The British-German misunderstanding

The UK and Germany remain light years apart on their priorities for EU reform

There has been a battle between EU countries about the notion of “EU reform” for quite a while now. For a country within the euro zone such as Germany, the main issues on the reform agenda are clearly related to the strengthening of euro zone governance and policies to get EU economies back into shape. When the German government talks EU reform these days, policy circles widely understand Germany to be talking about the economy. This is quite a change compared to only a few years ago, when “EU reform” meant something quite different in the German context. Up until the Lisbon Treaty came into force in 2009, EU reform brought to mind long nights of negotiations, intergovernmental conferences, and treaty reform: in other words, process rather than substance. Now the scenario is rather different, and needless to say, German policymakers claim that they have always been driving EU reform and that they continue to do so.

Differing notions of “reform” bring plenty of opportunities for misunderstanding between Berlin and London

Britain has also been amongst the most active countries in the reform debate lately. Coming from a more difficult position of increasing marginalisation in the EU’s institutions, and barely perceived to be at the core of the reform debate, British officials embarked on an ambitious mission in 2012. With the launch of the balance of competences review the British government started to map out potential areas of reform. The aim of this mission (that was brought to the attention of governments, think-tanks, and the wider public across the EU) was no less than to penetrate to the heart of the EU’s reform debate. Just like Germany, the British government sees itself as a major driver of EU reform. Lately, reformist catchphrases have abounded, with regular mentions of “competitiveness”, “greater flexibility”, a reversal of the logic of an “ever closer union”, as well as a protection of the UK’s welfare system.

These differing notions of “reform” bring plenty of opportunities for misunderstanding between Berlin and London. This, however, has largely been overlooked by British officials (and perhaps Germans alike), since on the surface, most of the British demands seem to resonate somewhat in Berlin.

Berlin’s position towards Britain’s renegotiation agenda and the preparations for the referendum in general have been consistent over the past few years. Germany’s approach has largely been to listen and see where they can be helpful, as long as the UK avoids undermining the EU’s fundamental values and respects the need for an overall sense of cohesion within the Union. Germany has a strong interest in keeping Britain “in”, which is why it has demonstrated (on a number of occasions) that it was willing to explore areas of cooperation if the UK put its cards on the table. Angela Merkel’s visits to the UK over the past year have been a visible demonstration of this commitment, as has been the continued conversation between the Federal Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, and George Osborne, with their most recent meeting in Berlin this month.

For Berlin, the big reform issues lie elsewhere, and they are huge

On the surface, things look fine. Berlin has a strong interest in David Cameron settling Britain’s domestic debate on Europe by means of the referendum. If there were to be a negotiated package in the coming months (the plan to bring things to a close at the European Council in December is seen as rather ambitious in Berlin), Germany would be unlikely to cast doubts about the scope and substance of any such deal, at least in the public domain. There will be hopes that the British government can succeed in making a credible case to its people about their country’s importance and clout in the Union. However, behind closed doors policymakers will perhaps ask the question of whether any such package will be enough for Cameron to win an in/out referendum. Will the British people really believe that they are having a say in the major EU policy controversies of our time?

For Berlin, the big reform issues lie elsewhere, and they are huge. Top of the agenda is the future governance of the European Monetary Union, and, lately, the major challenge posed by migration. Against the formidable backdrop of these two issues – that both have a strong EU dimension – the British reform agenda must look rather naïve to the German government. The question is: do officials and politicians make this sufficiently clear to London, and is London receptive to such wider considerations?

Just imagine the situation when David Cameron invited Angela Merkel to Chequers earlier this fall. He will have explained the evolving British agenda for renegotiations, and perhaps will have come up with some more concrete examples, such as, for instance, limiting welfare and tax credits for EU citizens (issues that his officials were preparing to put to the European Council for deliberation). Could Angela Merkel keep a straight face at this? Did she suggest that the British agenda felt rather insignificant in comparison to the German mission to keep the euro zone alive, and maintain the prosperity and security for citizens in all of its 19 countries? Did she imply that she single-handedly settled potentially explosive questions for the German public (i.e. the abuse of welfare services) rather calmly and in between the “big things”?

Did the German chancellor perhaps suggest politely to the prime minister that she also had a domestic debate, and that things were not looking good for her with the growing pressure of migration? Did she therefore comment on any of the noise that the UK had been making on letting some 20,000 Syrian refugees into the country in the course of the next five years, when the number of refugees coming to Germany on any single day has exceeded this in recent times? It is hard to imagine that the wider political context of continental Europe’s challenges does not play out in bilateral meetings concerning the “negotiation” of Britain’s EU reform. No doubt, these questions are clearly on the minds of politicians and officials in Germany. They are likely to affect the way the British agenda is perceived; and will perhaps impact on the willingness of Germany to bring something to the table. But is this message really getting through to British counterparts?

Prime Minister David Cameron is sending his letter to the president of the European Council this coming week in which he sets out the UK’s reform demands. All the while Angela Merkel is fighting for her own political survival, with the pressure of migration at home, and the struggle to gain a helping hand from fellow Europeans.

In this very moment it has become strikingly clear that the EU agendas of Britain and Germany are miles apart. While both countries like to think that they are still playing on the same pitch, what we really see is that they both have started to play entirely different games.

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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