No easy way out. UK burned too many bridges with Germany

By Bernd Hüttemann, Secretary General of the European Movement Germany and Vice-President of the European Movement International

The UK is faced with the very clear pro-European position of Germany. Stakeholders both in the Bundestag and among interest groups are united: the political system of the EU must be preserved and strengthened and the UK needs to be prevented from ‘cherry picking’. Germans have now learned a new English idiom: “you cannot have your cake and eat it”. And it seems that this cake will stay firmly in mainland Europe.

Admittedly, Brexit caused a short shock-induced paralysis in Germany. For too long the British government has been convenient critic of EU bureaucracy, which is not particularly loved in Berlin’s corridors of power The Brits had turned scapegoating and blackmailing Brussels into an art, while at the same time, seeking benefits from the EU system. But once Cameron’s playing with referendum fire caused serious damage, the German started viewing the UK as a far more serious irritant than the EU institutions could ever be. Following Brexit, a Pandora’s box for German criticism against the British anti-European spin was opened and now, as months go by, we are realising that other countries like Denmark and the Netherlands share our image of who Pandora really is.

Germany’s position before the EU-27 summit
Ahead of the first European Council meeting without the UK on 29 April, the Federal Chancellor underlined a clear European stance: a) protection of the interest and planning security for the 100,000 German citizens in the UK, b) averting further damage for the EU by pursuing a smart exit and by achieving legal certainty, c) strengthening of EU-27 integration, in line with the Rome Declaration and a better, if not more democratic, governance. By underlining the strong role of the European and national Parliaments throughout the negotiation process, Angela Merkel made it clear that the European Union of the many shareholders might be united in diversity but united on these areas.

Westminster has reached its limits in Germany
Why did this happen? Well, for a long time, UK public diplomacy in Germany had a particular reputation but royal glamour and smart governmental communication overshadowed a deep scepticism about the substance of British-EU politics. German stakeholders admired Westminster’s superior rhetoric against regulation “from Brussels”. But during the “Spitzenkandidaten” debate the German political class soon learned to stick to its own pro-European stance. The election of Juncker against Cameron’s will was the first painful reality-check for the UK. Thanks to this, the Juncker Commission could then build trust with Germany, whether in ministries, in Parliament or among the business community. This trust is now the basis for the tough line on Brexit. The Commission and Parliament are now trusted allies for Germany, which is represented by Europhiles including Barnier’s deputy Sabine Weyand and MEP Elmar Brok.

Germany is not just Merkel
London has a long tradition of underestimating the complexity of German-EU politics as the Federal Chancellery relies on a very small, albeit very strong, EU department of 28 experts. Sectoral line ministries and the Foreign Office, although they often wear different party colours, feed the cross-ideological consensus machinery. Parliament, including the German states, play a strong role, and lobby associations and groups in corporative Germany must also be mentioned. The short term confusion of who is really dealing with Brexit issues in government resulted in a broad mediation process among different stakeholders. Since the financial crisis but also in part linked to the refugee challenge, Germany has retracted its cooperative tradition. In light of this, Germany’s Brexit strategy is fully backed by the German “Sozialpartner”, including its strong business associations and trade unions. German business can replace with other markets the possible and painful loss of the British market much more easily than the British can, whose economy is to be expected to be in real turmoil in the medium-term. At the same time, Germans remain supportive of the Scottish interests and its cooperative social traditions. The same sentiment is held for the Irish, who want open borders in their region. Germany is fully aware of the political and economic Brexit cost for Ireland and is ready to help out.

Germany will remain pro-European
Last but not least, the next Federal Government will not change the current strong pro-European stance of Germany. It is true that nobody can predict the outcome of the elections in September, but will it bring a major change? In short, no. No possible coalition (and there are many possibilities) will change the strong line on Brexit. Britain has burned too many bridges for an easy way out of the United Europe.