It was mere coincidence that, on a cold weekend in November 2014, the people of Europe marked the start and the end of the most compelling and most violent story in human history in markedly different ways.
In London and elsewhere, the 100th anniversary of the Great War was observed with long silent minutes and seas of poppies. In Berlin, where I happened to be at the time, hundreds of luminescent white balloons set out along the old path of the Berlin Wall were released into the night sky, while people cheered and the Berlin Philharmonic belted out some exceptionally rousing Beethoven.
It was immediately clear in 1989 that a great era had come to an end, its start and end so clearly marked. Angela Merkel, of course, was there, just as she had been 25 years ago, dashing through a gap in that suddenly porous wall. She has made a habit of being at the centre of history. And with her words on Sunday, she may have drawn another of history’s grand eras to an end.
“The era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent,” Merkel told an election rally in Munich on Sunday. “We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands – naturally in friendship with the United States of America, in friendship with Great Britain, as good neighbours ... But we have to know that we Europeans must fight for our own future and destiny.”
It is by some margin the most serious assertion of historical meaning over the seismic political events of 2016 in Britain and America. And the assertion is that they mark the end of an era: 1945 to 2016, the long years when the Western nations of the world were reliable partners, dependent on one another.
The words were in response to the G7 summit, at which the Donald Trump stomped about with all the diplomatic grace of an orangutan. Pushing the Montenegrin Prime Minister out the way doesn’t really matter very much. One suspects this is not the first international summit at which the Montenegrin Prime Minister has been pushed out the way. But backing out of the Paris Climate Agreement, hectoring on Nato contributions which are not even legally binding, and calling Germany “very, very bad” over its temerity to have its car companies provide tens of thousands of American jobs building its beloved cars in the southern states of the US are actions that must have consequences.
Meanwhile British politicians, such as Amber Rudd this morning, have been quick to say that “they seek a deep and special partnership” with Europe. But what they seek and what they will get are two different things. In the long build up to Britain’s EU referendum, the man now in charge of Brexit, David Davis, had only one argument to deploy and that was the dependency of the German car industry on British buyers. Merkel consistently warned that free trade is not possible without freedom of movement, but the people of Britain preferred to listen to barefoot self-help guru Steve Hilton phoning in from California to rail against “elites”. That reality can no longer be reversed.
The Davis strategy is what is known as "hardball". It has not paid off. German car manufacturers have instead lobbied UK politicians to stay in the single market, instead of appealing to their own government to offer UK any kind of special deal.
So Merkel is right: the US and the UK cannot be relied upon. They have let the people of Europe down, and very badly. Europe must take its destiny into its own hands.
It is particularly intriguing that political analysts have sought to cast the Brexit negotiations as a battle between Martin Selmayr, the German lawyer and Brussels wunderkind, and Nick Timothy, the 38-year-old working class Brummie who is Theresa May’s chief-of-staff.
If this really is the contest, it is an alarming one. One of Selmayr’s favourite lines is that the UK has “had its hand on the brake of history” for too long, which are words that are worth remembering as Merkel makes clear her intention for Europe to move upwards through the gears of history, leaving the UK behind. She would rather we were still in the car, of course – but that was our choice.
It appears to have been Timothy, meanwhile, who manoeuvred to insert the social care fiasco in to the Tory manifesto which, though arguably a wise and moral policy, has derailed his Prime Minister's entire election campaign. Over the next 10 days, his boss will return to the argument she should never have left. That the country faces a “stark choice” between her and Jeremy Corbyn to lead the negotiations in Brussels. But we might, just this once, listen to Merkel instead: the stark choice has already been made, in June last year.
Whoever sits on the wrong side of that negotiating table, history will be moving on without us.
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