“The secret of politics? Make a good treaty with Britain”.
Otto von Bismarck (actually he said Russia, but you get my drift)
Alphen, Netherlands. 12 October. It was a telling moment. At a recent conference I was engaged in a forthright, but honest debate with a senior German colleague I have known for many years, and whom I both like and respect. Suddenly, as I was in mid-sentence, he turned on his heels and walked away. It was rudeness bordering in contempt, which is pretty much Berlin’s attitude towards Britain these days. This was not an isolated incident. What struck me was the gulf at the conference between senior non-official Brits and senior non-official Germans at the conference over Brexit. There were three convinced British ‘big picture’ Remainers (including me) who became increasingly frustrated to the point of protest at what all three of us saw as the intransigence of our German colleagues. They seemed determined to punish the British people for an egregious act of democracy that committed Britain to leaving what was meant to be a free association of democracies. These are not at all unreasonable people, so why the attitude? There are four reasons; Berlin politics, Germany’s legalistic tradition, the German need for control, and echoes of history.
However, before I dive into my main argument, let me say at the outset that Germans have some grounds for the contempt in which they clearly hold Britain. The British people have been very badly-led by their leaders over a good too many years. Yet, as Chancellor Merkel said earlier this year, Britain remains an immensely powerful actor and should be treated as such, which is clearly not the case at present.
Berlin politics: Germany does not presently have a government, which tends to set policy into a default mode. Chancellor Merkel is locked in negotiations with FDP ‘liberals’ and the Greens in an effort to form a new coalition. For her this is not the moment to be seen to ‘award’ Britain for what many Germans see at best as a family tragedy, and at worst an act of treachery.
Germany’s legalistic tradition: Britain and Germany have very different foreign policy traditions, at least since World War Two. The Germans have a very legalistic approach to international relations as an antidote to both Machtpolitik and Realpolitik (German words for a reason), and the excessive emphasis on power for power’s sake that characterised German foreign policy between the fall of Bismarck in 1890 and 1945. One delegate to the conference went as far as to say that European treaties could not be changed, simply because the treaties exist. This is nonsense. International treaties exist to prevent extremes of unregulated state behaviour. If the situation changes and threatens to see an uptick in such behaviour, as is the case with Brexit, then new treaties must be forged.
Berlin’s need for control: Germany’s mixed reaction to President Macron’s 26 September ‘more Europe’ speech was illuminating. Berlin rejected the idea of a European finance ministry and decisive fiscal convergence for fear it would make the German taxpayer liable for the massive debts of countries like, err, France. However, if Berlin was really committed to the idea of creating a state called ‘Europe’ (which German rhetoric implies), and accepted that Germany itself would one day be reduced to something like a German ‘lande’ today, then such institutions would be vital. Rather, Berlin sees the EU more as a mechanism for exerting German control, than a prelude to some European super-state. The irony is Germany is Britain’s best guarantor against the realisation of such a super-state. Berlin is angry with Britain because Brexit implies a loss of German control. Did Germany ever seriously think it could ever control the British? Which brings me to history.
History in Europe is like a fart at a state banquet – everyone can smell it, but everyone pretends to ignore it. In many ways, Britain and Germany are natural allies in that they both normally take a pragmatic attitude to inner-European relations. A legitimate German frustration is the sense that London has taken leave of its senses across a whole raft of matters strategic – a frustration that regular readers know I share. Unfortunately, Berlin is also the problem, but unable to see it. Contemporary Germany is appallingly bad at holding a mirror up to itself. One question the Germans should be asking and are not is this; why are all three of Europe’s major peripheral powers, in their varying ways, – Britain, Russia, and Turkey – now alienated from Germany and the ‘European Project’? One reason is that all three, in their varying ways, fear the European Project is in fact a German Project. Senior Brits will not say that publicly, but it has been mentioned to me in private on several occasions.
As I write, the fifth round of Brexit talks between chief negotiators David Davis and Michel Barnier are about to stall. My sources tell me that it is not the fault of M. Barnier, or even the European Commission, but primarily Berlin, egged on by an opportunistic Paris. Berlin must be careful. Most commentators seem not to realise that the next two months prior to the December European Council are the most critical for the entire negotiating process. There is much talk in Britain at present of ‘no deal’. If German intransigence continues there will, indeed, be no deal and the new post-Brexit European political settlement vital to the stability of Europe could be put in danger. Worse, more ‘big picture’ Remainers like me, who see themselves as friends of modern Germany will switch to leave. France? Paris cannot expect to preserve a close strategic defence relationship with London if it continues to play ‘mini-me’ to Berlin, and seek to scavenge from the carcass of a dead Britain. 1. Britain will not die. 2. Britain will not forget.
Even though I remain a ‘big picture’ Remainer there could come a point when friends and allies who seek to damage my country stop being my friends and allies, and become something else. Maybe Berlin needs to think about that…respectfully.