As the results of the UK elections were still coming in and an outright majority of David Cameron’s Conservatives became more and more likely, Open Europe Berlin and the British Chamber of Commerce in Germany held a high-level breakfast debate:
On our panel:
- Denis MacShane, former Labour UK Europe Minister
- Klaus-Peter Willsch MP, CDU, Member of the Committe for Economics and Energy
- Dr. Jens Zimmermann MP, SPD, deputy chairman of German-British parliamentary group
- Andreas Kluth, Berlin Bureau Chief, The Economist
- Dr. Hermann Freiherr von Richthofen, former German Ambassador in the UK
- Martina Timmermann, Vice President International Affairs, TIMA International GmbH
- Leo von Bülow-Quirk, Managing Director (International), Chartwell Partners
- Discussion leader: Matthew Karnitschnig, Chief Europe Correspondent, Wall Street Journal
|Dr. Denis MacShane|
Tom Barfield from The local reports:
German politicians and commentators confronted the reality that Germany would have to take an even more dominant role in Europe on Friday after David Cameron's Conservative party achieved a surprise victory in the British general election.
Cameron's promise to put the UK's membership of the European Union to a vote in 2017 and the massive surge of support for the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) will likely see the country consumed with its internal politics.
Meanwhile, elections the same year in France could see the eurosceptic National Front divide the country, leaving Germany the only one of Europe's three largest nations with the stability to look to a long-term vision.
“I hope Brexit will finally replace Grexit” as the defining issue in Europe, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) MP Klaus-Peter Willsch told a meeting of the British Chamber of Commerce and think-tank Open Europe Berlin in the capital on Friday morning.
“Britain is vital for Europe, it's an important trading partner and a help in the fight against the ideological building-up of Europe”.
Willsch, himself a eurosceptic, hopes that the prospect of a referendum will force other European leaders to reconsider their drive towards greater integration.
“Britain looks to Germany. That's a positive development in recent years,” Social Democratic Party (SPD) MP and deputy leader of the UK-Germany parliamentary friendship group Jens Zimmermann said.
“We have a responsibility to make positive use of the respect we now have [in Britain], but in the end it's a choice for the British.”
|Dr. Jens Zimmermann|
Uphill battle to change the EU
While both MPs agreed that Germany could help provide the arguments to convince British voters to stick with the EU, there were warnings that the British Conservatives may not see all their demands met.
Returning some of the powers that EU member states have given to Brussels – one of the Conservatives' key demands - would require changing the treaties that set out how the EU works.
But there is little appetite for revisiting those hard-fought agreements among the German government, including Chancellor Angela Merkel, or other European leaders.
“Parliaments would never agree treaty change,” said Dr. Hermann Freiherr von Richthofen, a former German ambassador to the UK.
“Other ways have to be found. We have to convince UK voters that staying in doesn't mean more integration.”
Willsch hoped that together, the UK and Germany could counter pro-integration voices in Europe from France and southern European nations.
“We can be a bulwark together against Germany-unfriendly policies,” he said, pointing especially to bailouts for Greece and the European Central Bank's policy of printing money to buy hundreds of billions of Euros in government debt through its quantitative easing programme.
Germany goes it alone
In the meantime, the trend of recent years which has seen Germany take a leading role in European foreign policy is set to continue, as Britain remains wrapped up in its own problems and France lacks the confidence to take on the world.
That has seen Merkel become the principal Western negotiator with Russian President Vladimir Putin following his annexation of the Crimea and support for rebel forces in eastern Ukraine.
Both MPs agreed that Germany should spend more on its military, which has been stretched to the limits of its budget and equipment by recent interventions in the Ebola crisis in western Africa and in the Middle East against Isis.
But von Richthofen warned that there were limits to what Germany could achieve without the backing of its European partners.
“We can't work alone as nation-states any longer on questions like Russia and the Middle East," he said.
Pictures (c) Jürgen Sendel Pictureblind
Pictures (c) Jürgen Sendel Pictureblind