Advancing Europe: Forging a New British-German Relationship
2021 marks the end of both the Brexit process and the Merkel era, as well as the likelihood of the Greens entering the German government. How will these changes impact bilateral relations with London?
The years following the Brexit vote in 2016 have been difficult when it comes to relations between the United Kingdom and Germany—with the latter, more than other countries in the European Union, only slowly coming to terms with the British decision. With the end of the Brexit transition period, there is now more appetite to work on the bilateral relationship.
The government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson continues to reject an institutionalized foreign, security, and defense arrangement with the EU. German officials now understand that the only path to a good relationship with London is to accept for now having a foreign-policy relationship with a European neighbor that does not go through the EU. This is counterintuitive to most in Berlin, where agreeing on an EU-UK arrangement remains a key objective. Nevertheless, the British-German Joint Declaration on Foreign Policy Cooperation, which was signed on June 30, provided a summary of all their shared positions—including on a rules-based international order, the Western Balkans, and China—and commits their Foreign Ministries to an annual bilateral strategic dialogue.
As seen from London, there is not a lot on the joint agenda today that is currently being stopped by the lack of an EU-UK agreement or that is being pushed back by Berlin on similar grounds. Instead, the reason why the UK-Germany relationship is not as developed as, say, their mutual partnerships with France, has more to do with the respective characteristics of German and British strategies, and the fact that the two Allies are rather different—something that predates Brexit.
On the Same Page?
Officials on both sides insist that London and Berlin are aligned on many dossiers, working together on issues ranging from the Iran nuclear deal to the Eastern Mediterranean and Russia, and constituting true “like-minded” partners. The two countries are also devoted Atlanticists, though in different ways. Germany is singled out as an “essential ally” and a partner of choice in the UK’s recently published “Integrated Review.” The strategy document outlines a vision for a Global Britain that is very much in line with Germany’s priorities: tackling climate change, transatlantic relations, the need to strengthen multilateralism, etc., even though it barely mentions the EU. However, this great overlap in interests should not obstruct the fact that the two countries also have divergences that go beyond their differing European trajectories.
The first type of divergence is a matter of strategic culture and global outlook. The UK is a nuclear state with full-spectrum capabilities, expeditionary forces, a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, and a global presence and ambition. In that way, it is closer to France. Germany, on the other hand, has extensive economic and diplomatic resources but is not longing for a leading diplomatic or military role, and frames its identity and external engagements mostly through the EU (but also NATO and the UN) for both political and constitutional reasons.
Finding new suitable formats for cooperation will be particularly crucial for the UK-Germany partnership going forward, as German officials tend to favor multilateral institutionalized frameworks (such as the EU) over loose intergovernmental ones (such as the E3 with the UK and France, where they fear other Europeans could come knocking at the door or accuse it of bypassing the EU). On the defense side, the two countries signed a Joint Vision statement in 2018 to enhance their cooperation on issues ranging from capability development to tackling violent extremism. But, overall, the so-called “quiet alliance” remains a lower-profile defense partnership despite some recent changes such as Germany sending its Bayern frigate to sail through the Indo-Pacific for the first time in almost 20 years—a significant development for Berlin, which has been noticed in London.
The second type of divergence is a “big picture” one that relates to each country’s interests and priorities, as they have been taking different approaches to big geopolitical issues. On Russia, the ongoing support of the German government for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, despite tensions and recriminations from different US administrations, points to the fact that Berlin and London are on slightly different pages. The two countries’ approach to “the China challenge” also differ, with the Johnson government growing closer to the US tough line as the German government under Chancellor Angela Merkel is still trying to compartmentalize its economic cooperation with China and the US security guarantee. This was particularly visible in recent months as the German government rushed the EU into reaching an agreement on the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) between the EU and China, while London offered a route to citizenship to Hong Kongers in response to China’s new security law.
A Green Rejig of German Foreign Policy?
As the UK’s strategic direction is now clearer, it is Germany’s turn to look inwards. With federal elections in September, the end of the Merkel era is regarded by many as a moment of strategic renewal for Germany, with raised expectations for foreign and defense policy. The Greens, currently polling high, are likely to find their way into one of a number of possible coalitions. The most likely combination is the one bringing together the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and the Greens for the first time. This has prompted many in London to start to think through exactly how the Greens’ foreign policy positions might align with UK interests.
The Greens’ pick to be Germany’s next chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, has recently placed a strong emphasis on diplomatic and security issues. She has argued that Germany needs a strong and active foreign policy and that Germans and Europeans should take more responsibility for their own security—a position welcomed by the UK. Particularly as this is underpinned by a strong transatlantic agenda to which London subscribes. The Green foreign policy platform is also overall in sync with the core priorities of the Biden administration, which is itself close to those of Boris Johnson’s government as outlined in the “Integrated Review”: climate policy at the center, support for human rights and democratic values, and a tougher stance toward Moscow and Beijing (e.g., withdrawing political support for Nord Stream 2 and a stronger stance against China’s human rights abuses, including on Hong Kong or products from forced labor in Xinjiang—in line with recent British government measures).
However, potential areas where there could be issues for London would be around defense spending, possible tighter restrictions on arms exports, and nuclear deterrence, as the Greens do not want to commit to the NATO 2 percent of GDP burden-sharing target and could condemn the recent British decision to increase the cap on the UK’s nuclear stockpile.
The main bone of contention from a UK perspective will remain the European dimension of German policy. Baerbock has called for clear and united EU positions on key foreign policy issues, including more cooperation on security issues, and the party’s vision is based on an integrated and united Europe. A stronger focus on the EU as a prime vehicle for foreign and security policy could prove challenging for a post-Brexit UK, which has ruled out working with EU institutions in a structured way. So too would a Green preference and push for cooperating with EU partners. But, even in the case of German best efforts, an efficient EU foreign and security policy is still not a foregone conclusion—passing Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) to speed up decision-making at the EU level will not be an easy feat and will require some time. No one seriously expects the EU to become a fully-fledged actor that would render cooperation with the UK and through NATO obsolete any time soon. Moreover, it remains to be seen to what extent the Greens’ integrationist push would in practice constitute a real change from current German policy on issues of EU foreign and security policy.
Although the Greens are likely to be part of the new coalition, the election outcome is far from certain. The big foreign policy decisions will require a consensus in the new coalition, with trade-offs in the negotiations ahead of its formation, and it is still unclear whether the Greens would get the Chancellery and fight for the Foreign Ministry while also pursuing a big environmental and economic portfolio.
New Formats of Cooperation
In the likely case of a coalition with the CDU/CSU, the Greens’ impetus would be tempered by the CDU leader Armin Laschet’s reflex for continuity when it comes to most of Merkel’s policies, particularly on China and Russia. Although he has proposed the creation of a National Security Council to position Germany more strategically, his foreign and defense policy would be in line with those of recent years: commitment to NATO and to reaching the 2-percent goal, onus on multilateralism, and commitment to thinking foreign policy in European terms. Laschet’s declared support for the UK as an indispensable defense partner is seen positively from London—or, more specifically, as “more of the same.”
2021 marks an obvious new chapter in UK-Germany relations, post-Brexit and post-Merkel. Overall, a more active German foreign and defense policy in the post-Merkel era would be welcome from the UK’s perspective.
As seen from London, a CDU/CSU-Green coalition would bring both positives and negatives. Areas of UK-Germany alignment and divergence could change slightly, but no drastic overnight change is expected. There could be some rhetoric and change on the 2 percent question, nuclear issues, and favoring EU approaches—which would not go in the UK’s direction—but no U-turn is expected on either NATO or the military. Despite opposing European trajectories and differing strategic cultures, the two countries will need to keep strengthening their bilateral relationship and find new formats of cooperation beyond the EU —which will be a topic of negotiation between London and the new coalition in Berlin. As the two countries have a great overlap in interests, the UK would also welcome a stronger German stance inside the EU, for instance to ensure that the EU’s development policy in Africa is not focused overwhelmingly on the Sahel but also on areas of German and British interest.
A tougher stance on human rights, climate, China, and Russia—and a generally more proactive values-based German foreign policy—would be seen as a positive development. Importantly, seen from London, a Green-led change of tone in Germany’s China and Russia policy would also impact other EU countries and most likely the EU position itself. This could bring Germany’s foreign policy—and the EU’s—in a direction closer to that of the UK, possibly bridging some of the “big picture” divergences between Berlin and London.
Alice Billon-Galland is a research fellow at the Europe program of Chatham House in London.