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Germany Should Reengage With a United Kingdom in Flux

Democratic vice-presidential nominee Kamala Harris and Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential nominee Joe Biden greet supporters at an election rally, after news media announced that Biden has won the 2020 U.S. presidential election, in Wilmington, Delaware, U.S., November 7, 2020. Andrew Harnik/Pool via REUTERS

In Western popular culture, seven years is the period after which grown-up relationships most often experience stress and tend to break (think Billy Wilder’s The Seven Year Itch with Marilyn Monroe in one of her famous roles). Will the reverse be true when it comes to the British-German relationship?

The recent 73rd Koenigswinter conference, which has been bringing together politicians, academics, businesspeople, and journalists from both countries since 1950, certainly pointed that way. Seven years after the shock result of the June 2016 Brexit referendum, and with the United Kingdom having gone through five prime ministers and one crisis after another, there is a clear sense of there being a basis for a new start.

Gone are the days of the constant antics of former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who signed the Northern Ireland Protocol to “get Brexit done,” only to lie about its implication and then went on to threaten to break it. Johnson, who also prided himself on his “disruptive” approach to foreign affairs, took Germany’s political class aback by signaling so clearly that for him, politics was basically a game. Chancellor Angela Merkel and her successor, Olaf Scholz, may have smiled when shaking his hand, but there was zero trust.

Promising Steps

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his government have made some promising starts. London has revised Johnson’s childish stance of ignoring the European Union and wanting nothing to do with it, at least in part. Forging a strong personal relationship with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen led to the “Windsor Framework” in February, which makes managing the consequences of Brexit for Northern Ireland easier (politically it belongs to the UK, but it has stayed in the European single market to avoid a “hard” external EU border on the island of Ireland; therefore, goods arriving from Britain require custom checks). In early September, Britain rejoined the EU’s Horizon program, which funds scientific research across Europe, as well as Copernicus, the earth observation part of the EU’s space program.

Also, work is underway, launched in fact during Johnson’s chaotic time at 10 Downing Street, on a British-German interconnector, linking the UK’s and Germany’s electricity grids for the first time, which should help make Europe’s energy market more resilient in times of Russia’s ongoing aggression and the lagging energy transition. There are also promising wind energy projects in the North Sea.

And while Sunak retains a certain standoffishness when it comes to the EU (no interaction on security affairs with Brussels, for instance) and even Germany (the prime minister visited the Munich Security Conference in February, but a visit to see Olaf Scholz in the chancellery is yet to take place), the Labour Party led by the ever-cautious Kier Starmer has started to put out some feelers.

With the next British election likely to take place in early fall 2024 and Labour in the clear lead, the party has started to send strong signals to continental partners that it wants to steer the UK much closer to “Europe,” as far as the current Brexit parameters permit, and possibly even further than that. On September 18-19, Starmer, together with Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy and Shadow Chancellor (Finance Minister) Rachel Reeves, visited Paris, a tête-à-tête with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Élysée being a high point. The exchanges were “warm and engaging,” The Guardian reported.

Fallen Off the Mental Map

But where is Germany? As a consequence of Brexit, bilateral trade has slipped. Until recently one of Germany’s top five trading partners, the UK fell out of the top ten last year. Cultural exchanges are being impaired by cumbersome new rules, as are youth exchanges. What’s more, among Berlin’s political class, Britain has simply fallen off the mental map of countries that matter for Germany.

Last December, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was blown off course by ice and wind when she tried to fly to London to attend the 72nd Koenigswinter conference. This year, she didn’t bother. Government ministers from Scholz’ “traffic light coalition” of his Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) and prominent MPs were mostly noticeable for their absence. The organizers had to contend with the fact that the German Foreign Office saw fit to slash the conference budget.

That is short-sighted, at best. With a Conservative government at least partly shedding its anti-EU attitude and Labour opening its arms, if a little nervously, now is the time for Germany to reengage with what is still Europe’s second-largest economy and a formidable military power (even if stocks are currently depleted due to the UK’s strong and early support for Ukraine).

Building Closer Defense Ties

It is the security field, where a “silent alliance” between Britain and Germany once existed, that currently holds the greatest promise; it needs to become vocal. France has grounded its most important relationships in Europe that have a security component both in the Franco-German Élysée/Aachen Treaties (1963/2019) and in the Franco-British Lancaster House Treaties (2010). Berlin and London developing closer defense ties would complete the triangle, now that, thanks to the oft-cited Zeitenwende, Germany is at last starting the hard work of becoming a more serious miliary force.

It would make for stronger bilateral relations and a stronger Europe–and if played well, it wouldn’t ruffle feathers in Paris, either. The annual bilateral “strategic dialogue” the German and British foreign ministers are holding could be extended to include the defense ministers, for a start. These would complement similar EU-UK meetings once a future British government has overcome what remains of its Brussels phobia. With the EU enlarging by the end of this decade, with sectoral integration one option to bring it about, it would lay the groundwork for a partial British return.

Germany is concentrating on rebuilding its land forces, while the UK is investing more in the navy and air force (with some going as far as to say that the British Army, which is to shrink to fewer than 75,000 soldiers, is on course toward long-term extinction). Thus, the forces could complement each other. With Vladimir Putin’s Russia a permanent threat, a shared strategic outlook would help to plan ahead—and also coordinate military assistance to Ukraine even more closely, especially if the United States would reduce its support should a Republican win the White House come 2024.

This requires greater effort than is currently on display on the German side. Berlin should be reaching out now while things are promisingly in flux in London. One can read The Seven Year Itch as a story of people who, after engaging in fantasies, are coming back to their senses. Seven lost years are enough.