Brussels, Belgium. 17 November. Political seismic pressure is growing inexorably on the EU’s fissured fault-line. The growing tectonic shift reveals itself in many ways. Indeed, with G20 leaders warning this week that the Eurozone will soon tip into a third recession in as many years leaders here in Europe’s bureaucratic capital are beginning to look nervously over their shoulders at the huddled masses of citizenry they have failed and continue to fail. However, the most obvious expression of the coming political tremor is evident in the now reasonable chance that Britain could leave the EU.
Prior to coming here to Brussels to chair a panel at this year’s European Security Forum I was in Porches, Portugal at a superb high-level event organised by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss the many security challenges faced by Europeans and their North American allies. However, a constant theme throughout was the Brexit, EU reform, and the growing importance of the British-German relationship.
Encouragingly, there was widespread agreement that it would be a disaster for Germany and Europe if Britain left the EU. There was also some agreement that the concerns of political principle raised by the British must be addressed. One senior German even went as far as to suggest that for the EU to survive it must become more like the inter-governmental super-alliance the British could live with rather than some form of hybrid confederation.
There are reasons for the convergence of interests. As Germany steadily emerges as Europe’s political leader all the indices suggest Britain will emerge as Germany’s vital twenty-first century partner in Europe. There will be no British-German axis because that is not the nature of the relationship but a critical partnership is needed that will be as important to NATO and the transatlantic relationship as it is to inner-EU ‘cohesion’. The world-views of Britain and Germany are in many ways far more closely aligned than much of the politics would lead one to believe.
Sadly, it is precisely the politics which separate the two countries and prevents EU reform moving beyond the merely rhetorical. Britain and Germany can never seem to get past the first base of mutual trust and confidence. The domestic narrative in both countries is still too often based on mutually destructive national stereotypes. In Germany ‘Britain’ is still a metaphor for dissident views about the grand European project which remains central to German concepts of institutionally-embedded German power. In Britain German leadership is still too often presented as the first steps on the road to a Fourth Reich, which is just about as far from modern German reality as it is possible to get. And, of course, every time Berlin indicates any movement towards London Paris whispers protest quietly in the German elite ear. Therefore, if a proper partnership is to be established London will have to face down the shrill, Berlin will have to face down both German critics and the French, and both countries will need to undertake serious, patient groundwork.
The first step would be to take the politics out of the strategy. To meet that challenge a discreet, high-level working group is needed which addresses the concerns of both countries and seeks practical, structural solutions to the issues which are threatening to break the EU apart. Such an agenda would necessarily include the social consequences of mass migration, the level of cost to be imposed on the taxpayer’s of the eight member-states that actually pay for the EU, the balance of powers to be established between the Eurozone and the non-Eurozone and between the Brussels institutions and EU member-states, completion of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership and how to prepare Europeans to compete effectively in a hyper-competitive twenty-first century.
As events have shown this past week none of the above will be addressed by simply transferring ever more state power blindly into an ever more distant and inefficient Brussels in the name of ‘more Europe’. Indeed, the very ethos of the Brussels institutions prevents the pragmatic and collective addressing of such challenges.
If Britain and Germany can succeed in addressing such an agenda in partnership and jointly propose solutions to the rest of the EU then EU reform will be realised and a Brexit averted. More importantly the political paralysis which is the real cause of Europe’s now perpetual recession will end. However, Britain and Germany should be under no illusions. Such a political settlement will require structural change to the EU. That in turn will require a new EU treaty such are the importance, nature and scale of the challenges Britain and Germany must together face.
Equally, if such a political settlement could be achieved it would be the finest monument to the millions of Europeans who gave their lives in conflict this past century. For the first time in years I have the merest glance of hope that the EU’s dangerous political fault-line can be fixed. However, Britain and Germany must act, together and now.