May and Merkel - the Two Women Deciding the Future of Europe

The new British prime minister has been quick to settle scores with political foes and surprised everyone by appointing Boris Johnson as foreign secretary, but her most important relationship will be with the German chancellor.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, left, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Matt Dunham/Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP

One of the very first acts of Britain’s new prime minister, Theresa May, has been to serve as a global talking point and the source of much mirth on social media – following her surprising appointment of former London Mayor Boris Johnson as the new foreign secretary.

Johnson has the distinction of being both the most popular politician in Britain (according to polls) and the one who has succeeded over the years in insulting the longest list of foreign leaders and nations with casually racist, misogynistic and downright nasty remarks. All delivered with his trademark, cuttingly brilliant wit. Instead of burdening readers with details here, you can check out any of the dozens of compilations of Johnson’s insults that have appeared online.

Israeli observers were, of course, reminded of the way that their prime ministers have a knack of punishing political rivals – and the electorate – by appointing them to the least suitable job for their talents, personality and experience.

Above all, the Johnson promotion is reminiscent of Benjamin Netanyahu’s appointment of the undiplomatic Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister in 2009 and as defense minister two months ago. Only a few weeks beforehand he had dismissed Lieberman’s security credentials, saying, “The only projectile that ever whizzed by his ears was a tennis ball.”

Similarly, Prime Minister May had dismissed Johnson’s diplomatic skills only last month, noting, “Boris negotiated in Europe. I seem to remember last time he did a deal with the Germans, he came back with three nearly new water cannons” – which, as home secretary, she refused to allow him to use against rioters in London.

So has May taken a page out of Netanyahu’s playbook? Is Johnson’s appointment an attempt to place her greatest rival in the position with the most potential for him to spectacularly self-destruct, while she believes she can run Britain’s foreign policy from Downing Street?

There is probably a bit of this in May’s move. She is human, after all, and in recent weeks has proved herself a quiet yet canny practitioner of political blood sports.

But putting Johnson on a precipice is part of a much bigger picture.

Johnson arrived in the magnificent Italianate-style building, from where plenipotentiaries were once sent to rule a global empire, with the Foreign & Commonwealth Office at probably its lowest ebb. Along with his appointment, two new posts were created: David Davis was named Secretary of State for exiting the European Union, while Liam Fox is to be Secretary of State for International Trade. Both appointments mean responsibilities that would have been expected to reside in the Foreign Office – negotiating Britain’s exit from the EU and the new trade deals it will need to sign with countries around the world – will now be held elsewhere.

Not only has this reduced Johnson’s power, it has effectively made him just one member of a team of three senior Tory politicians who campaigned in last month’s referendum to leave the EU, and are now responsible for delivering that outcome.

A selection of front pages of British newspapers on Thursday July 14, 2016.
Adela Suliman/AP

It also means that Johnson’s record of insulting the world doesn’t really matter, since for the next few years Britain will be focused on one sole international goal: extricating itself from Europe with the minimum of damage. Johnson’s role may not be central in that.

May supported remaining in the EU, but has since promised that “Brexit means Brexit.” She has effectively created what she obviously hopes is a win-win situation, whereby the Brexit cheerleaders will be the ones who have to work out exactly what that means and the price Britain will pay.

If Johnson, Davis and Fox succeed in delivering, May will have overcome the most significant obstacle facing her as she enters office. If they fail, they will take the blame and she will be able to replace them. Moreover, as the “leave” campaign, led by Johnson, made rash promises of how Britain would easily and painlessly exit the EU and build new trade relations while clamping down on immigration, they will have to face the public when it becomes clear that many of those promises were unrealistic.

The main opposition party, Labour, is currently tearing itself apart in an ugly battle between radical leftist leader Jeremy Corbyn and nearly all of the party’s members of parliament, who do not see him as a man who could ever win an election and serve as prime minister. As a result, May has nothing to fear from the opposition.

Her real enemies are within her own Conservative Party, where both the Euroskeptic right wing and loyalists of former Prime Minister David Cameron, who have suddenly and unceremoniously lost most of their positions of power, are waiting to see her put a foot wrong.

The “Brexiteers” she has just promoted – Johnson, Davis and Fox – are to serve as May’s flak jacket. Joining them is Andrea Leadsom, until very recently an unknown junior minister who was catapulted into the limelight first by the referendum campaign and then by a short but disastrous attempt to defeat May in the leadership election. She has been named Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – in other words, the minister who will have to face Britain’s angry farmers about to lose their EU subsidies.

May’s real allies in the cabinet have been given the most powerful positions: Philip Hammond, who as Chancellor of the Exchequer will rule the treasury, the most influential of government departments; and Amber Rudd, the new home secretary, taking over May’s old fiefdom. May, Hammond and Rudd were all in favor of remaining in the EU and will be the ones running the show now, making sure the Brexiteers don’t make a hash of things.

But however she builds her cabinet, ultimately the responsibility will be May’s. After she made her first cabinet appointments on Thursday evening, she began receiving phone calls from foreign leaders congratulating her on the new job. The most important of these was from German Chancellor Angela Merkel – the real leader of the EU. So far, both May and Merkel have kept their cards hidden. May has not said when she plans to trigger Article 50, which will begin the process of Britain’s departure from the EU, or what kind of relationship she hopes to maintain with Europe the morning after.

Merkel, meanwhile, hasn’t signaled whether she thinks Britain should be made to pay a heavy price for leaving – as a warning to other wayward European nations – or if she thinks that, in the interests of the union, it would be better to find a way of keeping Britain as close as possible as a favored trading partner.

Either way, the ability of these two clever and cautious women to find a way of working together could decide not only Britain’s future in the world, but also that of Europe.