At the end of last week I sat in the spacious and splendidly restored country home of a former prime minister of Prussia, some 50 kilometres from the German-Polish border, and listened to two speeches in English. The first was given by Philip Hammond. The second, a couple of hours later, was given by Boris Johnson. Both professed undying friendship, respect and regard for Germany. Johnson even paraded a hitherto concealed family connection with the city of Stuttgart.
It tells you a lot that, on the day after Theresa May triggered Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, London should send first the chancellor of the exchequer and then the foreign secretary to address a gathering of the British-German political, business and media elites at their annual Königswinter conference, especially when these occasions were held under the Chatham House rule and the content of the speeches cannot therefore be reported (including, I suppose, Johnson’s Stuttgart connection).
Most of the things this tells you are right and necessary: that Britain knows Germany is the most important country in Europe; that the government sees Britain will not get a satisfactory Brexit deal from the EU 27 without the backing of Germany; that European security, even after Brexit, is dependent on high-level cooperation between Britain, France and Germany. And that, even while Brexit is forcing Britain and Germany apart, Donald Trump’s presidency may be pushing us closer together.
So it made absolute good sense for Whitehall to send two such high-ranking emissaries across Europe to press the flesh and to talk to prominent German politicians and officials in private. There were more MPs there than for some years too, including invitees from the Conservatives, Labour and the SNP. As an intermittent attender at Königswinter for nearly 30 years, I don’t remember ever seeing such a politically high-powered British team at the gathering.
There was, though, a flaw. The German participants were constructive about the Brexit future – in marked contrast, I am told, to the haughtier Gallic attitude at the equivalent Anglo-French colloque held recently in Versailles. Yet even though Berlin was little more than an hour’s drive away, there was no equivalent heavyweight German presence at the gathering. No Wolfgang Schäuble, Hammond’s opposite number, no Sigmar Gabriel for Johnson (they met in London this week), and of course, no Angela Merkel either. If the presence of the chancellor of the exchequer and the foreign secretary said a lot about the importance London attaches to Germany, these absences say something about the importance Berlin attaches to Brexit Britain.
British expats in Spain count the Costa Brexit
London’s own goodwill towards Berlin is nevertheless the right signal. Britain can sometimes deceive itself about German attitudes. But the readiness to court Germany, alongside the practical positivity of the German approach to Brexit Britain, was hard to miss in last week’s conference. It felt like a recognition, amid all the huffing and puffing of Brexit, that Britain is still part of Europe, and that many aspects of the relationship could endure if both sides want. If May’s words about Britain not turning its back on Europe mean what they say, a new relationship can definitely be built on the old.
It is worth holding on to that thought, because this week May and her ministers have tried hard to send a very different message. With May in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Hammond in India and the trade secretary Liam Fox taking a long swing through the far east and the Gulf, Downing Street has been keen to promote its new vacuity of “global Britain”. To that end, May has been selling arms to religious autocrats, Hammond has been promoting what acolytes call “Empire 2.0”, and Fox has been telling Rodrigo Duterte, the self-proclaimed killer who leads the Philippines, that Britain and he enjoy “shared values”.
Shameful though much of this is, it is also to some degree a sham. All the places the ministers have been visiting this week are small trading partners when compared with the European Union, which buys 44% of UK exports. Saudi Arabia takes 1.7%, India 1.3% and the Philippines 0.1%. It is a fantasy to imagine either that these non-European markets are likely to replace Europe and the US, and a disgrace to pretend that many of them have shared liberal and democratic values either.
Germany is in every way a contrast. Germany alone buys 9.3% of UK exports and sells us 15% of our imports. Germany is our military ally; just as the UK has 800 troops in Estonia to help ward off Russian encroachment, so Germany has 1,000 in Lithuania. German values embody liberal democratic principles from which Britain has sometimes slipped. Merkel’s attitude to Europe’s migration crisis from 2015 to 2016 was a striking contrast to David Cameron’s. Her response to Trump’s election emphasised values in a way May’s did not. And neither Merkel’s CDU nor the opposition SPD has run scared of the anti-European Alternative für Deutschland in the way the Tories and Labour have done with Ukip in Britain.
Germany’s principal concern in the Brexit process is to stabilise and ensure the EU 27 against any wider Brexit effect elsewhere. That will remain the case whether Merkel (still my bet) or Martin Schulz is chancellor after September’s elections. Much hinges on what happens in France in the coming month. But there are no signs that the British government, as distinct from some xenophobes on the Tory backbenches and the goggle-eyed anti-European thinktanks, positively wishes to see the EU disintegrate. Officially, the position is quite the opposite. And so it should be.
May always argues that the argument between hard and soft Brexit is a false one. She insists that the issue is a clean Brexit or a messy one. Let’s take her at her word on that, even if we disagree.
But her attitude to Germany must now be the test of her claim. For after Brexit, there is nothing inconsistent between Britain’s non-membership of the EU, the single market and the customs union on the one hand, and the closest possible economic, security and political alliance with Germany and the EU on the other.
In that post-Brexit context, Anglo-German cooperation could become the cornerstone of UK European policy, while the airy aspirations of “global Britain” would be merely an add-on, not the morally and politically empty alternative that the prime minister sometimes appears to be advocating.
More than 30 years ago in the pre-eurozone cold war era, Margaret Thatcher’s chancellor Nigel Lawson followed a policy of “shadowing the deutschmark”. Back then, in very different circumstances to those that apply today, Lawson used interest rate policy and foreign exchange interventions to keep sterling close or convergent to cold war Europe’s strongest currency. It proved an ill-starred policy for sterling in the wake of German reunification and the acceleration of European monetary union.
But shadowing the deutschmark was a clear, convergent but autonomous policy. In today’s very different circumstances, after Brexit and amid the Trump uncertainties, Britain’s interests and values require a new form of shadowing of and identification with Germany. Global Britain is just waffle. Hugging the Americans close is more delusional in the Trump era than before. But Britain will still be a European country after Brexit. Shadowing Germany – not blindly and in every way, but generally and in essential ways (which should include more teaching of German) – is the path of the future. It should therefore be the direction in which the compass of British statecraft is reset in the post-Brexit world.