Relationship Update: Brexit and Berlin, The Story of Star-Crossed States

Harris Siderfin: I’m a current 2nd year undergraduate at St Andrew’s university studying International Relations and Psychology. I currently have a particular interest in norm creation through foreign policy and the impact of executive personality on foreign interactions.  

UK | June 27, 2020 | Student Essay

It would be impossible to discuss the modern relationship between Germany and The United Kingdom (UK) without centring that discussion around the European Union (EU). The EU is central to nearly all intra-European relations, and Anglo-German interactions are no exception.  

The relationship between Europe’s two largest economies is one of the most important within the international system (IS), and this relationship’s condition has a significant impact on the rest of the world. With four European states currently ranking in the top ten of GDP worldwide, Europe and the European Union (EU) is a critical block within the IS. When the UK left the EU on January 31st 2020, the EU lost its second-highest GDP and a permanent member of the United Nations security council. Germany’s position as the EU’s de facto leader means that Anglo-German relations will be of the utmost importance to the future of the EU and the IS. 

The alliance between Germany and the UK has never reached the status of the UK’s “special” relationship with the United States, or that of EU-centric relations of France and Germany. Anglo-German interactions over the years have the whiff of a grand alliance that never came to fruition. The two major powers shared common understandings before European law forced cooperation between the two states: for instance, during the Cold War both countries showed a strong commitment to the Northern Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and have remained committed to trans-Atlantic relations after the fall of the Soviet Union. However, a wedge has firmly divided these two would-be sweethearts, in the form of the EU. 

As with any floundering relationship, the issues at play here run deep. Textbooks could be (and have been) written on Germany’s role within the unification of Europe after World War Two: this is but a brief summary. The foundations of the EU formed a core element of Germany’s new post-war democratic structure, with Germany committing totally to Europe’s broader unification through international trading blocs. Through European collaborations such as the European Steel and Coal Community, the European Atomic Energy Community, and the European Economic Community (EEC), West Germany was able to repair the diplomatic damage of the Second World War, and rebuild the devastation done to its infrastructure and economy. The EEC in particular allowed Germany to regain its “global power” status by establishing a customs union. These organisations formed strong and lasting relations between the founding nations. From these organisations, in 1967, the European Community (EC), predecessor to the EU, was formed; peace within Europe was secured through liberal economic interdependence between former rivals. Germany bought in completely to the vision of a United Europe, and after its economic resurgence and the end of the Cold War, a re-unified Germany helmed the European project. However by entwining its national interests with those of the EU, Germany ensured that a threat to the EU would be a threat to German prosperity. Brexit, and the possible ramifications thereof, thus presents a serious threat to Germany’s national interests.   

The UK’s relationship to the EC did not get off to a good start. Despite Germany advocating for increased membership, and for the UK to take an active leadership role; however, France vetoed the membership application of the UK (both in 1963 and 1967) along with another three European countries. For the sake of the European Community, Germany accepted and supported De Gaulle’s stance, demonstrating the integration of domestic German interests and European interests. In the complex courting process of international diplomacy, Germany was certainly sending the UK mixed signals. 

The supranational structure of the EU, which encroaches on state sovereignty, is the main point of dichotomy for the UK and Germany. The “competence creep” of EU law into the UK was a significant factor for British withdrawal from the EU. Conversely, Germany has remained staunchly behind European unity, both economically and politically. 

The so-far messy exit of the UK from the EU seems to set a concerning precedent for Anglo-German relations. The UK’s withdrawal threatens the stability and existence of the EU. If London does miraculously end 2020 with a favourable withdrawal agreement from the EU, why would other members not also follow Britain’s lead, especially if they can still receive some benefits of the EU? To maintain the EU stability and authority Germany cannot treat the UK favourably at the negotiating table, even if this stance has negative consequences for Germany itself. In 2015 before the Brexit referendum, the UK was the third-largest consumer of German products, which was worth roughly €89 billion, which decreased to €79 billion in 2019 and is expected to fall again if an agreement cannot be made before the end of the year. Germany’s track record and commitment to the EU suggests that it is unlikely to cave to the UK’s demands, despite the adverse effects this will have on Germany. Germany’s unwavering support for a united Europe can be seen in Angela Merkel’s 2017 statement: “The times in which we could completely depend on others are on the way out. … We Europeans have to take our destiny into our own hands.”

Even if Brexit does not destabilise the EU, Germany’s position as Europe’s leading power has been weakened. Britain’s exit from the EU has resulted in a power shift to southern Europe in the European Council and Parliament. The North (Germany, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Ireland. and the Netherlands) without the UK has lost its veto ability. Germany’s future role in Europe is uncertain, with too little regional power to be a hegemon and too much not to be imposing. What is certain is that the UK’s decision to leave the EU has all but destroyed the vision of a truly united Europe, and it will fall to Germany to pick up the pieces. Germany will rue the UK for leaving, and this will inevitably translate to a cooling of relations to the UK in the coming years. As Boris Johnson is refusing to extend the transition period of Brexit despite the COVID-19 pandemic, it looks as if the two countries are on a dangerous collision course. Germany and the UK butting heads could spell disaster for all of Europe. As long as they remain diametrically ideologically opposed on the issue of Europe, Britain and Germany’s relationship status can at best be described as “it’s complicated”. And no amount of counselling will, I fear, lead to them sharing a “special” relationship anytime soon.

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