Germany and the UK: Hints of a Role Reversal
AP photo
Germany and the UK: Hints of a Role Reversal
AP photo

This piece was created in collaboration with the European Council on Foreign Relations. Almut Moeller is the co-head of ECFR's Berlin office. The views expressed are the author's own.

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“Summer is off” was German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s message at the end of July when she decided to interrupt her holidays for her annual summer press briefing. In the aftermath of the attacks in Wuerzburg, Munich, and Ansbach, as well as the attempted military coup in Turkey, Merkel felt compelled to address the German public on some fundamental questions of government policy.

The chancellor is traditionally expected to cover a lot of ground in this press briefing. And indeed, Merkel admitted in her typically sober and understated style that she did not feel “unterausgelasted” (“underworked”) by the number and scope of challenges to German and European societies. She even admitted to sometimes feeling like she needed a good dose of sleep -- and suggested that all the events that have left the European Union and its members increasingly frail and disunited required deep reflection.

For policy analysts as well, this summer has hardly seemed like “time off,” but has nonetheless been a time for the brain to take a break from the news-driven routine and to engage in some bigger and longer-term thinking. Summer seminars -- usually convened in pleasant settings -- often provide just the right change of scenery to help structure one’s thinking process. And this year, British-German seminars have been particularly thought-provoking.

At the British-German Forum in Sussex in mid-July and at a gathering of the Koenigswinter Conference in Berlin two weeks later I was left with a sense of things being turned upside down. In the past it has usually been the German cohort in such settings that navigated toward talking about Europe, while the Brits were more at ease fretting about foreign policy and the state of the world at large. What a stark difference to this year’s discussions, which took place only a few weeks after the British referendum on EU membership. Understandably, the Brexit vote and the European Union were at the heart of British conversations. By contrast, Germans were interested more in the wider foreign and security challenges facing Europe. In trying to meet the task of talking about the state of the Union from a German perspective, I felt the urge to start off with thoughts on what the world looked like from Germany.

For Berlin, challenges to European prosperity and security have become more and more tangible over the past few years, requiring German leaders to ask which instruments are available, both individually and collectively, to navigate this “rendez-vous with globalization." The European Union has an undisputed place in any such search for the best mix of instruments at national, subnational, and indeed supranational and international levels, mostly on questions of prosperity, but no less on domestic security in a European space of largely open borders. European security is seen as something to be worked through at NATO first and foremost -- a hierarchy that has just been reconfirmed in the new White Paper on security policy and the future of the armed forces of the federal government. But the European Union does play an important role as well -- not the least as a place for discussing foreign and security issues and to build common ground solely among Europeans.

In other words, the EU debate in Berlin has moved on from one where fretting about the state of the Union was often the starting point of a conversation, to one that is more instrumental, aiming to work out what the Union can contribute to protect and empower Europe’s citizens to continue their lives in freedom, security, and prosperity. German policymakers are under no illusion about the state of the Union, dire in many ways, but they are convinced about the need to strengthen European responses, working within this imperfect system, while also looking for available instruments elsewhere, ideally in concert with other European countries.

At this stage the longstanding German obsession with perfecting the EU system has fallen by the wayside. Now German policymakers are determined to solve the problems that are already visibly affecting European societies. European leaders need to work together as Europeans, and in good faith about each other’s underlying motives and ambitions. This might sound banal, but it cannot be taken for granted anymore. A major reason many politicians in Germany were appalled to see the leading Brexiteers from the referendum debate disappear from Britain’s political scene after the June 23 vote to leave is that they sensed a complete lack of responsibility to own the outcome these figures had campaigned for -- aggressively, in often dishonest ways –- and the absence of any plan. Some Germans articulated their indignation quite openly -- leaders such as Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble, in an interview with the daily newspaper Die Welt.

It is in this spirit that Merkel met Prime Minister Theresa May on the premier’s inaugural visit to Berlin last month. There is no sense of wanting to retaliate (which interestingly is a question often put to me these days by Brits), but the underlying question is: In this dangerous time for Europe’s free countries and societies, is Britain still a partner that Germany can rely on? Will London work hand-in-hand with other Europeans in a spirit of trust to “gestalten” (“shape”) rather than obstruct? No doubt the expectation in Berlin is a resounding ‘yes’ from London. This isn’t some end point in British-German relations, and in the quest for instruments to tackle problems Merkel and her government will be working closely with London -- provided that Downing Street is willing to invest in rebuilding the sense of good faith that has been seriously damaged over these past months.