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Explainer: The British press has seized on Merkel's '30 days' remark - but what did she mean by it?

Reports of Merkel’s ’30-day Brexit deadline’ dominate the UK front pages.

The Daily Express front page today on yesterday's press conference between Merkel and Johnson.
The Daily Express front page today on yesterday's press conference between Merkel and Johnson.

‘THIRTY DAYS TO ditch the backstop as Angela Merkel holds out prospect of new deal’

That was the headline in the Daily Telegraph (a heavily Tory-leading paper) in the wake of yesterday’s joint press conference by the German chancellor and new British prime minister Boris Johnson. 

Merkel’s 30-day Brexit deadline dominates the front pages in the UK today. 

’30 days to do a deal’ says the Daily Express; ’30 days to solve Brexit’ says the i newspaper; while The Times leads with: ‘Germany gives Johnson 30 days to avoid a no-deal’.

Even the left-leaning Guardian headlined its piece: ‘Merkel gives Johnson 30 days to find solution to avoid no-deal Brexit’ 

But what did Merkel mean by her remark? Did she set Johnson a new deadline – and if so, what’s expected to happen by 20 September?  

What did Merkel actually say? 

On the subject of finding a Brexit solution, Merkel noted that an agreement could take two years, but then she said (and these are her exact words in German):

Aber man kann sie vielleicht ja auch in den nächsten 30 Tagen finden. Warum nicht?

The Guardian translates it as: “But we can also maybe find it in the next 30 days, why not?”

But Der Spiegel (using Google translate) has it as: “But maybe you can find them in the next 30 days, why not?”

Literally the translation is ‘one’ can also find it (a solution) in the next 30 days. 

We asked a translator for their professional input and were told that ‘man’ or ‘one’ can often translate as ‘you’ or ‘we’.

So, it could be assumed that Merkel kept it vague on purpose. One thing that is clear is she was not promising any significant movement from Europe in the next 30 days, only to listen to possible British alternatives to the backstop.

Why all the fuss? 

Initial reporting of Merkel’s ’30 days’ remark seized on her words as representing some new deadline – with the result that the phrase made it onto the front pages of most major papers. 

ITV political editor Robert Peston said on Twitter yesterday evening that Merkel’s comment would have put likely Tory rebels on the back foot: 

He noted: “Striking that Merkel has pulled rug from under ⁦@PhilipHammondUK⁩, the Gaukeward Squad and much of anti-no-deal posse by saying there is negotiation to be had in next 30 days on how to eliminate backstop. No wonder ⁦@BorisJohnson looks happy.”

Peston was back on Twitter today to clarify:

To be clear, I am not saying Merkel believes that @BorisJohnson can deliver solutions to the backstop. But in giving him his 30 days to find a solution, she allows him to claim to his sceptical colleagues that his hardball tactics are working.

So while the timeline she presented and the way she communicated it may have come as a surprise – essentially there’s nothing new going on really. Here’s how Sky News deputy political editor Sam Coates analysed it

“Has Angela Merkel offered to solve Brexit for Boris Johnson within the month? No, of course not.

The German chancellor was as helpful and optimistic as it was possible to sound in her press conference with the PM on Wednesday – while sticking rigidly to the EU’s hardline unbending position that the withdrawal agreement, backstop and all, negotiated by Theresa May, must remain intact.

Merkel offers some clarity 

Merkel has come out to clarify what she said, stating that she “did not set a 30-day deadline”. 

According to Reuters, Merkel told a news conference in the Hague:

I said that what one can achieve in three or two years can also be achieved in 30 days. Better said, one must say that one can also achieve it by October 31. 
It is not about 30 days. The 30 days were meant as an example to highlight the fact that we need to achieve it in a short time because Britain had said they want to leave the European Union on October 31.

So now what? 

Simply put, Johnson was merely being reminded of the Brexit timeline and told to bring back the credible “alternatives” that have long been mooted by London. 

As of today, the two sides remain deadlocked over the backstop, which Johnson is insisting be removed from the Brexit divorce deal. 

The Irish government have been asking for more detail on the “alternative arrangements” to be put forward for some time now – something Johnson acknowledged yesterday.

He has previously said that Theresa May’s government did not have a group tasked specifically with looking for alternatives to the backstop (as she had been betting on her original withdrawal deal getting through the Commons). Johnson has however set one up.

Merkel reiterated yesterday that the backstop was always a fallback, noting that the withdrawal agreement already states the backstop can be replaced if a workable alternative solution is brought forward. If that can be done over the course of years, perhaps it can be done in a month is, essentially, what she was getting at. 

The problem is that workable solutions that are acceptable to Ireland and Europe have never been produced.

While the British press has pounced on Merkel’s word the response among Irish officials to her remarks was summed up by one source as “quite relaxed”. 

Merkel was essentially telling Boris “show us what you’ve got”.

The real deadline

The next EU summit will take place on October 17-18, with the new session of parliament in Westminster to begin on 3 September. 

All parties are well aware that if there’s progress to be made there’ll need to be some shape to the plans by mid-September – so in that respect at least, there’s something in the 30 days target. 

Not that anyone needs reminding, the next cliff-edge deadline remains 31 October – now just 70 days away.

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