Mood in Germany, EU relaxed as Brexit talks begin

Mood in Germany, EU relaxed as Brexit talks begin

While Britain is in turmoil, calm prevails among Europeans as Brexit negotiations kick off. EU supporters think they hold the better cards and are talking tough, while keeping a door open for Britain to change its tune.

The situations of the two sides on the eve of negotiations about Britain leaving the European Union could hardly have been more different. Whereas British Prime Minister Theresa May is barely clinging to power and her representatives are hastily insisting that London will indeed push forward with Brexit, German and EU leaders seem relaxed and confident.

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Politics | 13.06.2017

In an interview with Die Welt newspaper, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel offered what was essentially an invitation for the UK to change its mind.

"It would naturally be best if Britain didn't leave at all," Gabriel said. "It doesn't look like that at the moment, but we want to keep the door open for the British."

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May made a mess of it

Johannes Bader: I think the Europeans have a far stronger hand in the Brexit negotiations. Theresa May made a complete mess of things in the snap election that just happened. It's total chaos. But that's all I know about it.

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Divisions are no good for the future

Johannita Müller: I hope Europe has the better cards. I really do. It's not good for the future if there are divisions everywhere. I would hope that the British back away from the Brexit.

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The UK has its work cut out for it

Peter Gutthat: First of all, I think it's regrettable that things even got this far. I think it's a step backwards for Europe. The UK is going to have its work cut out for it to get a decent result. Europe can't afford to let them get away with having any advantages.

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You just have to laugh

"Klaus Humboldt" (wished to remain anonymous): I love British humor, and with the Brexit and the election you just have to laugh. They're making themselves look ridiculous. May is completely kaput. But I don't know whether the EU has the better cards or not. I'm sure everyone will be fighting tooth and nail.

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Hold another vote now

Ursula Stampf: They should hold another election. I think that the Brexit is a total shame. So they should vote again on it. That's all I have to say.

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Why shouldn't I be relaxed?

Edgar Maas: I don't know what's going to happen. It may very well be that in two years the British hold another election to decide whether they truly want Brexit after all. I don't think they be able to complete all the negotiations by then in any case. But it doesn't really affect me. So why shouldn't I be relaxed?

Those sentiments were echoed in an interview with the same publication by Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's chief Brexit negotiator. But he also hinted that even should there be a British change of heart, there would be no return to the current status quo.

In Focus
Politics | 14.06.2017

"The path is open for the British to change their minds and become part of the European Union again," Verhofstadt told Welt. "But they'll find a different EU than the one they left, an EU with no special wishes, concessions and unnecessary complexity, but with more powers for Europe."

German and European leaders are taking care to strike a cordial, cooperative tone ahead the first formal Brexit negotiations in Brussels on Monday. But they clearly think they are playing with stronger a hand - in part because the British leadership under May has done so much to weaken its own.

 Pulse of Europe - Demonstration Berlin

EU negotiators can bank on popular support

'Here, they'd be long gone'

Gabriel took undiplomatically direct aim at the Conservative government in London, saying that it had "played with the emotions of citizens in Britain, told fake news about Europe and left people unclear about what consequences this would all have."

And he was positively scornful about the attempt by May's Conservatives to exploit perceived weakness on the left in Britain and gain a mandate to push through Brexit.

"They bet on a snap election because they thought they could use tactical tricks to get a bigger majority," Gabriel said. "Now there is a difficult, even impossible situation without any clear majorities or negotiating strategy."

May was hoping to increase her support in the British election on June 8, but instead her party lost its outright majority and now has to try to form a workable government with a tiny party from Northern Ireland.

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May's desperate attempts to retain power also drew a scathing dismissal from Germany's foreign minister.

"Here, people who created this sort of chaos would be long gone," Gabriel said.

Außenminister Sigmar Gabriel

Gabriel slammed British Conservatives

Responsibilities and benefits of partnership

Both Gabriel and Verhofstadt said that they hoped May's election fiasco would encourage Britain to pursue a "soft Brexit" preserving as many ties with the EU as possible. But both leaders stressed that any future partnership with the EU would bring responsibilities as well as benefits.

Gabriel said it might be possible for the UK to stay in the European common market, but that to do so, London would have to abide by the principle of freedom of movement for EU workers. He added that Britain would have to accept the jurisdiction of either the European Court of Justice or a "joint court" of Europeans and Britons.

Verhofstadt said that British offers concerning the rights of EU citizens in the UK didn't go far enough. Britain's chief negotiator David Davies is set to offer to guarantee those rights as long as the people concerned resided in the UK before his country triggered the Brexit procedure. Verhofstadt said the EU wanted more than that.

"It's good that the British government is thinking about the rights of EU citizens in Great Britain," he told Welt. "But it's unsettling that Brexit Minister David Davis only wants to guarantee these rights for those who immigrated before March 29."

EU leaders clearly think that they can afford to take such firm lines because they enjoy greater support among the people they represent than their British counterparts. The European delegation in Brussels goes into the talks with voters in the bloc's two largest members, Germany and France, clearly backing the EU, while people in Britain appear split down the middle over the issue of whether to leave or not.

UK | Britische Presse nach Neuwahl in Großbritannien

Many Germans see a funny side to May's travails

Another election in two years?

In Berlin on Sunday, ordinary Germans asked about Brexit and the impending talks were by turns bemused, confident and somewhat regretful and pitying of the British position.

"Theresa May made a complete mess of it in the snap election that just happened," Johannes Bader told Deutsche Welle. "It's total chaos."

Most people in the German regret the UK's decision to trigger the leaving mechanism and hope that the British will reconsider.

"It may very well be that in two years the British hold another election to decide whether they truly want Brexit after all," said Edgar Maas.

One man who wished to remain anonymous even saw the funny side in the impending talks.

"I love British humor, and with Brexit and the election you just have to laugh," he told DW. "They're making themselves look ridiculous. But I don't know whether the EU has the better cards or not. I'm sure everyone will be fighting tooth and nail."

The man looked very relaxed sitting and soaking up the sun with his back against a statue of the famous explorer, natural scientist and cosmopolitan Alexander von Humboldt. It was hard not to see him as emblematic of the European side as it prepared to negotiate with a British team still smarting from an electoral pounding.

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Welcome to Gadheim, soon the center of the EU

Its handful of houses are set in the rolling hills of Bavaria's wine country, clustered around a solitary road that winds its way through fields overlooked by a cluster of wind turbines.

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Typical Bavarian village

Gadheim's locals are proud to see some attention paid to their home and the vineyards, endless fields and the winding Main River that make it up.

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Gadheim the center of Europe? Must be a hoax

"Most people here first heard the news on the radio," said Jürgen Götz, mayor of nearby Veitshöchheim - Gadheim itself is too small for a mayor of its own. "We thought it was an April Fool's joke at first," Götz said. Here, the mayor spreads out the EU banner together with farmer Karin Kessler, who wasn't aware why her town came to fame overnight.

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The rapeseed at the heart of the EU

After thinking her neighbor would have to cope with being in the middle of the EU, Karin Kessler's son sent her a message with a map of the exact coordinates and a message they were for a spot in her field of rapeseed. "The fact that it's only happening because of this Brexit is a bit of a shame for me," she said.

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Another village bemoans the loss, sort of

In Westerngrund, some 60 kilometers (40 miles) northwest of Gadheim, people also rue the British decision - it will cost the small town with a fondness for Apfelwein its status as the center of the EU. It claimed the title when Croatia joined in July 2013. Local pupils checked that around 6,000 people from 93 countries had signed visitors' books kept at the neat lawn laid down to mark the spot.

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Tourists weren't that enthusiastic after all

German and EU flags overlook tranquil hillside fields in what is still the center of the EU. "We thought Chinese buses would be coming there every week. It didn't really turn out that way," said local Westerngrund baker Christoph Biebrich, who crafted ring-shaped loaves with the hole representing the navel of the EU, surrounded by stars.

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Frexit would have shattered Gadheim's dream of being the center of EU

Baker Biebrich's advice for the people of Gadheim? Don't get too attached to their place in the sun. "It will move again. That's just the way it is," the baker said. People in both Westerngrund and Gadheim hope that the next time the center of the EU moves, it will be because of a new member, not another exit.