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Germany has more pressing concerns than Brexit
CHATTING to a diplomat in Berlin last week, I suggested that Brexit probably ranked about No 4 on the list of German foreign-policy concerns. He looked thoughtful and then replied: "I think lower than that." So we went through the list.
Alarming dossiers are piling up on Angela Merkel's desk. The most urgent issues facing the German chancellor are Russia, Covid-19, the eastern Mediterranean, the US election and China. Then comes Brexit. As the current president of the European Union (EU), Germany sees its role as shaping a unified European response to all these issues.
The urgency of the Russia problem is underlined by the fact that Alexei Navalny, the stricken Russian opposition activist, is lying in hospital less than a mile from the chancellor's office. Flying him to Germany was a humanitarian gesture - but it has provoked a crisis in relations with Moscow. German diplomats believe that the Russians did not expect Mr Navalny to survive the flight from Siberia to Berlin. The Kremlin is furious at Germany's confirmation that Mr Navalny was poisoned, and is spitting out conspiracy theories.
Dr Merkel has always tried to keep lines open to Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. But she is not shirking confrontation this time; she chose to personally announce the toxicology results that showed Mr Navalny was poisoned. A reversal of German policy on the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Russia, long protected by Dr Merkel, is looking more likely. The Germans are also closely following the pro-democracy uprising in Belarus - a situation that holds a special resonance for a chancellor who grew up east of the iron curtain.
Beyond the boundaries of Europe, Germany sees a world of rogue superpowers with an animus against the European project. As one senior official puts it: "One thing that Moscow, Beijing and Washington have in common is that they would all like to divide Europe."
The inclusion of China in that list points to a serious deterioration in relations with Beijing. This matters hugely in Berlin, since China is Germany's largest trading partner. The Germans also know that any hope of global action on climate change requires the cooperation of Beijing - and they are seriously alarmed by the number of new coal-fired power stations that China is opening. Meanwhile, human-rights issues in Xinjiang and Hong Kong are getting a lot of coverage in the German media and public perceptions of China have turned negative. Dr Merkel has convened a virtual EU-China summit, which takes place this week.
Floating above everything else is anxiety over the US presidential election. One Berlin official argues: "It is hard to think of any other country, outside America itself, that has as much at stake on Nov 3 as Germany." A victory for the Democrat Joe Biden would provide a chance to revive the western alliance on which German security has depended for decades. But a second administration under President Donald Trump would probably become more open in its hostility to Berlin and Brussels.
Germany's relations with Turkey - which have always been tricky - are also increasingly urgent. Berlin is attempting to mediate between Greece and Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean and fears that fighting could break out between the two North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) allies. The fact that Turkey hosts millions of Syrian refugees is critical. A defining moment of the Merkel era was the chancellor's decision in 2015 to admit more than one million refugees, who mostly travelled via Turkey. A new outflow of migrants from the region would be a nightmare for Dr Merkel, particularly during a pandemic. So news that a large refugee camp in Greece has burnt down is ringing alarm bells in Berlin.
And all of this has to be dealt with amid the extraordinary challenges posed by Covid-19.
As they try to respond to an increasingly threatening world, German leaders have come back again and again to the importance of maintaining European unity. In a world of rogue superpowers and global environmental and health challenges, they believe European nations can only hope to defend their interests by sticking together. Protecting the European single market is a matter of security, as well as economics.
It is that global context that conditions the German response to Brexit. Viewed from Berlin, it would be dangerous and self-defeating to agree a Brexit deal that undermines the single market. As the Germans see it, allowing the UK tariff-free and quota-free access to that market - while exempting the country from the EU's state-aid regulations and border controls - would pose an unacceptable threat to Europe's legal order, prosperity and unity.
There is also the question of trust. If UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's government rips up a deal agreed nine months ago, what is the point of negotiating any further with them?
This message is generally delivered calmly and without rancour. In Berlin, the harshest word I heard applied to the British government's announcement that it intends to break international law was "troubling".
Listening to that remark, it struck me that if you want to hear British-style understatement these days, you need to go to Germany. The political atmosphere in London is hysterical and insular. It is the Germans who are thinking globally and whose maxim now seems to be "keep calm and carry on". FINANCIAL TIMES