Britain and Germany’s relationship is a bit of a rocky one. While Germany has worked tirelessly to move past its militaristic reputation of the early 20th century, some British politicians have always had a nagging suspicion towards Germany’s rise as a continental leader. Former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famously opposed German reunification at the end of the Cold War, viewing the process as a slippery slope that might persuade Germany to go back to its old ways. While Anglo-German relations have moved towards a positive direction during the last 30 years, Brexit has placed many things into question. It’s no secret that some of the more extreme Brexit rhetoric did hark back to the anti-German sentiment which portrayed Berlin as this domineering state that sought to dominate Europe, but this time not through warfare but rather through wider political and economic integration within the EU. Now that Britain has officially left the EU’s institutions, it is time for both nations to rethink their relations and see what can be done moving forward. On February 3, 2020, the prestigious London School of Economics (LSE), hosted a panel discussion that explored the prospect of maintaining Anglo-German relations once Brexit is finalized. The panel consisted of three speakers, Dr. Norbert Röttgen a Christian Democratic Union member of the German Bundestag and Chairman of the German Foreign Affairs Committee, Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones a member of the British House of Lords, and Professor Iain Begg a research fellow at the European Institute and LSE, Professor Tony Travers served as the chair of the panel.
COMING TO TERMS WITH BREXIT
Despite the fact that the result of the referendum has been known for three years, the three speakers, all of whom were anti-Brexit, were still grieving Britain’s exit from the bloc. Dr. Röttgen, in particular, started his talk by stating that he opposed Brexit from the very beginning and he viewed it as contrary to what he considered current geopolitics and the geopolitical revolution that started 5 years ago. He also stated that united foreign policy front that counters the challenges that face continent, particularly the rise of an increasingly repressive Chinese state, and the myriad of Middle Eastern conflicts that might spill over to the Middle East. He would repeat such sentiments again in the middle of the conference, stating that German politicians thought they understood how the British public thought of the EU and they were thus surprised to see how many elements within British society evolved to become increasingly hostile towards the EU. However, he along with the other speakers agreed that it is now time to move on and try to salvage Anglo-German relations.
LOSSES ON BOTH SIDES YEILDING LONG-TERM BENEFITS?
Ever since the referendum, most news outlets reported on the losses that the UK would face once it left the EU, but they seldom talked about what Germany and the EU would lose. Iain Begg stated the fact that Germany is the UK’s second-biggest export market, a fact that made it critical for both sides to find a working economic trade policy. Begg emphasized that fallout in trade negotiations would result in a lose-lose situation for both sides; not only would the UK lose a vital trade partner in Germany, but Berlin could also possibly see one of its largest export markets (London) move towards Washington to fulfill its trading needs.
Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones, one of the most ardent remainer members within the House of Lords, was cautiously optimistic about the benefits Brexit can yield for Britain, however, the country might not start seeing those benefits for another 10 to 15 years. Barriers such as tariffs would hinder Anglo-German relations in the short-term. However, Baroness Neville-Jones also was also confident that the current technological revolution centered on AI was reason to believe that the high-tech industry may penetrate economic barriers such as tariffs and customs. The prospect of these eventual economic gains does not mean that Britain wouldn’t lose out on other aspects, Baroness Neville-Jones said that the UK might not be effective when it comes to policing and counterterrorism since it would lose organic access to institutions like Europol and the European Arrest Warrant.
BORIS JOHNSON’S BALANCING ACT IN NEGOTIATIONS
The coming 11 months will be a make or break moment for current UK-EU relations. In spite of the nationalistic rhetoric used by the Johnson government, the panel was adamant that it would ultimately take a pragmatic approach to negotiations. Dr. Röttgen said that he always urges his compatriots in Germany not to take a bitter view of Britain, and he much prefers if they view the act of Brexit as part of the wider identity crisis happening within Western countries which has given right-wing populism room to grow and spread. Moreover, he believed that both sides had two clear options, they can either choose to mutually inflict harm on each other or try to do yield the best outcome out of the current circumstances. Röttgen believed that the British government will ultimately choose the more pragmatic approach out of necessity.
While all three speakers in the panel were against Brexit, they surprisingly had some words of praise for Boris Johnson. Iain Begg stated that Johnson was able to appease most Brexiters by giving them the big prize of Brexit, this has now given him leg room to ask for a sensible deal from the EU. The speakers further spoke about the importance of language and rhetoric during the coming rounds of negotiations, again something they think Johnson has a clear understanding of. In Röttgen’s view, the rhetoric will create the political reality of either a messy breakup or a divorce built on mutual understanding. Baroness Neville-Jones stated that she did not admire the way the EU handled the first round of negotiations back in 2017 when the EU kept emphasizing the rules and procedures of exiting the bloc. Iain Begg, for his part, thought that Theresa May also started off on the wrong foot during the Lancaster House speech when she spoke of the red lines she wouldn’t be flexible on, in a way both parties made negotiations difficult from the start. Röttgen would go on to say that Johnson seemed to have played a balancing act that worked; at home front he displayed tough rhetoric that appealed to hardline Brexiters, meanwhile on the other side he acted pragmatically with the EU and negotiated a deal in a short time period. He did warn, however, that such an approach may not work again in future negotiations.
A UNITED EU AND A DISUNTITED KINGDOM?
My question for the panel had to do with the possibility of Scottish independence and if greater Scottish-EU relations would further isolate England in the continent. Iain Begg said that the fact that a nationalist party is in power in both England and Scotland was a recipe for major political clashes. In fact, if Westminster continues to deny the SNP another independence referendum, the latter might take the case to the supreme court. He did warn that the fact that the SNP hasn’t been doing a stellar job while in power might hinder its goal of persuading voters to choose independence. Furthermore, economic factors might dissuade voters from voting to leave the UK. For example, the question of what currency to use post-independence would cause a stir, also Scotland’s biggest export market is England, not the EU. These factors make independence economically unsound. Baroness Neville-Jones did refute Begg’s optimism though, as she reminded the audience that the English electorate’s decision to vote in favor of Brexit was based on jingoistic feelings rather than economic reasoning, as such, it is not farfetched that the Scottish electorate could follow suit should they get another independence referendum.