Brits - why can’t you fly the European flag?


Last week, I attended the fantastic 62nd Königswinter Konferenz, the oldest and most distinguished German-British Forum for debate. Having been to many conferences I think the the best conferences always convey a message. This time the German participants had a clear message to the Brits – which can roughly be described with ‘more Europe now’ – but most British participants, not really knowing what they want, were sure that they didn’t want this one.

Large parts of the conference felt as if the UK-participants were mostly stuck in last years’ arguments, repeatedly stating that EMU was a mistake in the first place, that the Germans got the crisis management wrong and that there is still no ‘right’ bazooka-policy in place. Fixing the EMU - so some Brits with much excitement - would also require a European super-state and Germans would not want this, nor would they want a ‘transfer union’ and thus the whole exercise is doomed to fail. And the UK is happy to be an outsider. That’s of course, a little simplified, but it is not far from the truth.

The Germans, on the opposite, very calm and not enthusiastic about a ‘transfer union’ either, were all deeply convinced that ‘more Europe’ will do the trick – even MPs from the FDP, a party which has not been the frontrunner in the inner-German debate about Europe during the past months. The ‘more Europe’ the Germans tried to explain to the Brits was not a European ‘super-duper state’, a European federation, a fully-fletched trans-national democracy or whatever. It was just that little bit of ‘more Europe’ which is now required to solve the euro-crisis for good and make the fiscal compact work by creating a democratically legitimate system of economic governance that allows Europe to address a limited set of initiatives: banking regulation, the possibility of a harmonized tax basis and the completion of the single market, especially the field of services. In order to promote growth, coordinated structural policies and some sort of fiscal transfer are needed - and Germany will support this in the end.

At the conference in Oxford, the Germans had the strength of someone who is revitalised after going through a deep catharsis. Germany has gone through the Euro-crisis, accepted its responsibility, and spent quite some money to fix it. Now, as some sort of compensation, Germans want to see a better Europe at the horizon. The UK has not undergone the same trajectory. While the Germans have made up their minds, the UK has been more or less an observer during the past two years.

This exactly was the main tangible difference in Oxford. Some Brits said, with regret, that the UK and Germany (and with it Europe) would now really drift apart, simply because Germany ought to do things to keep the Eurozone working that it may have never thought of doing – namely engaging into a more political and fiscal integration. Germany has no choice other than keeping the eurozone together and making it work, in – what the Brits would call – a pretty pragmatic way. Ironically, pursuing precisely what could be called a British approach to Europe - as little as possible, as much as necessary - the Germans might leave the Brits behind.

Some Tory MPs tried to explain how sailing alone in a globalized world could work. Their vision were ‘content-driven’ and ‘ad-hoc’ coalitions: commerce with China, defense with France, energy with Russia. And Great Britain would know how to do it and its flexibility would be an asset. This British vision, however, was not really developed throughout the conference. It was hardly more than a Pavlovian reflex against ‘more Europe’.

However, there was no triumphalism from the German side: no mention of the halfhearted British EU engagement in the last 40 years or the infamous December summit. But the Germans were curious why the UK cannot just do that little bit more when it comes to Europe: engage with citizens about Europe and explain them why it is worth being part of it; sketch out the very arguments why Europe is useful and even beneficial for the UK; join the Schengen agreement and get rid of the opt-out of the Charter of Fundamental Rights – issues that no one can vigorously oppose. And to show a little sign of European solidarity the UK should start flying the European flag in addition to the national flag on all public buildings - as most EU countries do.

The main difference to a Könisgwinter conference a couple of years ago was that this time most Germans were feeling that for once the Brits may have got it wrong - and that there is not much that can be done about it. 

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