23rd Mar 2019


German-British rapprochement would mean dark days for Europe

It is a fact long lamented by those two endangered species, British Germanophiles and German Anglophiles: apart from a few pockets of intense co-operation, such as in justice and home affairs, the potential of a German-British partnership has seldom been exploited in European policy. The political impetus to be generated by the German and UK heads of government moving together in elegant tandem has not been realised.

In the past decade, commentators have identified considerable potential for fruitful co-operation. Britain has become less reflexive in its euroscepticism, Germany less ideological in its pro-Europeanism. And yet efforts to hold regular bilateral summits or to improve co-operation across a fuller range of EU affairs have fallen flat.

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  • Germany's Angela Merkel: An ad hoc, blocking coalition could spell trouble (Photo: The Council of the European Union)

Against this depressing background, a change of government in either country usually appears as the dawn of a rapprochement. And it is invariably a false dawn.

In 1998, Gerhard Schroeder and Tony Blair, joined in progressive zeal, were set to realise a common European agenda. The initial euphoria did not last. A decade later, Gordon Brown and Angela Merkel were expected to deliver a well needed dose of pragmatism to the EU. Again, these expectations were short lived.

Although both countries will likely undergo a change of government within a space of nine months, for once there is no expectation of rapprochement. All analysts are agreed: with the spectre of a Conservative government hanging over the UK, there is no prospect of improvement in the relationship. Just the opposite in fact.

The British Conservatives have already upset Germany's governing Christian Democrats by their withdrawal from the European People's Party in the European Parliament. And Berlin is working itself into a lather about Conservative hostility to the Lisbon Treaty.

And yet, the failure of rapprochement over the past years suggests that Germany and Britain are not meant to be fair-weather friends. Perhaps there really is scope for improvement in adversity.

Any rapprochement would have to overcome the differences of style that have hampered co-operation in the good times. For these stylistic differences have proved intractable.

When eyeing up partners, Berlin namely demands a degree of ideological clarity and long-term thinking. Compare this to London's short-termist pragmatism. Meanwhile, Berlin likes to lock itself into highly institutionalised relationships. Contrast this with London's practice of promiscuous bilateralism, where it picks up and drops partners depending on the issue at hand.

Of course, these are not just matters of style, they are strategies for self-preservation. The problem with all co-operation is that one's chosen partner may secretly defect from a common agenda, leaving the other to unwittingly bear the costs for its realisation.

German embrace

The German reaction to this risk is to lock its chosen partners into an intense, formal embrace, cutting any scope for defection. The British reaction is precisely the reverse: to leave the door wide open for itself to bail out. This is not the stuff of a settled partnership.

How then could the scope for co-operation between unwieldy Germany and perfidious Britain be any better under a eurosceptic British government? The simple reason is that German-British co-operation need not be constructive. It can also perform more of a blocking role.

The next German government would never enter into a long-term, institutionalised blocking relationship with another EU state. This would be so at odds with its European vocation as to be ridiculous. With eurosceptic voices distinctly voluble in the new German government, however, Berlin might countenance a pragmatic, ad-hoc blocking relationship with another state.

A Conservative government, likely a recalcitrant presence across a whole range of the EU's more sensitive policy areas, would probably be open to this more British form of co-operation.

It's an abstract prospect, but one that is not entirely impossible. Perhaps we policy watchers can engage in our favourite activity after all - hailing the reinvigoration of bilateral relations. At the same time, the pro-Europeans among us would have to ready ourselves for a troubling time for the EU.

Roderick Parkes is head of the Brussels office of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs

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