‘The EU is Germany writ large’

Sir Paul Lever, the former UK ambassador to Germany, on Europe after Brexit.

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As Britain prepares for Brexit, what will happen to the EU that we leave behind? To understand the EU and its direction of travel, you have to understand Germany – the bloc’s richest, most populous and most powerful nation. Sir Paul Lever has worked in the Foreign Office and the European Commission, he was the British ambassador to Germany between 1997 and 2003, and is author of Berlin Rules: Europe and the German Way. spiked caught up with him for a chat.

spiked: How will Brexit affect the balance of power in the EU?

Paul Lever: I’d hesitate to say the EU won’t change at all when Britain leaves because the UK is a major state. But it won’t change fundamentally. The two things that currently matter in the EU, and the things that most matter to Germany, are the Euro and immigration. Since we’re not in the Euro and we had opted out of Schengen, Britain’s voice hasn’t been relevant for years on the two most important issues.

I think the Germans will feel that on international trade issues, they will miss having a fellow voice around the table. On budgetary matters, they will also miss having another member state that didn’t believe in spending too much money. But Brexit won’t have an existential effect on the EU.

spiked: Will France come to play a larger role in shaping the EU?

Lever: I think the French will probably feel that Brexit will enhance their authority within the EU because a British voice representing what they call Anglo-Saxon liberalism will no longer be there. They will probably feel in foreign policy and international affairs, where they do to some extent already play a leading role in Europe, that they will not be challenged by the United Kingdom anymore.

In the summer of 2017, President Macron made some proposals for the Eurozone: a big European financial fund with hundreds of billions of euros, a Eurozone parliament. But the German response was ‘No, thank you’. Although the German government always sounds polite in response to any French initiative, there is rarely any enthusiasm to take them up.

Certainly, the problems the French have had at home with the gilets jaunes have rather taken the shine off Macron. People admire him to some extent because he’s young, he upset the French political system, and he talks a good talk. But he doesn’t have many powerful supporters in other member states – there isn’t a group of countries that are Macron enthusiasts. He is even having difficulties fitting his party into a wider grouping for the European elections. So I’m a bit doubtful his interventions will have any impact.

In terms of Macron’s latest ideas, the Germans certainly believe in having majority voting on taxation issues because they don’t want Ireland and the Netherlands to have such low rates of corporation tax. But anything that involves a bigger EU budget, a Eurozone budget or giving German taxpayers responsibility for the creditworthiness of other countries, the answer from Germany is no.

There is a big difference between what German politicians say about the EU and what they actually do inside it. They say they want more integration, political union, a European army, more this, more that. But if you look at how the Germans have behaved over the years, they push for policies that suit Germany and are opposed to policies that hurt the German taxpayer. There’s nothing wrong with that – most countries pursue their own national interest, but Germany never admits that this is what it is up to. Its politicians like to convey that if it were up to them, there would be a glorious future of common European policies. But if commentators focused a little more on what the German government and German politicians actually did rather than what they say, they would understand Germany and the EU a lot better.

spiked: How German is the EU?

Lever: If you look at the actual structures of the EU, there’s the Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Ministers and the European Court. That is exactly the same way that Germany is governed. The Bundesregierung, or federal government, is like the Commission, the Bundestag, or German parliament, is like the European Parliament, and the Bundesrat, the council of the German Länder (the federal states), is like the Council of Ministers, and both the EU and Germany have very powerful constitutional courts, too. So for a German politician moving into the EU, it’s a very familiar world, which is precisely why the Germans find it so easy to operate in Europe.

You can also look at the underlying policies of the EU. I worked in the Commission myself in the 1980s. The importance of competition policy, the importance of a liberal trade regime, the importance of budgetary discipline – all this is in the DNA of Germany.

In the past, the Brits used to complain that the EU or EEC was all run by the French – and certainly French was the working language – but actually it’s run on a German paradigm. The EU is Germany writ large. And this is how it has been from the beginning. It is not some recent German plot to subvert the EU – it is how it was set up.

spiked: Were other member states happy to go along with this?

Lever: I think on the whole they were. There hasn’t really been any challenge from member states to the EU structures. Even as, over the years, the European Parliament increased its power, most national governments were happy with that; even the British government didn’t object.

If you look back, the decision in the late 1970s, early 1980s, to turn the old European Parliament, which was an assembly of national parliamentarians, into one which was directly elected by the people, that was a decision with fundamental political and constitutional implications, but they were never discussed at the time. Everybody assumed that a directly elected chamber would make it democratic, but for democracy to work there has to be a demos – an electorate, a group of people who feel sufficient commonality with each other to accept majority decisions. But there has never been a ‘European people’. Regardless of this, it has sought to extend its own power ever since.

spiked: Is the Euro also run on German lines?

Lever: When the Euro was originally set up, the rules were ones which the old Bundesbank (the German central bank) insisted on: it wasn’t going to be a transfer union, there was going to be a big budget, and there would be strict obligations on debt and deficits. In the first few years, those rules weren’t always adhered to.

In recent times, during the Greek crisis, for instance, the Germans started to insist on a strict application of these rules. In fairness, every country did sign up to them. And the Germans weren’t reneging on any obligations when they first refused to bail out Greece, for instance. They had never implied that they would accept responsibility for the debts of other member states – it would have been political suicide in Germany to promise this. That came as a bit of a shock to the poor Greeks. You can accuse the Germans of having a short-sighted policy, but you can’t accuse them of going back on their word. When the euro was originally introduced, a lot of people assumed the membership would be narrower. I don’t think anyone thought that Italy, Spain, Portugal or even Ireland would become members on day one.

Of course, Germany has been a huge beneficiary from the euro. A study was published recently by the Centre for European Policy Studies in Germany, which estimated that Germany had earned €1.9 trillion from adopting the euro in its first 20 years. But it had cost France €3.6 trillion and Italy €4.3 trillion. German politicians don’t like to admit this.

spiked: Populist parties are on the rise across Europe. How has this affected Germany?

Lever: I’m personally a little nervous about this term populism. Does it mean anything more than people are voting for a party which is not one of the traditional parties in that particular country? On that basis, you could say UKIP or Italy’s Five Star Movement and The League are populist. In Germany, the word populism is used in a very pejorative sense, as if there is something inherently unworthy about a party that appeals to public opinion in a new way. I don’t buy that, at all.

In Germany, the party that’s everyone calls populist is Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). It started off as anti-EU and anti-Euro. It has now moved to be more anti-immigration and anti-Islam. It has certainly worried the ruling centre-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). AfD is polling between 14 and 16 per cent. It looks as if it will be a permanent fixture on the German political landscape. The dilemma for the CDU is: do they themselves shift to the right, hoping that AfD will eventually disappear, or do they still try to control the centre ground, as they have done successfully under Angela Merkel? At the moment, they’ve shifted a tiny bit to the right on immigration, but not in any serious way.

The big problem in German politics now is that you have one party the right end of the spectrum, AfD, and the Left Party, Die Linke, which is an offshoot of the old East German Communist Party. So far, these parties have been considered beyond the pale and none of the established parties have been willing to go into coalition with them. And it’s quite difficult to conduct politics if you’ve got two parties in parliament that nobody wants to go into power with. The risk is that you get condemned to being ruled by a grand coalition, which is a big problem for democracy. Undoubtedly, AfD is tapping into a genuine well of public opinion on immigration, on Islam and to some extent on the EU. Call it populist if you like, but this isn’t 1933. This is not Hitler.

Sir Paul Lever was talking to Fraser Myers.

Picture by: NATO.

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