising the damage to trade between the EU and Britain is very strong.
And yet, although I loved living in Berlin from 1994-2000, I am glad 20 years later not to be a British correspondent charged with finding out what the Chancellor really intends to do.
Merkel is a notoriously opaque figure. No one is better at smiling in an amiable way, while keeping her opinions to herself. And it is quite conceivable that with many other much more important things to think about, including the formation of a coalition government, she has not yet made up her mind how to play Brexit.
She can wait a bit, and let the pressure mount on Theresa May, before becoming the arbiter who softens the asperities of the European Commission, while also extracting concessions from London.
But it would be a mistake to think of this solely as a question about Merkel. It is really a question about Germany.
If the EU did not exist, Germany would need to invent something like it. For Germany has about 18 neighbours (nine by land, the rest by sea), all of which are, individually, smaller than Germany.
In order to live in peace and harmony with these neighbours, and avoid frightening them into some sort of anti-German alliance, it makes sense to create a European Community, even a European Union, which renders such a division unthinkable.
This is understood to be an essential German interest. Helmut Kohl marshalled the German political class into accepting, as the price of German reunification, the replacement of the German mark with a single European currency.
Merkel overthrew Kohl, but preserved the euro – an immensely difficult task, which demonstrated that when things get difficult, the Germans are inclined to persist, not to cut and run.
The term “cut and run” is, after all, more suitable for a maritime nation, referring as it does to the act of cutting the anchor cable and setting sail in a hurry. Germany is anchored in the EU, and sees no possibility of cutting and running.
And yet this is not quite the end of the matter. While living in Germany, I would each day read, with admiration, the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Here one could commune with the tortured heart of German conservatism.
The paper was, and is, serious, erudite, cosmopolitan and yet also profoundly German. In marked contrast to the fever of Fleet Street, it seemed to have all the time in the world to examine a subject in all its aspects.
German politics seemed, indeed, to consist mainly of conversations which lasted two or three decades, at the end of which a consensus emerged. The fall in 1989 of the Berlin Wall, when the East German people voted with their feet by crossing to the West, was a genuinely popular moment, but under Kohl’s leadership, the political class soon reasserted control, and decided almost unanimously, in defiance of the people’s wishes, to get rid of the German mark, proud symbol of post-war recovery.
And yet in the pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine, there was a resistance to this abandonment of the national currency. It was led by a number of colossally learned, and very angry, professors.
How I loved reading them. They regarded Kohl as an economic illiterate who was steering the country to disaster. In 1997, four of them brought a case in the German Constitutional Court, to try to block the introduction of the euro.
The gallant professors failed, yet did not give up. In 2013, they founded a movement called Alternative für Deutschland, which campaigned for Germany to leave the euro while remaining in the EU.
That too failed: in the 2013 general election, AfD narrowly missed the five per cent threshold for winning seats in the Bundestag, and in due course the professors were forced out by anti-immigrant populists who this year won 12.6 per cent of the vote and 94 parliamentary seats.
Yesterday, I bought the Frankfurter Allgemeine, to see how things are coming along. It contains, on page two, a detailed account of where the Free Democrats and the Greens – the two junior partners with whom Merkel intends to form a government – have got to in their coalition talks.
Apparently they have so far reached something which is “more of a wish list than a programme for government”, and will need to do quite a bit more talking to each other before they can arrive at a consensus.
This is the kind of information which I used, 20 years ago, to absorb of a morning, only to decide it was not really the kind of stuff one could inflict on readers of the Daily Telegraph.
In 2010, Cameron did a deal with the Liberal Democrats in five days. That is not how things work in Berlin. In Germany, and especially in Berlin, there is a quite different sense of time.
In London, one rushes to get things finished. In Berlin, one takes all the time in the world, in order to try to get things right.
In London, workers go at the end of the day to the pub, buy each other rounds of drinks at manic speed, and feverishly get drunk in an hour or two. In Berlin, there is no closing time, you pay at the end of your visit only for the drinks you yourself have consumed, and the bar will remain open all night, indeed all weekend, if two or three people think they would like to go on talking, without necessarily getting drunk at all.
This different sense of time is at least as important as whatever may be going on inside Merkel’s mind.
The slow pace of Brexit, which in London produces feelings of such impatience, in Berlin seems entirely natural. After all, to reach a consensus could well take 20 or 30 years. To allow oneself to be rushed would be unserious, disreputable, in a word populist.
The Germans can improvise when they need to, and can act very fast. But how is London to instil that sense of urgency in Berlin? This difficulty in pushing things on at sufficient speed – at getting from a wish list to a programme of joint action – could be one of the main problems of Brexit.