The German threat to the UK is indifference

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Boris Johnson’s government is confused. Six months after severing his ties with the EU, he is struggling to understand why he no longer enjoys privileged treatment. The Prime Minister signed a Brexit deal with Brussels. To his apparent surprise, the European Commission expects him to honor him.

Lord David Frost, the minister who heads relations with the EU, wears socks emblazoned with the British national flag when he meets his European counterparts. Maybe he imagines he’s making a point. He keeps declaring that he sits at the Brussels table as the spokesperson for an “equal sovereign”. Strange really. The EU is an international institution rather than a sovereign state.

Frost is unhappy that Britain is being treated as a “third country”. The government, he told MPs, has only recently “internalized” the change in dynamics. Reaching agreement on the implementation of complex trade arrangements for Northern Ireland had been more difficult than expected. He thinks that Brussels should offer a special place to the “big” neighbors.

One would have hoped that at least Brexit would end the collision of neuroses that have too often fueled Britain’s relations with its neighbors. Instead, Frost’s protests and the dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol suggest that nothing has changed. The dominant emotions in the UK still oscillate between bombastic exceptionalism and needy victimization.

Johnson’s fantasy of a “world Britain” beating the world over mere “European” powers collides with fears that the French, Germans and others will conspire against Britannia forever. The worst thing is the suspicion that they might go ahead. Confusion of emotions is at its height in relations with Germany. Britain, Brexiters often tell themselves, has won the war. The German economy has stolen the peace.

In her Bruges speech in 1988, Margaret Thatcher presented a vision of a Europe of free democracies stretching from the Atlantic to the Urals. When the Berlin Wall collapsed a year later, she assured Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev that Britain would do nothing to speed up the dismantling of the Warsaw Pact.

Everything, it seemed, was better than a reunited Germany. Decades later, Thatcher’s Germanophobia remains a powerful element in the thinking of his party’s Brexiters. During the 2016 referendum campaign, Johnson did not hesitate to compare the EU’s alleged ambitions for a “superstate” to Hitler’s attempt to secure European dominance.

This week, England’s footballers are celebrating their victory over Germany in the Euro 2020 tournament. It is hoped that the victory will exorcise some of the anti-German demons the tabloids in the past cited when the two teams met – not least because, Britain badly needs Germany as a friend after Brexit.

When he thinks about it, Johnson understands that. While he was foreign minister, he once asked his officials whether Angela Merkel had been involved in the Stasi secret police in East Germany. This week, he will try to charm the German Chancellor during her visit to her country house in Checkers.

Allowing ideology to rule national interests, the Johnson government has opposed meaningful collaboration with EU institutions. What remains, if the UK is to retain any voice in what is happening on its own continent, is stronger bilateral relations with its European peers.

Johnson’s pitch is for a new “special relationship” between London and Berlin. He should expect a short time from his guest. Merkel, her officials say, thinks him both insecure and untrustworthy. Of course, she will say, the two nations have common interests and, in many ways, common perspectives. Their foreign ministries have just signed a joint declaration to work together on foreign and security policy. But for Merkel, there are conditions attached to such cooperation.

Clearly, the UK needs to keep its word and stop trying to reverse the Northern Ireland protocol. And if the Johnson government is to deepen bilateral relations, it must be prepared to work with EU institutions. To put it bluntly, Berlin has neither the time nor the inclination to agree on a set of arrangements with its European partners and then start new negotiations with the UK.

This is something else Johnson and his ministers must “internalize”. Britain remains obsessed with the EU even after she leaves. Its former partners have more urgent things in mind than their relationship with a “third country”. Brexiters talk about a German threat. Well, there is. It bears the name of indifference.

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