Holger Hestermeyer / Dec 2021
Olof Scholz, the new Chancellor of Germany. Photo: Shutterstock
On December 8, Olaf Scholz became Germany’s 9th post-war chancellor. It is the end of an era: After 16 years in office, just a dozen or so days short of Helmut Kohl’s record-setting term, Angela Merkel stepped down from the chancellorship. And it is not just the chancellorship that changes hands. The “grand coalition” of the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats is replaced by a three-party “traffic-light” coalition consisting of Scholz’ SPD, the Green Party and the Liberal Party.
Those looking for clues to what the change implies for UK-German relations will find but a short paragraph addressing the topic in the new coalition agreement. It reads: “The UK is one of Germany’s closest partners outside the EU. A continuing close partnership between the UK and the EU will enable realizing an ambitious agenda. We would like to cooperate as well in foreign affairs and security policy.” The statement sends two messages, each of which deserves to be treated at length: Firstly, Germany desires an ambitious, close and broad partnership with the UK. However, secondly, the partnership can only realize its potential if UK-EU relations are rebuilt.
The hope for excellent bilateral relations between the UK and the Germany is a welcome, but unsurprising message of continuity given that Scholz himself served as finance minister in Merkel’s government. On her last visit as German chancellor to London in July 2021, Angela Merkel extolled the value of good UK-German relations. She did so for good reason: Brexit looms large in the UK’s relations with its EU partners. Hundreds of summits and Council meetings between UK ministers and their 27 member state colleagues during the course of a year have fallen away, so have thousands of contacts on all levels of government that take place within the context of the EU. Along with them, thousands of opportunities for coordination, exchange of opinions and simple information exchange with partners from 27 countries have disappeared. Attempts to compensate by hiring additional embassy staff in UK embassies are limited in what they can achieve and might be at risk in an announced staff cut at the FCDO. The recent escalation of what could and should have been a technical dispute about licenses for French fishing boats illustrates the risk that the decreased levels of communication and exchange and the changed settings for such debates creates.
Both the UK and the German governments have, to some extent, recognized the risk of dramatically worsening bilateral ties and have taken some action to alleviate the situation. On 30 June 2021 the Foreign Ministers of the two countries signed a joint declaration confirming their commitments to the multilateral rules-based system and announcing an annual strategic dialogue between the two foreign ministers along with regular consultations between permanent and state secretaries, political directors, regional directors, policy planning units, legal advisors, UN directors and permanent representatives.
In July, at a joint press conference with Boris Johnson, Merkel announced that the UK and Germany would hold regular bilateral governmental consultations, a practice Germany maintains with several countries and which – in the words of Merkel – leads to more cooperation across all areas. At Prime Minister Johnson’s request, Merkel was also willing to start work on formalizing the bilateral relationship in a friendship and cooperation treaty, an initiative first proposed by the (then) chairs of the UK and German parliamentary foreign affairs committees Tom Tugendhat and Norbert Röttgen in 2020. Given the message of continuity of the new government it seems likely that the work on ensuring close bilateral relations will continue. In that regard it will likely prove helpful that the leadership of the German Foreign Office knows the UK well: Not only will the outspoken current German ambassador to the UK, the Oxford-trained Andreas Michaelis, move back to Berlin to serve as State Secretary. The new German Foreign Minister, Analena Baerbock, herself has also studied in the UK, earning an LL.M. at LSE.
But there is a caveat in the coalition agreement that is essential: UK-German relations can only realize their full potential within a close UK-EU relationship. This caveat meets a hole in current UK Foreign Policy. The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy emphasizes bilateral cooperation with selected EU member states, including Germany. The Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has upped her game on bilateral relationships as well. Relations with the EU, in contrast, have fallen by the wayside. Most of the time the EU does make an appearance in official UK documents it is with regard to leaving the Union and to tout alleged benefits of leaving the EU. The statement in the coalition agreement is an urgent reminder that this approach towards the EU is not sustainable. There are reasons why Germany and other member states regard good UK-EU relations as a precondition for excellent bilateral relations: These countries have voluntarily chosen to be and to remain EU member states. They have assigned competences to the EU. In those fields the natural cooperation partner for the UK is the EU – not the member states. But ignoring the EU not only implies excluding important aspects from cooperative relationships. It also snubs the sovereign choice of the remaining member states, who regard the EU as an important aspect of their policy. The coalition agreement states that Germany regards a “European Union with a strengthened democracy, an improved ability to act and strategic sovereignty as the basis for [its] peace, wealth and freedom.” The strong focus of UK-EU relations on presenting perceived benefits of Brexit puts the relations with EU member states at risk – and it does so for no perceivable reason, as the UK has left the EU and Brexit cannot be reversed in the foreseeable future.
The benefits of improving UK-EU relations are significant: not only would they improve bilateral relations with member states. They would also tackle one of the gaps of the strategy for a “Global Britain”. The UK wants to take a leadership role, it wants to be at the forefront of global standard-setting, of tackling global crises. The way towards this goal can only be by convincing and cooperating with others. If the UK gives up on convincing and cooperating with the EU, its chances of convincing the world are diminished. The institutional road towards improved relations has already been paved: the TCA has created an institutional framework that would – if used properly and diligently – allow for improved cooperation across the board. There is no reason why a confident UK, secure in the knowledge of its significance as an economic, political and military powerhouse, should not take this road. As a UK academic I would hope that such improvement would also imply reestablishing student exchanges and opportunities for Europeans to study in the UK. As secretary of state Michaelis, Foreign Secretary Baerbock and Commission President von der Leyen – all Germans who have studied in the UK – illustrate, UK universities have been an invaluable multiplier of UK soft power. Here, too, we only stand to gain from improved relations.