Too many in the UK assume that Berlin will intervene in Brexit negotiations, pushing for exemptions to preserve the strong economic relationship between the two countries. This expectation is misplaced and has helped allow the British government to avoid confronting the choices they must make.
The contemporary relationship between the UK and Germany is a complex one, with Europe’s richest and most populous country occupying a peculiar place in the British national psyche. On the one hand, there continues to be an inescapable association between Germany and the two World Wars that tore the continent apart. Sadly this continues to surface in ugly ways. A recent social media post from the pro-Brexit Leave.EU campaign featured a photo of Chancellor Angela Merkel with her arm raised in an apparent salute and the line “we didn’t win two world wars to be pushed around by a Kraut”. On the other hand, however, there is widespread – if at times begrudging – respect for a country seen as politically stable and economically prudent.
This preoccupation with Germany has emerged throughout Brexit negotiations. Many pro-Brexit Conservative MPs and commentators have asserted that the economic self-interest of the EU27 will trump the preferences of the European Commission in negotiations, and that the UK will eventually be granted continued frictionless trade despite leaving the Single Market, Customs Union, and ECJ jurisdiction. Berlin – viewed as a uniquely practically-minded political ally in Europe – is repeatedly expected to be first into the ring to fight London’s corner on this front. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Realpolitik is one of the most popular Teutonic words in the English lexicon.
This expectation of the German government has turned out to be nothing more than misplaced hope. It remains the official stance of both the Commission and European Council, Germany included, that the absence of tariffs and non-tariff barriers for the UK is contingent on applying European laws and standards to goods entering the internal market from Britain. No side-deals have yet been offered in areas such as defence and security cooperation, and Chancellor Merkel has consistently warned the Brits against ‘cherry picking’.
The causes of this stance are often misdiagnosed. At Conservative Party conference last month, I repeatedly heard a false dichotomy drawn between the economic union that Brits believed they had joined in 1973 and the ‘political project’ which Germany and other countries on the continent were pursuing. While it may be true that this is a motivation for some in Brussels and Berlin, the idea that it is the primary concern of politicians in the Bundestag is nothing short of fanciful.
The reasons for Germany not intervening in Brexit negotiations are grounded not in ideology but in logic. Firstly, Berlin’s influence on European affairs is not as great as is sometimes assumed. True, the German Chancellor can exert more power than most, but it is wrong to think that any one country can make unilateral decisions on behalf of the EU.
Secondly, Brexit is a far lower priority for Germany – and, indeed, the rest of the continent – than is sometimes assumed in the UK. With a new European Parliament recently elected and a new college of Commissioners about to take up their posts, policy minds in Berlin and Brussels are preoccupied with issues such as the bloc’s budget and economic reform. Brexit is a second, or even third, tier concern not worth expending political capital on.
The third and key reason is that the integrity of the Single Market is of paramount importance to German business. Former Brexit Secretary David Davis’s assertion that “within minutes of a vote for Brexit the CEO’s of Mercedes, BMW, VW and Audi will be knocking down Chancellor Merkel’s door demanding that there be no barriers [to trade]” has aged badly.
On the contrary, President of the Federation of German Industries (BDI) Dieter Kempf stressed in 2017 that “defending the Single Market, a key European project, must be the priority for the EU. Europe must maintain the integrity of the Single Market and its four freedoms: goods, capital, services, and labour”. Other influential German trade organisations have also made clear that they do not want to be undercut by less regulated British goods post-Brexit.
It is crucial that the British government understands the organisation and countries it is distancing itself from. Politicians in the UK should spend less time focusing on their own Brexit red lines and more time understanding those held by their negotiating partners and the capitals they represent. If Britain respects the priorities of countries like Germany, Berlin may well be a constructive partner that works to retain smooth access to a key market. Until then, the UK must stop waiting for a reprieve from Germany, and instead confront the tough choices it faces outside of the EU.
John McStravick is Vice-Chair of Agora. He tweets at @JS_McStravick.
This piece was originally published by Polis180.