The UK in Europe – Germany wants its Sparring Partner back

There has been much criticism in Britain of Germany’s domination of the EU — of the country’s exporting its domestic rules to other member countries, and of its heavy-handed treatment of the UK over the Euro-zone crisis. Berlin is sensitive to such developments. And it gives a large portion of the blame to the UK.

Germany has long relied upon Britain to provide an irksome and contrary perspective on European integration. An introspective United Kingdom, which increasingly uses talk of withdrawal as an excuse for its ineffective European policy, isn’t doing its job properly. Indeed, the UK’s current disengagement is encouraging the very trends London complains about.

Whereas British European policy was once based on the healthy attitude that the EU was a group of rather exceptional countries that had little in common, it now seems based on the assumption that the UK is the odd-one-out. Instead of demanding from Brussels sensitivity to national diversity, London talks of abandoning the bloc to its inevitable homogenisation.

If many German policymakers are quietly nostalgic for the UK’s traditional brand of obstructive engagement, it is because Berlin remembers what London has forgotten: that ‘European integration’ is not really integration if EU members sign up to proposals which they actually regard as unacceptable and feel no ownership for. Blocking bad policies counts towards EU integration.

Once upon a time, the UK was known as a consensual veto-player: if it blocked policies, it made sure it was those EU proposals which more overtly pro-European or conformist countries secretly found unacceptable too. Today, London remains obstructive of course, but in an altogether more self-centred way — weak and oddball European members lack a champion.

Berlin would also welcome a different kind of British resistance to the Franco-German motor. In Berlin, cooperation with France is not viewed as a means of asserting German ideas unadulterated as so many in London seem to believe. Just the opposite in fact: if Germany cooperates with France, it is precisely because French thinking can be so different.

To German eyes, France is the representative of rather alien southern European values. And just as the point of wrangling with Paris is to dilute German priorities with a dose of southern interests, so the UK is supposed to provide a similar service for the eastern, Baltic and Nordic members. With its unnecessarily antagonistic agenda on economic growth, London is failing in its duty.

Perhaps most ironically, Germany is also waiting for more active resistance from Britain to the trend towards rolling EU summitry. German commentators view the UK as the first victim of the worrying moves towards intergovernmentalism in the EU, and simply cannot understand why the UK continues to believe it is the best way to represent its interests.

Bargaining at summits is about political point scoring, and the UK is regularly on the wrong end of German victories. London must see that there is not only a need for more measured preliminary deliberation in Council, but also that the Commission and European Parliament should be allowed to weigh in: not only is the UK well represented in both bodies even in policy areas where it has exercised its opt-out, this outside interference actually spurs the member countries to team up and deal consensually with one another.

It sounds odd of course to claim that German policymakers would like their lives to be made more difficult in Europe, and certainly the federal government gives little sign of brooking dissent from other states. But it is worth remembering that post-war Germany was built on an unusual premise — that the federal German state is, and should be, fundamentally limited in what it can do.

This acceptance of its limits makes the German government uniquely well adapted to the constraints and demands of EU integration as well as to dealing with situations where individual states are essentially helpless, such as the global financial crisis. But the system only works if the German government can defend to its voters the limits of its powers.

Its current inability to do so is fuelling the wave of populism sweeping the EU: Berlin is struggling to resist populist domestic pressures to throw its weight around in the EU and to generate activist policies on the financial crisis. This in turn creates populist pressures in other European governments to resist the noxious interference from Berlin.

Many German policymakers would dearly love to point to the limits on their powers posed by their robust and respected partner, Britain. Sadly, any resistance they currently receive from London tends to be sulky and ineffectual. Europe badly needs Germany’s sparring partner to return to form.

This column is part of the ‘Britain in Europe’ debate jointly organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung London and Social Europe Journal.


  1. tinminer says

    How popular is ‘The Lives of a Bengal Lancer’ in Germany at the moment?