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Brandenburg Gate

What Do the Germans Make of the UK?

Sir Paul Lever
Commentary, 20 August 2020
Brexit, Germany, UK
What are the realities and prospects of the UK’s relations with continental Europe’s most significant partner?

Twenty years ago, many Germans were puzzled – and some were angry – about the way their country was portrayed in the British press. They had reason to feel sore. Words like Hun, kraut and Nazi were regularly used and the terminology of the Second World War was often employed to describe whatever German-related event was of current interest – particularly if it involved football.

It was not just the tabloids. Even the Sunday Times once published an edition of its magazine section with a cover showing a picture of a soldier in a Prussian helmet and the caption ‘Why it's OK to hate the Germans’.

Today, it is very different. The British media's reporting on Germany is for the most part respectful and accurate. There is widespread admiration for Germany's economic and social model, for the effectiveness of its response to the coronavirus pandemic and for the quality of political leadership shown by its chancellor, Angela Merkel.

By contrast the German media's reporting on the UK has become increasingly toxic. The picture presented is of a country to be pitied, one whose leadership is incompetent and corrupt, whose democratic institutions are crumbling, whose economy is on the point of collapse and whose population has been manipulated into voting for extremists.

Of all Germany's media outlets the one which is the most relentlessly hostile in its coverage of the UK is ARD, the public service broadcaster and rough equivalent of the BBC. Its correspondent in London seems to see herself not as a journalist with a responsibility to report and explain, but as a political campaigner with a mission to expose the iniquities of an evil regime. But she is not alone. Even the Suddeutsce Zeitung, a middle-of-the-road broadsheet, published a column on Brexit under the heading of 'Affentheater' (‘theatre of monkeys’), indicating a complete farce.

Not all German newspapers demonise the UK in this way. Die Welt, which has always sent particularly high-quality correspondents to London, still publishes objective reports. But for most of the German media the UK is now a country they cannot understand and do not much want to.

It is, of course, the decision to leave the EU which provokes this incomprehension. In Germany, Europe is the state religion and rejection of it is tantamount to sacrilege. There is no disposition in Germany to consider the possibility that the 17.5 million British citizens might have had rational motives for voting the way they did in 2016. The notion that rule from Brussels might be genuinely problematic in a country with a thousand years of independence and a long history of democratic stability is given no credence in German political discourse.

The personality of our prime minister is a further complicating factor. Humour is not an instrument much used in German politics, where sobriety of style and seriousness of expression tend to rule the day. Rhetorical flights of fancy of the kind which Boris Johnson delights in are greeted in Germany with perplexity and dismay. He is seen as a charlatan, a liar and a figure of fun. His former foreign minister colleague, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, now Germany's president, was once quoted as saying that he could not stand being in the same room as Johnson.

But German politicians are realists and they know that the current British government has a commanding majority and is likely to be in power until 2024 at the least. So they will deal with us pragmatically. We are a large country in their immediate vicinity, a significant market for their goods, an important security partner in NATO and a medium-sized global player with a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and a range of networks in the English-speaking world. From Germany's perspective the UK may be an awkward neighbour. But we cannot be ignored.

So What Sort of Relationship with Us Will Germany Want?

They probably do not know yet. Thinking about how to deal with the UK in the future is not something which the German intellectual class is currently focusing on, and German politicians are so taken up with the problem of coronavirus and the implementation of the EU's recovery fund that they have little time for anything else. But Germany also holds the six-month presidency of the EU and one issue which will arise during this period will be the conclusion of the negotiations for an EU/UK trade agreement.

Ever since David Cameron began his attempt to renegotiate the terms of the UK's membership of the EU, British commentators and politicians have confidently predicted that Germany would at the last minute use its political muscle to ensure that a satisfactory deal was reached. They were wrong. The German government did not intervene to change the terms of Cameron's negotiation. It did not do so over the Withdrawal Agreement. It will not do so in the current context. From Germany's perspective Michel Barnier has a mandate and it is up to him to deliver an agreement within that mandate's terms.

This does not mean that the German government is indifferent as to whether the negotiations succeed or not. They would much prefer a deal. But it is not a major issue for Germany in the way that it is for the UK, and Germany's priorities as Council President will be preserving the unity of the EU and the integrity of the single market. Like any good presidency they will seek to help broker an agreement within the Council if one seems near. They will be open to adjusting Barnier's mandate in areas where they do not have national interests of their own, such as fish. But on key issues such as state aid and the level playing field they will remain at the tougher end of the spectrum.

German fears on these two issues are real and long-standing. They have never accepted that competition can legitimately apply in areas of social, environmental or tax policy and they have consistently sought to impose on all EU countries standards which correspond as closely as possible to their own. They view with alarm the prospect, fanciful though it might seem, of a low tax, deregulated alternative economic model – Singapore-on-Thames – on their doorstep and they will do their best to prevent its emergence. There is thus an underlying ambivalence about Germany's attitude to a post-EU UK. On the one hand, they want a thriving market into which they can sell their goods. On the other hand, they want us to be seen to be paying an economic price for leaving.

The Future of the Relationship

The UK's future economic relationship with Germany will be determined by the terms of any trade agreement we conclude with the EU. But in other areas there may be scope for bilateral arrangements. Educational and cultural cooperation, mutual assistance in combatting crime and terrorism, arrangements for reciprocal healthcare are just some examples. How far Germany will be willing to go in these fields will depend partly on its assessment of its own citizens' interests but partly also on a determination not to allow the UK to replicate at the bilateral level the sort of relationships it had as a member of the EU.

In foreign policy and defence the calculus will be different. The British government has shown no interest in a contractual relationship with the EU in these areas: unsurprisingly, since what the EU proposed was no more than is available anyway to a third country and because these are areas of EU activity which the UK wants to escape from, not cleave to. So any cooperation with Germany will need to be within NATO or bilaterally or trilaterally with France.

This should not pose any fundamental problem. There is still in Germany, despite our departure from the EU, a lingering respect for the UK's diplomatic experience and for the quality of its armed forces. Any German government is likely therefore to want to retain a cooperative relationship with us in these fields. Despite their professed commitment to an EU foreign and security policy the Germans in practice prefer to operate internationally as sovereign state. They see the EU more as a vehicle for delivering the implementation of foreign policy decisions than as an entity with the authority to act in its own right.

This was the model used in the negotiations over the Iran nuclear deal in which for the first time Germany was treated as equivalent to a permanent member of the Security Council. When the US pulled out of the agreement, the Germans were concerned that the UK might as well. The fact that we did not do so was, in German eyes, a sign that we are a reliable European partner and not an American poodle.

The Iran negotiations involved the UK, France and Germany as well as the EU and is sometimes cited as an exemplar for how the UK might operate internationally in the future. It is certainly an option which may be attractive in certain cases. What is less clear is whether Germany or France will always want to be in British company. In 2014, Chancellor Merkel and then President François Hollande chose deliberately not to involve David Cameron in their initiative to seek to broker a settlement to the war between Russia and Ukraine. They launched it in the margins of the 70th anniversary celebrations of the Normandy landings. Cameron's exclusion sent a clear message: we may have needed the UK in 1944, but we do not today. However, the Normandy initiative has not yielded any very useful results. France and Germany may well therefore conclude that they do not have the necessary heft on their own.

The UK's attractiveness to Germany as an international partner will also depend on one other crucial factor, namely our ability to emerge successfully from our current recession. This is something which is often overlooked in the domestic discussion of our role in the post-EU world. Whatever form of global Britain we seek to achieve, we will only succeed if we are seen to have a flourishing economy.

This is a reality of which the Germans themselves are particularly well aware.

Sir Paul Lever served as RUSI Chairman from 2004 to 2010. During his long career in the Diplomatic Service, he served as Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee and, from 1997 to 2003, as Ambassador to Germany. His latest book, Berlin Rules: Europe and the German Way, was published in 2017.

Sir Paul Lever



The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of German Presidency of the Council of the EU 2020. Photo of Sir Paul Lever: Courtesy of NATO

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