Alphen, Netherlands. 25 June. Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and I have had a lot in common this week; we both spent a lot of time either in Germany or discussing Germany. The Queen is in the midst of a state visit to Germany and I have just completed a 1200 plus kilometre round car trip to take part in the Kiel Conference part organised by the German Navy and the University of Kiel. The previous week I was in Warsaw with the Weimar Forum. Both events were outstanding in their very different ways and both revealed to me how Germany sees power and indeed its own power role in twenty-first century Europe. Too powerful to be simply another EU member-state and yet not powerful enough to dominate Germany is casting itself as Europe’s community champion. It is and will be a difficult role to play.
A couple of weeks ago a senior British officer said to me that Germany had in fact won World War Two and that Britain had lost. On the face of it one can understand his upbeat view of Germany and his downcast view of Britain. Germany has indeed succeeded in achieving Kaiser Wilhelm’s dream of a Europe organised around Germany. Indeed, it was rather bizarre (and indeed a great pleasure) for me to be sailing across the great sound of Kiel in a German naval vessel with HMS Ocean, a huge British helicopter carrier, dominating the skyline (and the generators of which kept me awake – note to Royal Navy). Kiel was once the base for the High Seas Fleet which tried and failed to defeat the Royal Navy during the First World War. It is also the port from which the massive super-battleship KM Bismarck left in 1941 en route to destroying HMS Hood and her own destruction under the guns of the Royal Navy some three days later.
In response to my British colleague I said World War Two was never fought to destroy Germany but rather to ensure that the nature of Germany was rendered forever constructive and peaceful. Britain played a massive role in achieving that objective and Britain can be proud that today Germany is a model parliamentary democracy.
Yes, Germany can be bombastic. Tell me what great power isn’t. Apart of course from Britain which is and never has been bombastic about anything, ever. Yes, Germany has interests which it on occasions pursues with real rigour. Yes, quite a few Germans have a nauseating tendency to believe they are right about everything all of the time. And, not a few Germans seem to enjoy an exaggerated sense of Schadenfraude at Britain’s seemingly endless un-Germaness firm in their belief that because Britain is not Germany the British are doomed to failure, irrelevance, misery etc. etc. Taken together these ‘endearing’ German traits can lead Berlin on occasions to step over the boundary between community champion and Imperium.
However, my time with German leaders this past year and indeed this past week have reinforced my sense that modern Germany is a power that is deeply embedded indeed enmeshed is a sense of European community. Contemporary German history, which blots out the rest of German history like a dark cloud blots out the sun, is powerfully eloquent in the minds of most modern Germans, with the holocaust rightly to the fore.
Consequently, German power is ring-fenced with self-restraint and the desperate need to act with the approval of other Europeans. That sense of self-awareness, self-restraint was clearly apparent at the Weimar Forum meeting in Warsaw, particularly in the relationship with Poland which in many ways acts a Germany’s power conscience. It is also apparent in Chancellor Merkel’s clear desire to keep Greece in the Eurozone and Britain in the EU. Indeed, unlike most great powers Germany wants to be constrained by institutions, precisely because Germans understand that a Europe in which power becomes unbalanced is inevitably a very dangerous place. This is a state of affairs to which Her Majesty alluded in last night’s speech in Berlin and why the unbalancing of European power is precisely why President Putin’s attitude and actions are so dangerous.
Behind the immediate issues raised by Prime Minister David Cameron’s renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the German-led EU lurks a much deeper question of power. Whatever happens with the Brexit referendum most indicators have Britain emerging as Europe’s second strongest economy by a mile (or should that be a kilometre) and most powerful military actor. Therefore, how Germany deals with the likes of Britain and indeed France will help determine whether German leadership of Europe succeeds or fails.
Berlin clearly understands that. Indeed, the very real pomp and circumstance afforded Her Majesty in Berlin and the fact the Luftwaffe accompanied her plane over German air space signifies the importance Germany places in its strategic partnership with Britain. For that reason far from fearing Germany’s role as community champion Britain must support it.
Europeans can never replace power by and with institutions. Russia is dangerous because it is a weak state with too much force and it insufficiently embedded in international institutions. Germany is a powerful state with too little force that has an exaggerated sense of the role of institutions as an alternative to power. Therefore, Germany can only and will only ever succeed in partnership with powerful allies for too much German armed force would negate Germany’s role as community champion. That is why the ungainly but powerful presence of HMS Ocean signified to me the new strategic partnership Britain and Germany must forge.