On Wednesday 25 October the Institute for Policy Research welcomed former Ambassador to Germany Sir Paul Lever – also Vice President of the Royal United Services Institute – to deliver an address on the history and future of Germany. The event, titled Berlin Rules: Europe and the German Way after Sir Paul’s new book on the subject, took place at the University of Bath’s London offices on Pall Mall.
After a short introduction from IPR Director Professor Nick Pearce, in which he reflected both on Sir Paul’s long and varied career in diplomatic relations and the importance of Germany to the future of the EU and Europe as a whole, the former Ambassador took the stage. He promised a talk examining four key themes for German international relations: the recent elections, the role of the state in Europe, thirdly where the EU is headed under German leadership and finally the role Germany will play in Brexit.
On the subject of the election, Sir Paul began by remarking that it had been interesting to watch an election where focus was not placed on who would win, but who would come third. In practice, of course, this spot was taken by the right-wing party Alternative for Germany, with both major parties (the Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Union) losing vote share, but nonetheless occupying the top two spots. The comparison with other elections in major European countries was salient, Sir Paul suggested: whereas in France the major parties had been destroyed in the election and replaced by a newer, smaller party, in Britain the opposite had occurred, with the two major parties strengthening their share at the expense of smaller parties. The former ambassador predicted that Germany’s case, where a defeat for the major parties had nonetheless resulted in their being the only actors capable of forming a government, would result in the establishment of a ‘Jamaica coalition’ by 2018.
On Germany in Europe and the EU, Sir Paul characterised the federal republic as a reluctant leader. While in formal terms Germany is a member state of the EU like other member states, he said, the European Commission in practice would not make a proposal that Germany would be likely to oppose, other member states would seek to know Germany’s position on key issues before deciding their own, and the European Parliament would follow suit. The root cause for this is found, Sir Paul opined, in a strong economy, healthy public finance and bold political leadership.
But Germany is not comfortable with leading the way, the former Ambassador said; “Germany did not set out to be a leader, others have chosen to follow it”. Germany has become, in some sense, a nation without a history, Sir Paul said. In confronting the darker elements of its past, it has abandoned nationalist sentiment, and consequently become insensitive to expressions of nationalism from other states. This lost nationalism has been replaced with a desire for political union in Europe that is often expressed by German politicians in ambiguous and unconvincing terms. “Europe is Germany’s state religion”, Sir Paul explained. “People aren’t expected to believe in it, but they must respect it”. This ambivalence is also reflected in the disparity that the former Ambassador noted between Germany’s rhetoric and its actions; although the state advocated a closer union on paper, certain strategic diplomatic choices over recent years advertise its simultaneous desire to retain its status as a national actor.
Finally, Sir Paul made a number of long-range predictions for the future of the EU – remarking that if the Union’s politicians had looked to the future in a similar way, they might have avoided the appearance of ‘directionless travel’ that motivated the Brexit vote in some part. He predicted that the UK would leave the EU, but in practice no other states would follow suit, and that other small countries would join over coming decades – though Turkey would remain on the outside. Importantly, the Euro would retain its strength – a key priority for Germany – and the EU will gain no significant new powers. Its budget would still be capped, he augured, and dominated by agriculture. On the relationship between Germany and the UK after Brexit, he sees a difficult future; the two countries will never be as close as they were, he said, though with time and effort they might progress beyond their current adversarial relationship to something more amicable.
The session closed with questions from the floor.