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Lost in translation: Brexit and the Anglo-German relationship


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Both in Britain and on the continent, the profound shock caused by the result of the EU Referendum in June 2016 has now given way to feelings of confusion and uncertainty. While the British Government is not only busy straightening out its Brexit plans, but actually awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision on whether or not they even have the right to do so without consulting Parliament, it may be worthwhile for all sides concerned to use the breathing space created by this muddle to look back upon the history of Britain’s relationship with the European Union and reflect on whether it may harbour a few useful lessons.

Lesson number one ought to be self-evident: the EU is no monolith, and rather than a clear-cut debate between Britain and ‘Brussels’, the Brexit negotiations will be an immensely complicated affair in which the interests and domestic situations of 27 different member states will weigh in to determine Britain’s future relationship with the EU. Lesson number two: it is safe to assume that among these 27 states, Germany, the economic powerhouse of the EU, one of its largest members and a long-time driving force behind European integration, will have a key role to play in the negotiations with Britain. Mrs May and her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, are currently facing a conundrum in their dealings with Germany: on the one hand, its potential influence on the Brexit negotiations is impossible to ignore, but on the other, the German government under Chancellor Angela Merkel strictly refuses to engage in any bilateral side-dealings with its British counterpart, insisting that the EU has to speak with one voice, a voice that will not be heard before the British government has formally triggered Article 50. The only way out of this from the British point of view unsatisfactory situation would be for Mrs May to acknowledge that the British and the German approaches to European integration are, and always have been, fundamentally different, and to frame her strategy towards Germany accordingly.

Mrs May is only the latest in a long line of British politicians and commentators, who have looked upon European integration as a purely economic project and failed to grasp the political significance it has had for most continental countries, especially Germany. This classic British fallacy is rooted in a profound misunderstanding of the way every government in Bonn, and later Berlin, has defined Germany’s national interest since 1949. Margaret Thatcher particularly comes to mind in this context. In her 2003 book Statecraft: Strategies for a Changing World, which was, among other things, a powerful Eurosceptic treatise, Thatcher made no bones about her poor opinion of Europeanist idealism and quoted a famous statement by Germany’s ‘Iron Chancellor’ of the late nineteenth century, Otto von Bismarck: ‘I always found the word “Europe” in the mouths of those politicians who wanted from other powers something they did not dare to demand in their own name.’ In other words, Thatcher regarded declarations in support of the principle of ‘ever closer union’ not only as ‘humbug’, but as a cynical smokescreen disguising the ruthless pursuit of national interests, especially by the Germans.

Leaving Thatcher’s well-known personal anti-German bias aside, it would of course be naïve and hypocritical to suggest that Germany has not been looking out for its own interests since the beginning of the European integration process in the 1950s. Of course it has, as has every other member state, including Britain. Thatcher’s mistake, a mistake that has been repeated by countless British policy-makers, was her failure to comprehend that defending Germany’s national interest and pursuing the goal of European integration have always been two sides of the same coin from the German point of view. After the horrific atrocities committed by the Nazi regime during the Second World War, atonement for these crimes, the prevention of war and the search for a balance between rebuilding Germany’s significant economic potential and securing a state of peaceful coexistence with its neighbours have been crucial determinants for its foreign policy. European integration has been a process that made the parallel pursuit of these aims possible and thereby served Germany’s national interest.

Throughout her premiership, Thatcher repeatedly committed the error of expecting the German government to support her policies on key subjects like budgetary reform, the Common Agricultural Policy or monetary union, because she thought that Germany, a fellow net-contributor to the European budget with great pride in its strong and successful currency, the Deutschmark, shared Britain’s overall economic priorities. She failed to understand that Germany’s European policy could not be reduced to a balance sheet. Because Thatcher had no time for integrationist fervour, she did not take it seriously in others, ridiculed it in private and, for the most part of the 1980s, she did not expect it to lead to anything tangible. It was only after she realized from 1988 onwards how much momentum the integration process had gained that Thatcher began to oppose it openly. However, by that time, the European Community was already firmly locked into a process towards economic and monetary union, a most unwelcome development from Thatcher’s point of view. Among the leading figures in this process were the German chancellor Helmut Kohl, his foreign secretary Hans-Dietrich Genscher, and European commission president Jacques Delors, a staunch friend of Germany, who owed his job in Brussels mainly to the German government.

Mrs Thatcher’s experiences should serve as a cautionary tale to Mrs May: European integration has always meant more to Germany than economic benefits. The vast majority of Germans wanted Britain to remain in the EU, and regret about the outcome of the referendum is widespread and genuine, as is concern regarding the possible repercussions for the Anglo-German relationship. But when the choice is between protecting the future of the European Community and satisfying the British government, Europe will come first for Germany, as it has done since the 1950s.   

Please note: Views expressed are those of the author.

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