Why Britain Can Never Accept German Leadership
When I made that assertion in my in my blog of last week from the No Snow Meeting in Lithuania, with its heavy Churchillian overtones, some of you rightly gave me flak (excuse the pun) over that statement because in isolation it came across as German-bashing. So let me expand on my analysis but put it in a more positive context and explain why a new political partnership between Britain and Germany is vital for both Germany and Europe. Indeed, with another Eurozone kerfuffle about to happen it is important that Berlin accepts and understands that any attempt to shackle Britain will fail.
There are three essential factors: economic, political and military.
Economic: Britain is too powerful and too different an economic actor to accept sole German charge of Europe’s economic future. A range of respected economic commentators, including Goldman Sachs and the Paris School of Economics, suggest that by 2025 the British economy will be significantly bigger than that of France and not much smaller than that of Germany.
Political: Germany, ever haunted by its Nazi past, will rightly seek to exercise leadership via the European Union. In such circumstances the European Commission would become a kind of civil service with the European Council reduced to a weak version of the US Senate or British House of Lords. So many countries will be indebted to Berlin that German leadership will reach into the national political and economic life of other European countries far more extensively than, say, the Americans during the Cold War. Indeed, the EU’s writ runs far wider than NATO’s. There must be a loyal opposition to Germany and that can only be Britain.
Military: As Germany becomes more powerful it will become less military – history again. The security and defense of Europe could well be put at risk. This is not least because the US is signaling the beginning of a partial withdrawal from Europe. Thus, the defense of Europe is dangerously weak even as dangerous change takes place around Europe’s borders. As they look beyond Afghanistan both the US and UK will shift away from a continental strategy focused on Europe towards a maritime strategy that goes beyond Europe. The British for a whole host of military-strategic, intelligence and cultural reasons will follow the Americans whatever happens in Europe. At least this will also mean that at least one European country retaining a commitment to big defense, whatever the short-term cuts to the British defense budget.
Germany will champion a new continental strategy, probably in the guise of a new European strategic culture that will be military-lite in the extreme. The fact and nature of German power will thus cede the defense leadership of Europe to the British. And, indeed the French, if London and Paris can learn to stop scoring ridiculously cheap political points off each other. Germany will thus need Britain to lead the serious defense of Europe.
Therefore, Germany needs London to have the political vision and ambition to forge a political partnership with Berlin that would itself legitimize German leadership across much of Europe. That is indeed the private message I am getting from all my trips of late across Europe and why the prospect of Britain disengaging from the EU causes so much concern. Thankfully, there is quite a lot happening behind the scenes that may lead to such a political accommodation.
If not, a decisive shift in the European political balance of power towards Berlin would inevitably push Britain towards the EU exit. Indeed, by accepting German leadership Britain would be tacitly accepting a European Imperium. Britain would over time be reduced to super-Belgium; forced to render unto Caesar what Caesar wanted, not what Caesar deserved nor indeed needed. By Britain standing firm Germany is and must be forced to deal with London as a Great Power, not another European satellite, however irritating that may appear to some in Berlin.
However, to realize such a political partnership London must re-discover grand strategy. In effect, Britain must become to Germany what France has been for many years to the US: difficult but necessary. Whitehall’s acquiescence to Washington might have bought Britain important access to key American defense assets, but it has too often come at the price of strategic subservience and an appallingly risk-averse, strategic political culture. That must end.
Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French's Blog Blast.