The UK elections have not solved the British question for Europe, and thus the German headache will remain.
Against the background of Germany’s proportional representation, British elections look as peculiar as some other facets of life in the United Kingdom. For the German observer, it seems odd that the Conservative Party could win just a bit more than a third of the vote and still receive an absolute majority in Parliament; it’s puzzling to see UKIP with one seat in Westminster but around 13 percent of the vote, while the Scottish National Party takes 56 seats with a proportional share under the 5 percent threshold for representation in the German Bundestag.
The competitive nature of British electoral law is hardly appreciated in German politics.
For Germany, proportional representation seemed to be the logical bridge between two different structural components of society: the major social and religious cleavages of the late 19th century and the much older regional differences and identities, both of which still shape the party system to some degree. The competitive nature of British electoral law thus is hardly appreciated in German politics, and there is little feel for its implications for parliamentary politics in Westminster.
Such musings aside, the German view of the outcome could not be more sober. Berlin would have had to deal anyway with whatever British government the people chose. Against the possibility of a weak Tory government possibly in need of support from a much-strengthened populist UKIP, the current outcome is clearly preferred. Likewise, a weak Labour government reliant on the support of SNP and its spending agenda while an anti-EU-furore could take over the opposition, would have been worse in the eyes of German policy-makers. In this light, David Cameron’s second term doesn’t look quite so bad, and certainly did not shock observers to the degree it did in London.
For Germany’s interests and policy preferences in the EU, the outlook still remains unclear. On the one hand, Cameron will give Britain an in/out referendum, likely before the German elections – it will be unwelcome in Berlin, just as everything is unwelcome which could irritate the German public in the run-up to the elections. On the other hand, hardly anyone in Berlin has a clear view of what changes the British government is hoping to achieve. The UK government’s thorough review of EU competencies and policies, which has received quite some attention in Berlin, does not help in reading Cameron’s mind because it contradicts most of his characterisations of European integration and what’s wrong with it.
Berlin actors fail to see for now what the British Prime Minister could present to his public to argue his stated preference for Britain to remain in the EU.
Angela Merkel’s government will need to steer clear of two shoals: Germany does not want to see Britain leaving the EU and would not want to contribute to it; and, Germany does not want to dilute the EU acquis further. Merkel could be prepared to accept more derogations or possibly suspension of specific provisions, if and when agreed in good spirit by the European Council. It seems rather unlikely that she would be prepared to take on even a very limited set of changes into a treaty revision – should there be need for a limited treaty revision, this would probably be limited to strengthening Eurozone governance only. From this perspective, Berlin actors fail to see for now what the British Prime Minister could present to his public to argue his stated preference for Britain to remain in the EU. In the German view, Cameron’s re-election does not make his position on a referendum more convincing. Because it might spill over into policy debates elsewhere in Northern Europe (Denmark looks like a first candidate) and in this way deepen the north-south cleavages, the referendum just adds to the possible damage European politics could do ahead of the German elections.
What is more, many in Berlin have doubts about the coherence of the European policy that is likely to emerge from Cameron’s second cabinet. The euro-sceptic ranks of the Tory faction have grown in number and many backbenchers may feel that their critical view of Britain’s membership in the EU contributed significantly to their success and helped to keep UKIP down. This is not a scenario that would allow for the more pro-active approach to the EU that Charles Grant has been recommending. Cameron will be under continuous pressure to deliver to these Euro-sceptic expectations.
Nobody in the halls of German government expects Britain to seriously opt in.
Under such auspices, as Germany sees it, an activist policy is likely to entail more British demands and fewer contributions, more capitals and less Brussels. In spite of her liking for intergovernmental management of the EU, the German Chancellor is not keen to fly the devolution flag over Brussels. Nobody in the halls of German government expects Britain to seriously opt in. True, London has moved closer on parts of the acquis in Justice and Home Affairs, regarding internal security. Seen from Berlin, however, this amounts to nothing more than opting out somewhat less than before. Britain could put its weight behind closing the gap on the single market, for example on digital commerce and services. How such a policy could be effective when the same government would raise demands about rolling back other parts of single market governance, remains Cameron’s secret. Also, few in Berlin put hope in a pro-active British approach to the EU’s foreign and security policy. If it comes, it would likely not aim at strengthening the High Representative and her service, the EEAS; British defence leadership would likely be confined to lecturing everyone but the French on how to spend more; finally, a more active British line on Russia might deepen Merkel’s problems, a more active British line on refugee flows in the Mediterranean might deepen the divisions among Schengen countries.
In sum, the UK elections have not solved the British question for Europe, and thus the German headache will remain. Irrespective of its own federalist disillusionment, German policy makers want to keep the unidirectional trajectory of the EU alive: integration may stagnate at times, but should never be rolled back. Britain leaving the EU, or Greece exiting the Euro would destroy that premise. Both have to be avoided; neither, however, will be decided by Berlin.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.