UK Politics

Anglo-German friendship only goes so far

Angela Merkel and David Cameron Image copyright AP
Image caption Strains have appeared in the relationship

Tragedy in Paris overshadowed last week's London meeting between German Chancellor, Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister, David Cameron.

But it was clear enough that the very real friendship between the two leaders did not amount to a meeting of minds on European issues.

Anglo-German relations since World War Two, while never as fraught as Britain's relations with France, have nonetheless been characterised on both sides by high hopes rarely realised.

The founding basis of the European Community in the 1950s was reconciliation between France and Germany.

The Germans, in particular, wanted Britain to be a leading member of the new enterprise.

But the British found it harder than the French to forgive Germany.

They behaved badly towards Konrad Adenauer, Germany's first great post-war leader.

When, in January 1963, President de Gaulle vetoed Britain's application to join the European Economic Community, the UK Government looked in vain for strong support from the German Government.

Within days, Adenauer and de Gaulle had signed the Franco-German Treaty which cemented the reconciliation between the two countries.

That treaty set a pattern of intense cooperation: frequent and regular meetings between the two leaders and between members of their respective Governments, collaboration between Civil Servants, cultural and intellectual exchanges.

It is a pattern of closeness that survives, albeit battered by the euro zone crisis, to this day.

Lack of understanding

There has been no comparative closeness between Germany and Britain.

For Germany, good relations with Britain have always been desirable.

Close Franco-German relations have been essential.

Image caption Margaret Thatcher was concerned about German reunification

The structure of the EEC was designed to suit the interests of the two countries and, between them, they have dominated it.

Successive German Governments have found it hard to understand Britain's lack of commitment to the project, the European Union, which is a core element of Germany's post-war democratic structure.

All attempts at a truly close relationship between British and German Governments have stumbled over this obstacle.

For Germany, the idea of leaving the European Union is inconceivable.

The supranational institutional structure of the EU which we British baulk against, is regarded by the Germans as unassailable, even if they share some of our frustrations at its workings.

For Germans, the commitment to European democracy through the European Parliament is an article of faith.

They see no conflict between national democracy on the one hand and European democracy on the other.

British and German leaders from Wilson and Brandt onwards have found common ground on many issues, including a strong commitment to NATO and to trans-Atlantic relations.

But a gulf has always remained and that gulf is the European Union.

Reunification fears

It was most starkly exemplified when Margaret Thatcher turned her face resolutely but unsuccessfully against German reunification.

For her German (Conservative) opposite number, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, the political integration of the countries of the European Union was essential to the success of democratic stability in the united Germany.

French President François Mitterrand, shared that view.

He feared the power of a united Germany and sought security by clasping Germany tightly in the embrace of a single currency.

For her part, Margaret Thatcher favoured the idea of strong nations who would stand up to Germany. Mitterrand and Kohl carried the day.

The prime importance to both France and Germany of their bilateral relationship and of their joint leadership of the European Union has trumped the desire for a close relationship with Britain from Adenauer and Macmillan in the early 1960s to Blair and Schroeder in the early 2000s.

The problem has been exacerbated because, while most British Governments have willed the ends, in the form of a privileged relationship with Germany, they have never been capable of delivering the means: the ability to make genuine sacrifices of national interest on EU policy in the cause of a shared partnership.

Now, David Cameron clearly thinks he is in with a chance.

Angela Merkel is quite a tribal politician.

She wants a good relationship with a fellow Conservative leader (as Kohl did, in vain, with Margaret Thatcher).

Franco-German tensions

For the first time since the inception of the European Community, the so-called Franco-German motor is in serious disrepair.

Chancellor Merkel rashly backed Nicolas Sarkozy in a Presidential election that he looked certain to lose.

She snubbed François Hollande, as indeed did Mr Cameron.

She and Hollande are poles apart on economic policy.

I do not believe she set out to snub Ed Miliband by not seeing him last week.

But the Foreign Office certainly failed, either by carelessness or political chicanery, in not informing Mr Miliband of her visit.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel have a fraught relationship

Mrs Merkel should avoid making the mistake in respect of British politics that she made in respect of the French.

But David Cameron made a serious mistake, as the price of winning the leadership of his Party, by withdrawing the Conservative Party from the EPP, the political grouping in the European Parliament which includes Mrs Merkel's CDU.

It is mainly for that reason that he failed to prevent the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker as the candidate of the centre right for the Presidency of the European Commission.

Angela Merkel herself was not keen on Mr Juncker but, when she tried to help her friend, David Cameron, she ran into a firestorm of opposition back in Germany.

And so, "Mutti", as they refer to her in No 10, could not deliver.

Mrs Merkel remained tight-lipped at their joint conference last week, when Mr Cameron set out his demands for a renegotiation of the terms of Britain's membership of the EU.

She may sympathise with his wish for welfare reform, but insofar as she translates that into action, it will be as a product of her own politics and domestic pressures, and disaffection with the EU in Germany nowhere approaches the scepticism of a large chunk of the Conservative Party, let alone UKIP.

Mrs Merkel will help Mr Cameron, if he is still Prime Minister after May, within the limits of the German national interest as she sees it.

Mr Cameron will not get all that he is at present asking for.

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