Affinity without purpose: Britain and Germany in the EU

British-German relations, while shaped by a mutual sense of respect, are almost at a loss on a common agenda.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel went to see Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron early in 2015, expectations in both capitals were modest at best. Neither side was likely to surprise the other with strong moves on EU policy or bilateral relations. Symbolism of a diffuse sort prevailed: Cameron could demonstrate how he engages with other lead actors on issues crucial to the British interest, and Merkel could visualize her preference to keep the UK in the EU. Neither signalled readiness to reconsider or change policies, the British prime minister sticking to limited labour migration into the UK, while Merkel refused to compromise on one of the four freedoms of the single market.

The leaders of the largest and third-largest economies of the EU-28 do not share much common ambition.

Dreary as it was, the meeting shed light on a crucial relationship inside the EU. Apparently, the leaders of the largest and third-largest economies of the EU-28 – both highly reputed international players – do not share much common ambition. British-German relations seem caught in a paradox: on one hand shaped by a mutual sense of respect and even admiration, on the other almost at a loss on a common agenda.

There’s hardly a bilateral relationship of major countries in Europe today that could rely on a similarly high degree of responsiveness among its political and economic elites than that between the UK and Germany. The mindsets on economic policy or good governance converge widely, and their bureaucratic cultures are highly compatible. Federal civil servants from Berlin are appreciative of the direct and open exchange with British counterparts; both sides respect each other for excellence, pragmatism and good communication. For decades, the Königswinter Conferences have been evidence of a common understanding between postwar Germany and post-Empire Britain, including, at least in part, the adoption of that peculiar British sense of wit and self-irony by German participants.

And yet, the agenda of both countries in Europe leaves out the big points, the farther-reaching ambitions or policy schemes. Affinity lacks purpose. The last “big thing” of British-German cooperation dates back to the 1980s, when Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl, despite many smaller divisions, built a strategic consensus on the need to build a single market. Both countries pushed their agendas for economic reasons, while Kohl and Mitterrand simultaneously viewed the single market as a major political project of revitalising the integration process. On EU enlargement or the extension of NATO, the consensus was less strategic: Germany was cautious to keep the momentum of deepening integration in the process of enlargement, whereas the UK appeared to be hoping for the opposite. A whiff of purpose accompanied the rise to office of Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, but a joint agenda of the “new left” never really extended beyond the sphere of its spin-doctors. Likewise, Merkel’s and Cameron’s pragmatic conservatism has not been able to build a more productive relationship.

“Cameron sees the EU as a problem, while [Merkel] sees it as a solution.”

At the heart of such Anglo-German insignificance lays the almost diametrically opposed views of both political classes on Europe. As Quentin Peel has put it, “Cameron sees the EU as a problem, while she sees it as a solution. He wants more repatriation of powers to Westminster, and 'less Europe'. Merkel sees the EU, and closer integration in the eurozone as providing a potential solution to current crises”.

In the British view, the EU is an instrument to keep a constructive balance on the continent, to avoid conflict and to assure an environment conducive to British interests. In a sense, the echo of Churchill’s idea of Europe still resonates in the hallways of Westminster. From the German perspective, integration is part of the Federal Republic’s “Staatsräson” (reason of state). It is the way to reconcile Germany’s past with its European neighbours: its regained economic muscle, demographic weight and geographic location after unification. Though Germany’s EU policy has become more British over the past two decades in the sense of more explicitly pursuing its national interest in the EU, Adenauer’s idea of Europe and Germany’s role therein still has clout in the hallways of Berlin-Mitte.

If being a world apart on the fundamentals was all that stood in the way of closer cooperation between London and Berlin, there would be less to worry about. In reality, the mutual perceptions are deeply affected by unfulfilled expectations. Generations of German policy makers have hoped that Britain’s accession to the EU would ultimately make it a Europe-minded country with an intrinsic motivation of its elites not only to stay, but to help build a deeper union. Few steps have nourished that hope, and many, particularly since the Maastricht Treaty, have shattered it. Seen through the eyes of Berlin, the UK is cherry picking on single market follow-up and fiscal policy, obstructing integration on internal security, justice and home affairs, and delaying progress on foreign and security policy. London leads nowhere except to weakening the EU, not even where it claims leadership such as on defence.

If being a world apart on the fundamentals was all that stood in the way of cooperation between London and Berlin, there would be less to worry about.

British policy makers, on the other hand, feel equally frustrated with Germany. Following reunification, of which the Thatcher government had been sceptical, they had hoped for a more understanding German political elite that would pursue a similar and interest-based approach to the EU and seek to preserve national power against the integrationist dynamics of Brussels.

French fears became British hopes: Freed from the constraints of a front-line state, Germany would naturally distance itself over time from the quest for an “ever closer union”. Berlin was expected to share the British demands on trimming the regulatory reach of Brussels. Against better knowledge, London also expected German political leaders to step out of the shadows of Germany’s militarist past and engage in international affairs full scale, making use of its military assets and sovereign power. On both counts, Berlin’s response was deeply disappointing. Many see Germany today as conducting power politics through integration while putting its global economic interests before alliance solidarity, free-riding on defence and shying away from tackling the threats to values and interests of the West.

It is against this background that David Cameron’s EU strategy has developed political significance for Germany’s EU policy. From a Berlin perspective, the British approach to seek renegotiation of treaty obligations and put the result up for referendum is flawed from the beginning. Framed as either repatriating powers for all or creating more exemptions for Britain and the threat of leaving the EU, the proposition is completely unacceptable for German policy makers – even to those who share some of the concerns that the British government has on the state of integration.

Juncker alluded to the difficulties of staying together after falling in love, understood by media as suggesting a divorce to end this doomed romance.

While Angela Merkel holds a much more sober view of the EU compared to Helmut Kohl, she sees no point in pursuing Cameron’s line. What is more, Germany has no interest in seeing other member states embarking on that course, given its strong national interest in a functioning and coherent EU. For these reasons, Merkel would like to see Britain stay but not at the price of crippling integration. When thinking and negotiating greater flexibility under the treaties, the German perspective has always been to facilitate an opting-in of member states rather than to trigger more opt-outs. The problem with the UK is that Britain has not opted-in on anything beyond the acquis, and is not likely to do so in future, but all the while consistently it pursues the opposite.

Speaking about Britain and the EU in Paris recently, Jean-Claude Juncker alluded to the difficulties of staying together after falling in love, understood by media as suggesting a divorce to end this doomed romance. Like so many analogies, this comparison is flawed too: Probably, Britain’s political class and the British people at large never really fell for Europe or felt romantic about integration the way the French and Germans do. Rather, accession was like an arranged marriage. Common wisdom has it that such relationships are more likely to endure than love stories. Britain could become the exception to the rule.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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