Where did Theresa May go on her first overseas visit since becoming Prime Minister? To Berlin. Properly so, for by far her most important counterpart as head of state is Angela Merkel.
By all accounts their meeting went swimmingly. Merkel was conciliatory toward May, backpedaling from her earlier demand that the United Kingdom negotiate its exit from the European Union as soon as possible. By the time the visit was over, Merkel was conceding that it was “completely understandable” May needed more time to decide what Britain’s “future relationship with the EU” should look like.
Both women seemed bent on stressing the symbolism of their situation. According to the Financial Times, when May was asked her first impression of the German chancellor, she invoked gender. Her reply? “We are two women who get on with the job and want to deliver the best possible results for the people of Britain and Germany.”
Moreover, on the single issue of their greatest disagreement – immigration – they will inevitably be brought closer. May recently reiterated that Britain expected controls on the freedom of movement for EU citizens. And while up to now Merkel has taken the opposite tack – strongly supporting open borders within the EU – the events of the past week will oblige her to modify her position.
Earlier this week a young ax wielding Afghan refugee wounded four passengers on German train. (He was shot and killed by German police.) And yesterday the entire city of Munich went on lockdown until it was determined only one man murdered nine people in a large, local shopping mall and that he was now dead. The 18-year old perpetrator had dual citizenship – German and Iranian. (He died of his own hand.)
Whatever the short term consequences of this week’s events, over the longer term the pressure on Merkel to harden her stance both on freedom of movement and on immigration will grow. Put differently, the context within which Merkel and May are situated will increasingly unite them and decreasingly divide them.