When it came to Brexit, many British political actors placed far too much weight and reliance on Germany and its former Chancellor. Karl Pike and Tim Bale explore what they call the ‘Merkel myth’ and how it affected the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union
In 2014, on a visit to London, Angela Merkel addressed the Houses of Parliament. The then German Chancellor recognised in her remarks that British political actors seemed to have ‘very special expectations’ regarding her speech. Some people, Merkel said, seemed to be under the impression that she would signal huge reforms perceived to be in the UK’s interests. Others, she said, expected ‘the exact opposite’.
The German Chancellor, however, was not going to do either of those things. Instead, she delivered a state-of-play speech on EU integration, with a focus on the Eurozone.
Chancellor Merkel demonstrated, once again, that her overriding priority was the political and economic integrity of the European Union rather than narrower UK debates. Despite this, her message seemed to have only a limited impact on the British politicians watching – many of whom would go on to play roles in the Brexit referendum over two years later. Far too many of these politicians invested far too much faith in the ability and desire of Angela Merkel (and, by extension, Germany) to help the UK out.
Prior to the referendum, many British politicians invested far too much faith in Angela Merkel's desire to help the UK out
Why? It is this question – and this puzzle – we sought to partly answer in our recent article. To tackle the issue, we employed the concept of political myth.
What exactly is a myth – and a political myth? The British philosopher Mary Midgley worked throughout her career on comprehending different frameworks of meaning. Consequently, when we talk about myth, we mean much more than something popularly believed but not actually the case. Rather, and following Midgley, myths to us are one kind of tool to help humans to comprehend the world. They are products of our creating and assigning meaning to things. They are imaginative, and they are far more prevalent and important than we often recognise.
Midgley, of course, is not the only philosopher to think deeply about myth and meaning. Chiara Bottici’s recent work on political myth has restated both the importance and usefulness of the concept. Bottici notes the special ‘significance’ that a political myth accrues through the process of creating and bringing together different meanings in a political context. This idea – the ‘significance’ generated through the process – comes from Hans Blumenberg’s philosophical reflections on myth.
One further philosophical influence on our research came from Charles Taylor. In his book The Language Animal, Taylor argued that myths have the effect of combining different meanings. These meanings, in turn, produce a mythical meaning that is fully appreciated as a whole. In other words, myths have different elements, but they are understood together.
Our recent article in the Journal of European Integration argues that such a myth existed within British politics. The myth centred around Angela Merkel, and it goes some way to explaining why British politicians could hear one thing from the Chancellor (and indeed hear something similar from other experts on the EU, political, academic or otherwise), yet think quite another.
The ‘Merkel myth’ had several component parts. It featured the belief among UK political actors (a) that the then German Chancellor was the most important decision-maker within the European Union, (b) that she would more than likely deliver on her supposed commitment to smooth UK-EU relations, (c) that German industrial interests (notably carmakers) would insist upon a close and open UK-EU trading relationship, and (d) that Merkel herself was a pragmatist who would persuade her EU partners do a last-minute deal – as was apparently her habit – so the UK should hold its nerve come what may.
In 2013, David Cameron announced his decision to include, in the next Conservative Party manifesto, a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. This, we argue, was the moment the Merkel myth really became a part of British politics. Merkel was considered to be the European politician who could signal what kind of deal Britain might get in a future renegotiation.
Leave-supporting actors had blind faith that Merkel would ‘see sense’ and give Britain the deal it wanted – regardless of the EU team empowered to negotiate on behalf of the EU27
Merkel’s opinions on the plausibility of any reform were influential on Cameron’s pre-referendum renegotiation. After Britain voted to leave, her views remained a key consideration. Leave-supporting actors had blind faith that Merkel would ‘see sense’ and give Britain the deal it wanted – seemingly regardless of the EU institutions and the EU team actually empowered to negotiate on behalf of the EU27. Yet it wasn't only those committed to leaving who bought into the Merkel myth. Those who wanted the ‘softest’ Brexit – or even no Brexit at all – figured an alternative plan could somehow be agreed with (you guessed it!) Angela Merkel.
The often agonising (and seemingly endless) Brexit process never seemed to come close to matching the confident assumptions of British political actors. So why did so many (although not, we should emphasise, all) of them believe that Chancellor Merkel – and the German government as a whole – would ultimately come to the UK’s rescue?
The agonising, seemingly endless Brexit process never came close to matching the confident assumptions of British political actors
We think this is another reason why ‘myth’ as a concept for understanding certain kinds of meanings is so useful. The meanings around Merkel had heightened significance within British political elites. These beliefs often seemed to paper over the cracks of the UK’s diplomatic strategy, but only ever really provided political reassurance.
That latter point (the reassurance) is, perhaps, part of the reason some British political actors upheld the Merkel myth. It provided meanings to substantiate the preferred political strategy of some actors: to undermine the solidarity of the EU27, and benefit from negotiations with individual member states perceived as sharing the UK’s economic and trade goals.
The world is, we suspect, full of political myths. And this is why we believe the concept is very useful for political analysis. But if that’s the case, we will need further theoretical reflection, as well as more empirical case studies. Part of Mary Midgley’s philosophical mission was to unearth myths, to consider their effects, and to engage with them critically. This is the exercise we have tried to play a small part in, too. We hope others will be tempted to join us.