Körber History Forum > The European dilemma in Anglo-German relations

The European dilemma in Anglo-German relations

Relations between Britain and Germany have a long history of easily disappointed expectations. Historian Helene von Bismarck outlines why the Brexit negotiations during Germany’s EU Council Presidency ought to be discussed bearing that past in mind.

At the same moment when Germany took over the presidency of the EU Council at midnight on 30 June 2020, the end of another chapter in the history of the European Union was confirmed. The very last opportunity when the British Government and the EU could have agreed to extend the post-Brexit transition period went by without being taken up. The transition period, which has thus far preserved the status quo for businesses and individuals on both sides while the future relationship between UK and EU is being negotiated, is now definitely running out at the end of this year. Brexit is behind us, but, once again, it is do-or-die time in the talks necessitated by it. The real consequences of the momentous decision taken in the referendum of 2016 will only be felt on New Year’s Day 2021.

The German point of view

It is only natural that the country presiding over the EU Council and a departed member state look at the next six months from significantly different perspectives. From a German point of view, Brexit is only one among several more pressing challenges that the EU is faced with in 2020. A failure to come to a trade agreement with the UK would cause considerable damage to the German economy. But at a time when the next Multiannual Financial Framework needs to be agreed, when the economic, social and political fall-out of the Covid 19 pandemic need to be managed, and when significant geopolitical shifts present the member states with new threats and crumbling alliances, the aim of preserving EU cohesion must be paramount. A recent poll suggested that only seven percent of Germans consider the future relationship with the UK a priority for Germany’s Council presidency. In Körber-Stiftung’s latest Berlin Pulse survey , the United Kingdom is not even listed among the countries considered most important for Germany’s future foreign policy. After four years of complicated and often frustrating negotiations, the German Government is under no illusion that a trade deal at the end of the year can be taken for granted, as Angela Merkel informed the Bundestag on 1 July.

British expectations

Contrast with this German perspective the UK, where a lot of political and media attention is focused on the question what influence Angela Merkel may have on the post-Brexit negotiations. Expectations are high, and not just because Germany holds the presidency. There is a tradition in the British debate about the EU, which long pre-dates Brexit, to look to Germany as an ally both willing and powerful enough to sway the rest of the EU towards accommodating the UK. This expectation can be traced back to Margaret Thatcher, who believed that German attachment to the Deutsche Mark would prevent Helmut Kohl from supporting the aim of monetary union. It was revived by David Cameron, who thought that Merkel would help him get the terms of British membership in the EU favourably amended. And it found its latest expression during the Leave campaign before the referendum. In a splendid example of the cognitive dissonance surrounding Brexit, the same people who complained about Germany’s alleged dominance within the EU, or even went as far as claiming that European integration was nothing but a means to amplify German power, also argued that Germany, or rather its car manufacturers with important interests in the British market, would ensure ‘the easiest deal in history’ for the UK. 

Brexit in times of Corona

It is true that, in an ideal world, the UK would remain an important partner for Germany even after Brexit, especially where trade and security are concerned. It is also true that the two countries, as net contributors to the budget and with their strong transatlantic ties, shared a similar outlook during Britain’s membership in the EU. But this never was enough to induce Germany to prioritise the UK-German relationship over the European integration project, which has been a cornerstone of German foreign policy since the 1950s. In recent years, Chancellor Merkel’s hesitance to respond to Emmanuel Macron’s grand plans for the future of European integration deceived some observers, especially in the UK, into believing that her commitment to the EU was more rhetorical than real. But the Corona crisis has changed the situation, as did earlier crises in the history of the organisation. The joint Franco-German proposal for a European Recovery Fund, which represents a significant departure from Merkel’s long-held position on the European budget, ought to convince even the most sceptical observer of her determination to safeguard the future of the European Union. When faced with a choice, this German interest in keeping the 27 member states united will trump the interest in managing the damaging consequences of Brexit.

From the moment when the UK joined the EU, there has been a European dilemma at the heart of the UK-German relationship, and this dilemma has not been removed by Brexit. For decades, both Europhiles and Eurosceptics in the UK have criticised Germany’s approach towards European integration as too emotional, even irrational, while the German side has often regarded Britain’s European policies as selfish. Brexit has done nothing to alter these perceptions, it has reinforced them. The British hope that Germany will ensure a trade deal finds its mirror image in the European argument that failure to come to an agreement will be much worse for the UK than the EU. It will. But this is not just about economics. This is politics.  
It is not unreasonable to argue that Germany will pull its weight over the next six months to secure an EU agreement with the UK, although the presidency of the EU Council ought not to be confused with the ability to dictate policy to 26 other member states. The question is not whether the Germans want a deal, but whether and how this wish may come into conflict with the overriding aim of preserving EU cohesion.

A parting of the ways?

Looking ahead, the European dilemma at its heart is likely to shape the UK-German relationship for the foreseeable future. Assuming, rather optimistically, that a UK-EU deal, no matter how limited, is reached and ratified by the end of this year, this would take a lot of the media attention and political pressure out of the relationship. The repeated assurances on both the British and the German side on how much the two countries value one another as partners are, largely, genuine. But what does this mean in practice? How can joint interests between a Britain that seeks to be ‘global’, but shies away from any form of institutionalised cooperation with the EU, and a Germany committed firmly to Europe be organised and managed in future? The realm of foreign and security policy, where cooperation within other formats such as NATO and the E3 has an important part to play, offers more scope for optimism than the economic relationship. Still, Brexit inescapably represents a parting of the ways. The British hope to disentangle UK-German from UK-European relations is as unrealistic going forward as it has been since the days of Margaret Thatcher.
Helene von Bismarck is a historian specialised in Britain’s international relations.


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