As the British Parliament continues deliberating the EU Referendum Bill, it’s worth reflecting on the relationship between the UK and Germany: It could determine the future direction of the whole European Union.
David Cameron made a big speech on the EU at the start of the year and there was much in it that centre-right politicians in Berlin could agree with. His five principles of wanting more competitiveness, flexibility, a rebalancing of powers between nation states and Brussels, democratic accountability and fairness had particular resonance. And what was especially appreciated, and came across in his speech, was his genuine desire to work with like-minded partners to help reshape the European Union into that more competitive and flexible entity.
Germany is one of the leading economies in the EU and the largest net contributor to it. So, centre-right politicians in German have the same strong interest as those in the UK in making Europe less bureaucratic and more competitive. And these politicians share many of the concerns David Cameron highlighted in his January speech.
There is one big difference between the countries. Because of its geography and history, Germany places an emphasis on the political importance of a common Europe, whereas the UK’s focus is on trade and the single market. But despite this the countries share many objectives, and the differences there appear to be between them owe more to language than substance. Conservatives in the UK stress the need for an open discussion with European partners about the balance of power between the EU and individual nation states. German politicians emphasis the principle of subsidiarity (that a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a local level) which is core to the German understanding of how politics should be conducted. Ultimately both arrive at the same conclusion.
There’s a historic opportunity for Britain and Germany to lead the work of improving the structures of the European Union, together with other like-minded countries. There are areas of common ground for discussion on budget discipline, free trade and efficiency in the public sector to name but a few. This needs the engagement of the UK. The balance of competences review shows the country’s on the right path; after the review it can engage and talk about how we create a better EU. Delivering a less bureaucratic, more competitive and more flexible EU will be key to persuading the sceptical British public about the merits of continued membership.
The consensus view in Germany, across the political spectrum, is that the EU is a better place with Britain in it. And that like Germany, Britain derives an economic benefit from its membership of the EU. Perhaps it is time for British and UK-based international companies which share this analysis to be more vocal and co-ordinated in spelling out that message.
Talk from some in the UK of unilaterally repatriating competences from the EU and rushing into a referendum next year might be well meaning, but it’s not credible. It doesn’t give enough time for detailed discussion with European partners. Britain’s best hope for the type of Europe it wants is to continue to engage positively, alongside Germany and others, with a view to putting the case for a reformed EU to the British people in 2017. Berlin and other European capitals also want an improved Europe; there’s a good chance of success.
Alok Sharma is the MP for Reading West and Ralph Brinkhaus is a member of the CDU in the German Bundestag.
Tags: Balance of Competences Review, Berlin, EU, Germany, Reform