Trading Places

How Britain and Germany started thinking like one another, rather than themselves

13/12/2011 | by Roderick Parkes

Category: European Union, United Kingdom, Germany, Western Europe, Europe

German Chancellor Angela Merkel was pushing for a unanimous change to the EU treaties in order to impose fiscal discipline on eurozone laggards and restore faith in the common currency. Just meters away her British counterpart, David Cameron, was threatening to block the process if British interests were in any way prejudiced.

The photographs of Cameron sitting in splendid isolation in the negotiating chamber, squirming slightly (either through embarrassment or because of his famous “full bladder” technique of concentration) told the story of what was to come.

If the outcome was unsurprising, Merkel’s apparent tolerance for the UK’s behavior was. This, after all, is a British prime minister whose party colleagues have expressed an interest in exploiting the weakness of the eurozone in order to wrest back national powers from the EU, a man heading a government which seems to think the EU should reward the debt-ridden UK for never joining the euro, in a domestic political system which toys constantly with the idea of holding a referendum on Britain’s EU membership. And yet, the German government has taken it on the chin. Berlin has come to accept that this policy of ever decreasing circles is simply how the UK works. Already in late October 2011, when EU leaders were limbering up to forge a deal to stabilize the euro, the British establishment was rowing hard in the opposite direction. German politicians rolled their eyes with sad familiarity as the House of Commons met to debate exit options from the EU.

Its a topsy-turvy world. The behavior which Berlin now finds so typisch britisch is actually entirely at odds with British political culture and particularly with that of the governing Conservative Party. The notion of holding referendums has, for example, typically been written off as anti-constitutional by British conservatives, who view plebiscites as too crude and too binding a tool. Similarly, the frequent British statements that it will be possible to circumscribe the EU’s influence over the UK by means of a treaty renegotiation flies in the face of Conservative wisdom. Tories usually see human relations as too complex to be bound by simplistic legal constructs. A renegotiation of the treaties would merely leave the UK formally excluded from Council negotiations on matters that nevertheless affect the UK. It is just one further example of the dogmatism with which the UK approaches EU affairs—so much for Britain’s famous pragmatism. This dogmatic, legalistic, and narrow-minded behavior is frustrating even to British euroskeptics. Many of them could be heard wishing there was a way of helping the eurozone countries out of their crisis without being tied in these infernal knots.

The British government’s distinctly un-British behavior on EU issues comes about in large part because of the country’s exposure to an alien constitutional influence. EU membership has challenged the key tenet of British conservatism and constitutionalism: the much-vaunted rejection of abstract thinking. For 200 years now, Tory politicians have dismissed meddlesome attempts to impose reason on society. They view human interaction as inherently messy and complex, and know that attempts to tidy life up end only in disaster. This instinct finds form not just in Britain’s messy constitutional system, but in the notion that the country’s social contract should be organic. Government is not just a pact between rulers and citizens, but also between the present generation and those to come. No administration should be able to bind future governments, leaving the country free to develop incrementally and reactively to social and economic pressures.

This “organic” sense of politics results in a system that reifies tradition, minor adaptation, laissez-faire, and common-sense pragmatism. The European Union, by contrast, has been described as an effort at “studied regime change,” an effort to impose reason on a complex and unstable environment. And to the British eye, it amounts to nothing short of an ideological rearrangement of society. Eurocrats in Brussels are seeking to induce solidarity and trust between states through meddlesome and artificial legal rules. Worse, this top-down rearrangement is to be sustained by the creation of long-lasting legal commitments between member states—commitments designed to bind future generations irreversibly. As the euroskeptic MP Bill Cash is always keen to point out: it is a very German kind of set-up. What Cash often forgets to mention though is that, with its resort to ideology and to legalistic solutions, the British government has been reacting to it in a distinctly German manner. The government simply has nothing else left in its repertoire.

Funnily enough, just as the Germans look at UK behavior and find it somehow normal, the British find nothing odd in the way the German debate on the EU is developing. This is because German thinking on the EU has actually taken on some traits that seem very normal to British political culture even if they are alien to the German. The apparent acceptance amongst sections of the country’s political class that there is a hierarchy of EU member states (with Germany rather near the top); the willingness to use EU rules to steer other countries in the “right” way; the loss of faith in abstract European values such as trust and solidarity—all this marks a break from Germany’s typical rule-based idealism and a move towards the kind of sober pragmatism usually associated with British conservatism. Indeed, in London, commentators whisper about the emergence of a class system in the EU, based on Berlin’s unromantic acceptance that some socio-cultural differences are simply to great to be regulated; that there is a “natural aristocracy” within the EU which has a right and duty to steer the development of the community as a whole; that trust and solidarity will not be induced by neat common rules, but rather emerge organically from social and economic interactions, and may persist in conditions of apparent inequality and unfairness. All very British ideas.

There is a pleasing symmetry to this. The British government has responded to the influence of German-style legalism in a rather German way, and Germany has responded to the British-style messiness of EU cooperation in a rather British way. This symmetry is no accident. The two countries’ distinct visions of Europe have been in constant competition for 40 years. Germany has long identified with the European project and its aspiration to bring rule-based reason to an unstable and unpredictable continent. The British have reacted to what they view as the artificiality of such an approach by re-injecting complexity into the European Union through market liberalization and enlargement. Berlin has traditionally responded with efforts to deepen integration, stressing the importance of neat common rules. This long game of ping-pong has, predictably, ended in disaster. The UK has certainly succeeded in injecting complexity into EU affairs, and the resort to deep common rules has only ended up reinforcing disparities and intruding into sensitive affairs.

This is the crisis situation in which the EU now finds itself, and both countries are floundering. With nothing left in its repertoire, the UK has reacted to the bloc’s political crisis by borrowing from the German toolbox, and the Germans have borrowed from the British. British commentators lament the situation: they believe the Germans have merely lent London the means by which to cement the UK’s marginalization in the EU whilst the British have lent Berlin the intellectual tools by which to justify German dominance of the EU. After all, they know that British conservatism’s pragmatic acceptance of inequalities and of “social complexity” is usually driven by those at the top of the tree, to the detriment of those at the bottom. In its acceptance of unfairness and inequalities it justifies and perpetuates them. British thinking has permitted Germany to redefine its guiding position in the EU in a way that the UK has always feared. They believe Germany has accepted the notion of “principled conservatism” with all its unfortunate hypocrisies.

RODERICK PARKES is head of the Brussels office at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).


Most Read

Latest blog posts

  • An Offer Yerevan Could Not Refuse

    Armenia has opted to integrate with Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. Or has it?

    Two months before the Euromaidan protests began in Ukraine, Armenia rejected an association agreement with the European Union in favor of cooperation with Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan. Yet the country’s future in the EEU seems uncertain – and the door to Brussels might not be completely shut.

  • Unfit for Fight – or Flight

    Germany’s army admits to massive equipment failure

    Four years ago, Germany’s defense ministry decided to save money by cutting down on the purchase of spare parts. Now, more than half of the Bundeswehr’s aircraft have had to be grounded. Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has admitted publicly that the situation is so bad that Germany would not be able to fulfill its NATO obligations in an emergency. It’s a scandal certain to get bigger.

  • Wearing Out Their Welcome

    The number of refugees seeking shelter in Germany is rising sharply

    Germany is expecting over 200,000 refugees to apply for political asylum this year. July 2014 saw the highest number of applications in over 20 years – a dramatic increase causing a heavy strain. Right-wing attacks on foreigners and asylum shelters are also on the rise. Chancellor Merkel’s government is under considerable pressure to increase restrictions.