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2 July 2021updated 06 Sep 2021 1:47pm

The best way to reset UK-Germany relations would be a change of government in London

Angela Merkel’s visit is a reminder that Boris Johnson’s Conservatives command none of the trust needed.

By Jeremy Cliffe

Angela Merkel visits the UK today for one of her final foreign trips as German chancellor ahead of the country’s general election on 26 September, after which she will step down. She will meet Boris Johnson at Chequers and the Queen at Windsor Castle. 

Contrary to some speculation, England’s 2-0 defeat of the German team in the European Championship on Tuesday (29 June) is unlikely to cause much awkwardness (Johnson, unlike his German counterpart, has little genuine interest in football). Trickier topics include German restrictions on travel from the UK over the spread of the Delta variant of Covid-19 and the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit deal – which caused significant frostiness between the Brits and Germans at the recent G7 summit and on which only a temporary truce has since been reached.

Still, the aim of the trip is to steer UK-Germany relations towards a better post-Brexit course. On Wednesday the two signed a bilateral declaration on defence and foreign policy cooperation that both demonstrated the many areas where their outlooks and interests remain aligned (climate change, Nato, terrorism, artificial intelligence, Europe’s geopolitical neighbourhood) and struck a balance between their different perspectives on the EU (launching a new “strategic dialogue” between London and Berlin while committing to the “strategic unity” of Europe). 

All of which is a welcome reflection of geopolitical reality. For all the Brexit unpleasantness of recent years, for all that the UK’s relative significance to the German establishment has declined, for all the hubris, ignorance and insecurity that characterise what passes for Germany coverage in swathes of the British press, the two countries still – still – have much in common and remain relevant partners to each other. 

In some areas superficial differences even obscure underlying alignment: the notion that Germany is uniquely compromised by its economic links with Russia or China belies both the depth of Russian oligarchic penetration of the British elite and the reality that Britain too is seeking to strike a balance between values and business interests in its dealings with Beijing. Indeed, relatively clear language on the threats from both autocratic powers found its way into the UK-Germany declaration.

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What next? There are obvious areas where cooperation makes sense, particularly on the foreign and defence policy areas not covered by the Brexit deal and on which the EU’s coordinating power remains patchy – where initiatives undertaken either bilaterally or as part of small groups of European states are beneficial. As a new paper by Luigi Scazzieri of the Centre for European Reform notes, Germany and the UK signed a “Joint Vision Statement” on security in 2018; they are both part of the “Northern Group” of states around the North and Baltic seas; along with France they comprise the “E3” states crucial to the Iran nuclear deal; German leaders among others have in the past contemplated the idea of a European Security Council that binds in the UK. 

Yet as Scazzieri goes on to argue, the limits of such initiatives are set by German concerns about anything that smacks of the UK trying to undermine the EU: “Germany is attuned to smaller member states’ concerns of being excluded and Berlin stresses it does not want to undermine EU foreign policy and wants to involve the EEAS [European External Action Service, the EU’s proto foreign ministry].” Brexit has pushed Berlin closer to Paris on some issues and raised the spectre of EU fragmentation. And while Germany does sometimes act against the interests of EU cohesion when domestic economic interests are concerned – its ongoing construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, for example – its leaders are certainly not inclined to do so merely to better their relationship with the UK.

A Britain that wants to develop its bilateral relationship with Germany, and for that matter other key EU states such as France and Italy, therefore needs two things above all else: trust and goodwill. The less Berlin suspects that London is trying to undermine the EU or “divide and rule” in its relations with its members, the more open it will be to cooperation – particularly in the fields where the EU is itself disunited or ineffective. 

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The biggest obstacle to trust and goodwill is the party currently in power in the UK. The Conservatives have long had a fraught relationship with Germany, including the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), Merkel’s party and the Tories’ notional counterpart. Margaret Thatcher and Helmut Kohl disliked each other. “That man’s so German!” she complained, exasperated, after a visit to his Rhineland home region; another anecdote saw him cut short a meeting with her in Salzburg citing a crisis back in Bonn, only to go off to a café around the corner to eat a cream cake. Thatcher’s paranoia about German reunification and European integration as the road to a German-run Europe paved the way for the Tory Euroscepticism that bloomed in the 1990s and 2000s.

When she came to power in 2005, Merkel was Germany’s most temperamentally Anglophile chancellor in decades and was even (wrongly) compared to Thatcher in some of the English-language media. But the story of the intervening years is that of the Conservative Party’s progressive incineration of any trust and goodwill that came with that. David Cameron’s withdrawal of the party from the mainstream centre-right European People’s Party grouping (whose keystone is the CDU) profoundly disappointed Merkel. She saw his EU referendum gambit as reckless and his attempted renegotiation as an attempt to cherry-pick the benefits of membership without the costs, a suspicion that would return in yet greater intensity during the Brexit talks under Theresa May and Boris Johnson. 

Merkel is understood not to have a high opinion of her current British counterpart (the fifth of her chancellorship) and some of those in her political and administrative circles are openly contemptuous of him. In recent years the German media has routinely referred to Johnson in the same breath and context as Donald Trump. A recent commentary in Der Spiegel described Britain’s leaders as “gambling liars, frivolous clowns and their claqueurs” and “crank conservative politicians” who had “deceived and lied to their people in a hitherto unknown manner”. The Johnson’s government’s flirtation with breaking international law and ongoing attempts to wriggle out of the terms of the Brexit deal have only increased the scorn.

Merkel’s successor as chancellor will not be better disposed to the Conservatives. Armin Laschet, the CDU candidate and front-runner, looks more to France and less to the English-speaking world than Merkel has done and represents precisely the sort of classic, Rhineland CDU politician left utterly cold by the Tory party’s Thatcherite traditions and trajectory. Annalena Baerbock, the Green Party candidate whose chances of taking the chancellery have deteriorated in recent months but not totally vanished, is more culturally Anglophile – she studied at the London School of Economics – but comes from precisely that left-liberal segment of German politics that sees the least difference between a Johnson and a Trump. 

Yes, Germany’s political establishment wants to make the best of a bad situation, stabilise relations with Britain and get the most out of them where possible. But to do so in the long term will require German confidence in its British interlocutors, and particularly in their willingness to support a strong and successful EU rather than seeking to undermine and divide it. Yet time and again those very interlocutors have needlessly damaged that confidence: whether by refusing (initially) the EU’s representative in London ambassadorial status, gloating over the slow start to the EU’s vaccine campaign or whining about a Brexit deal they themselves negotiated and agreed. 

It is thus a statement not of partisan opinion but of objective political and diplomatic reality that the best thing that could happen to UK-German relations would be a change of government in London.