LONDON — They are — for now — the world’s two most powerful women, and they will soon sit on opposite sides of a negotiation that could set the direction of Europe for decades to come.
But if there was any tension in Wednesday’s meeting in Berlin between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May, leaders known for their no-nonsense style and tenacious bargaining, it hardly showed.
In a news conference after what was May’s first meeting with a foreign leader since taking the keys to 10 Downing Street last week, the two women struck notably conciliatory tones.
The British exit from the European Union, both insisted, can be an amicable process that works out well for the United Kingdom and the E.U. In this extraordinarily complex and consequential divorce, they suggested, both sides can be winners — even if neither Merkel nor May had wanted the split.
“We have two women here . . . who want to get on with the job and want to deliver the best possible results for the people of the U.K and the people of Germany,” May said as she stood by Merkel’s side in front of the concrete and glass of the postmodern German Chancellery building.
“Exactly,” Merkel quickly interjected, allowing herself an uncharacteristic smile. “I completely agree with that.”
The genial mood could reflect the timing of Wednesday’s talks as much as it does any genuine cause for optimism that Britain’s E.U. exit may not be as messy as many have feared.
The meeting, after all, was not a true negotiation.
Merkel and other European leaders have insisted that there will be no talks on the terms of Britain’s departure until the United Kingdom formally triggers Article 50, the never-before-used mechanism for leaving the E.U. that will start the clock on a two-year process of withdrawal.
May, meanwhile, has been stalling for time, insisting that Britain needs to develop its negotiating strategy after its stunning vote last month to leave the E.U. She said Wednesday, as she has before, that Britain will not activate Article 50 this year.
But in a possible softening of a European position that has focused on pressuring Britain to move faster, Merkel signaled that she was okay with that, calling the need for time “absolutely understandable.”
Whenever Britain is ready to launch talks, Merkel said, Europe will “listen to what Great Britain wants, and we will find the right answer.”
The meeting was a historic coming together of female leaders in a year in which the United States could elect its first female president.
When Merkel first took office in 2005, she was compared to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. Now May is referred to in the German press as “the British Merkel.”
As they negotiate the tricky terms of “Brexit,” much could depend on the personal chemistry between the two women, who have much in common: Both are the daughters of pastors, were born in the 1950s and leveraged their reputations as hard-working pragmatists to emerge as leaders of their center-right parties, and their nations.
The Brexit talks are likely to center on two interrelated issues: trade and immigration. Britain wants to maintain its access to the European common market, but without giving European workers the unlimited right to move to the United Kingdom. Merkel and other E.U. leaders have said that Britain cannot “cherry-pick” the terms of its relationship with the bloc.
Merkel had sought to dissuade Britain from exiting the E.U., and May sided with the 48 percent of British voters who lost to the pro-Brexit majority. But May has said repeatedly that she will implement the voters’ will, declaring that “Brexit means Brexit.” Merkel, who as Germany’s leader bears much of the responsibility for holding the remainder of the E.U. together, agreed that “we have to deal with this reality,” however unwelcome.
The apparent bonhomie between Merkel and May in Berlin was in marked contrast with the blistering political put-downs of the other major first of May’s tenure on Wednesday: her debut in the epic weekly jousting match that is Prime Minister’s Questions.
By all accounts, it was a confident beginning.
Few expected May — often described as a cautious and understated politician — to let it rip. But that is what she did, delivering zinger upon zinger in a session that prompted raucous cheering from her fellow Conservatives and stone-faced stares from the opposition Labour Party.
In one of the most striking moments, she ridiculed Labour for not producing a female prime minister when the Conservative Party has now had two.
“In my years here in this house, I’ve long heard the Labour Party asking what the Conservative Party does for women,” she said, stretching her arms wide as if to draw attention to the obvious answer. “Well, it just keeps making us prime minister.”
But while she delivered the one-liners, many of them possibly well rehearsed, she also evaded several tough questions.
She dodged a request to comment on controversial remarks made by new Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson over the years, including his views on President Obama’s “part-Kenyan” heritage.
And when asked to rule out seeking access to the E.U.’s single market — a key demand of hard-line Brexiteers who want latitude to impose maximum controls on immigration — May did no such thing.
But she did wish the member of Parliament who asked the question a happy birthday.