View from Berlin: Between a rock and hard place

Berlin wants the UK in the EU, but migration demands remain tough

The future of the United Kingdom’s EU membership is an issue of great concern in Berlin. The prospect of a “Brexit” is seen in the wider context of an EU that is already under immense stress. Britain’s departure from the EU might just be the kind of shock that the overall EU system is not able to cope with. Having said that, the type of concessions that might keep the UK “in” could equally undermine some of its core values. The view from Berlin is that the UK could pose a fundamental threat to the cohesion of the Union. The German coalition government is caught between a rock and a hard place in respect of the Brexit threat. On top of this, the current refugee crisis has shaped the way that Germany is handling the British question.

So far, the government has been hesitant to comment on the proposals made by the UK, referring to the ongoing negotiations and the complex nature of the package. This, of course, is largely for tactical reasons. Officials have made it clear for months that it was London’s turn to put its cards on the table, not for Berlin’s. However, in this game, they have kept their cards close to their chests.

Angela Merkel’s spokesperson, Steffen Seibert, commented on Donald Tusk’s proposal to the UK in the federal press conference on 3 February“President Tusk in close coordination with the European Commission presented an ambitious package yesterday that responds to the main claims of Prime Minister Cameron. We are examining this package in its full detail. (…) Germany, the federal government, will continue to very constructively engage in the negotiations that we are facing now. The Chancellor has made it clear on a number of occasions that a strong Britain in a strong European Union is of major importance to us.”


The second consideration in this tactical manoeuvring is domestic. In an overall tense environment, the government is certainly aware of the potentially toxic nature of adding yet another layer to the “migration” debate. Different aspects of migration and of the free movement of people could quite easily be lumped together in a public debate that gets increasingly out of control and intertwined with the refugee question. This makes the fourth basket of the proposal (the free movement of workers) a particularly sensitive one for Germany. The agreement carries with it two principle risks. Firstly, the risk of undermining of one of the EU’s major achievements – open borders and free movement. The  second, that against the backdrop of its domestic debate the German government might be more willing to make further reaching concessions to the UK. Over the past few years, some of the questions that the British government has escalated to the EU level have been settled at national level in Germany (e.g. regarding rights of EU citizens who do not have employment in Germany). These measures were handled with diligence and rather quietly by the German government, and reflected an awareness of their potentially divisive nature. It seems as if parts of the current negotiations, as reflected in the Tusk proposals, are building on such experience (which of course is not exclusive to Germany).


The media have reported on the British question with a bit more dedication over the past few days, but the Tusk proposals, largely because of their complexity and their nature as a moving target, are far from making the headlines. There is also a great deal of attention being paid, by the German parliament as well experts, to the details of any future deal. The European Affairs Committee of the Bundestag discussed the British proposals in an expert hearing in late January. There is an awareness that a deal with the UK could affect some of the fundamental pillars of European integration. Giving too much to London might not only set a precedent from which the UK (and others) can build more claims in the future. Britain’s agenda is also seen to potentially penetrate into and disrupt the constitutional DNA of the European Union. The Bundestag is alarmed about the prospect that fundamental questions concerning the future of the EU could be settled in a deal between governments, and without a consultation of parliaments. This doesn’t mean, however, that the Bundestag would be united in supporting the red card proposal for national parliaments. There is a nuanced understanding that there is a legitimate role for both the national and European parliaments in EU legislation.


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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