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Why does the UK always pin its hopes on Germany?

It is exactly four years since the Brexit referendum that sent the UK out of the EU and on a journey to an uncertain destination.

Before that vote, and up to the present day, one puzzling feature of Brexit has been the tendency of politicians in London to assume that Germany will go the extra mile to help out the UK.

The latest example is the expectation that, because Germany will take over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency on July 1, Chancellor Angela Merkel will make sure there is an agreement before December on the long-term EU-UK relationship.

For sure, there are grounds for thinking that the two sides will strike a limited accord, but this is mainly because each appears to be softening its positions on state aid, fisheries and other issues even before Germany assumes the EU presidency.

The widely held British view that the German government and business community will do the UK a favour, and impose their will on the other 26 EU states, the European Commission and the European Parliament, is profoundly mistaken.

Why do the British persist in this error, despite all the evidence before the June 2016 referendum and afterwards that Germany’s overriding priority with regard to Brexit is to protect the political unity, legal order and economic interests of the EU?

For an answer, it is worth reading this interview (in German) in the online edition of Der Spiegel magazine with Peter Wittig, who was until recently Berlin’s ambassador to the UK.

“The British always tend to personalise things. This isn’t how the EU works. People in London have never properly understood this,” he says.

Mr Wittig offers other interesting insights into UK politics in the Brexit era. He explains the post-referendum disorder by pointing to the lack of a culture of political compromise at Westminster, something which stands in contrast to Germany since 1945.

“In other countries, faced with a national question of this kind, a government of national unity would have been forged,” he says.

“ . . . And one is betraying no secrets if one says that there was no strategy [for Brexit] in 2016. The country has had to pay a price for this lack of a plan.”

Leading Brexiters did, of course, have some hazy ideas, though it would be stretching a point to call them a plan. It was to rely on Germany to dig them out of their hole.

As David Davis, a Tory MP and future Brexit minister, tweeted in May 2016, the first port of call for British negotiators after the referendum “will not be Brussels, it will be Berlin, to strike a deal”.

Other Brexiters predicted confidently, and quite wrongly, that German carmakers would insist on letting the UK have full access to the EU market because of their need to sell cars to the British.

Yet David Cameron, the former prime minister who campaigned to stay in the EU, also misread Germany when he placed his hopes on Ms Merkel before the referendum to arrange substantial changes to the UK’s membership terms, a manoeuvre intended to boost the Remain vote.

It was simply not in Ms Merkel’s power or in Germany’s interests to weaken the EU by offering uniquely generous terms to the UK.

Mr Cameron had in any case deeply offended Ms Merkel in 2009 by pulling the Conservative party out of the European People’s party, the pan-EU centre-right political group.

As for Germany’s attitude to the EU-UK talks on the future relationship, a government strategy document, leaked in Berlin last week, says it all.

The UK “wants to settle as much as possible in the shortest possible time, and hopes to achieve last-minute success in the negotiations . . . 

“It is therefore important to preserve the unity of the 27, to continue to insist on parallel progress in all areas and to make it clear that there will be no agreement at any price,” the document states.

Perhaps the British would understand the German point of view better if they read the sometimes scathing reports of the London correspondents of the leading German newspapers.

This is what Carsten Volkery of Handelsblatt wrote last week: “[Boris] Johnson would do well to adopt a bit of British understatement. Fewer promises, more results.”

And here is Stefanie Bolzen of Die Welt: “This government only seems capable of empty slogans and empty promises.”

Further reading

Boris Johnson cannot hide incompetence with culture wars
His election focus on Brexit makes it easy to forget Mr Johnson’s other pledges: money for schools, hospitals and the police. These, along with the notion of settling Brexit, were the underlying values to which voters responded. When they judge him again it will be on their prospects, the shape of their schools and hospitals and whether they can afford a home. Like the debates over statues, a Tory-led culture war is a distraction from these core issues. If the government does not have a plausible story on these points then it cannot rely on a war on woke to save it. (Robert Shrimsley, FT)

Boris Johnson’s handling of the promised return to school has been dismal © Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street

Japan rushes UK to agree first post-Brexit trade deal
Japan has given the UK just six weeks to strike a post-Brexit deal, putting Boris Johnson’s government under pressure to agree one of the fastest trade negotiations in history — and Britain’s first in more than 40 years. (Robin Harding and Sebastian Payne, FT)

Johnson to overrule scientists and ease lockdown
List of businesses allowed to reopen on July 4 extended as 2-metre distancing rule reduced (FT reporters)

Summer brings hope and fear to Britain’s beaches and seaside towns
Resorts torn between need to reopen to save businesses and fear of coronavirus outbreaks (FT reporters)

Hard numbers

Downturn in UK business activity eases sharply in June Read more

Line chart of Flash purchasing managers' index, below 50= a majority of businesses reporting a contraction showing the downturn in UK activity eased sharply in June

This article was first published at https://www.ft.com/content/662398d9-4918-422e-b946-0297115b9200

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