Angela Merkel visited the UK yesterday for the last time as German chancellor – the 22nd visit she has paid in her 16 years at the helm of German politics. Such an auspicious occasion however did not stop Boris Johnson from starting their joint press statement with a humorous jibe. A wry smile on his face, he told Merkel: ‘it was certainly a tradition, Angela, for England to lose to Germany in international football tournaments and I’m obviously grateful to you for breaking with that tradition, just for once.’
Good-natured, football-themed exchanges between the two nations were also in play elsewhere. The German ambassador in London, Andreas Michaelis, tweeted on Tuesday night that he congratulated the England team for their ‘much deserved victory’ but added that the German team will rebuild so that ‘this great competition’ between the two nations can continue. The German foreign minister Heiko Maas meanwhile turned up in person at the British Embassy in Berlin to deliver the crate of beer which had been at stake in a bet between him and Dominic Raab.
— Heiko Maas 🇪🇺 (@HeikoMaas) July 1, 2021
Even though it still hurts - I settled my debt today, @DominicRaab. I hope you’ll enjoy this specialty from my home state. Cheers to the 🇬🇧-🇩🇪 friendship! 🍻 https://t.co/XYU2USsfjv pic.twitter.com/c69FOOmVjn
It would be easy to brush such actions aside as empty symbolism but the (mostly) friendly rivalry on the football field stands in for a much deeper connection between the UK and Germany. It is a bilateral relationship with deep historical and cultural roots which have been overshadowed, perhaps even strained, by the two countries’ fundamentally different stances towards the EU.
When Merkel first visited the UK as head of the German government, her opposite number was Tony Blair. While the latter had some reservations towards the EU, on the whole he believed in its principles and was signed up to the project. The two met as leaders of major EU countries to negotiate relations within a framework they would both shape and abide by. Fast forward 16 years and Merkel is meeting Boris Johnson, a key Brexiteer of the earliest hour who is now meeting with her as the leader of a sovereign nation trying to negotiate bilateral relations outside of the European Union. Johnson was right to begin his statement this afternoon with the assertion that ‘things have changed beyond recognition’ since the start of Merkel’s tenure.
Regardless of the hugely important questions about the future of Anglo-German relations, the headlines of Merkel’s last visit will focus on her comments that she expects double-jabbed Brits will be allowed back into Germany without having to quarantine first. True, the 300,000 or so German-born residents of the UK will be glad to hear that, myself included, but there is much more to unpack in Johnsons’ and Merkel’s joint statement.
Both leaders stressed the shared values of their nations, but also their close economic ties. Johnson reminded us that Germany is the UK’s second largest trading partner. One in five people in this country drive a German car; 750,000 British people work for German companies or vice versa. Merkel added that there were close cultural links with academic exchanges and collaboration. She was keen to emphasise her desire to build new bilateral exchange programmes to replace the Erasmus programme.
Merkel also became the first overseas leader to address the British Cabinet this century – US President Bill Clinton was the last foreigner to do so back in 1997. Remarkably, this will be the first of annual meetings between the two governments going forward with Germany as the only country to have made such an arrangement with the UK.
There will certainly be diplomatic challenges galore to resolve as Brexit continues to require a rearrangement of the political and economic relations which a sovereign Britain will hold with the EU and its individual member states. But even with these more thorny issues on the table, political goodwill was evident as Merkel told the press that she was happy an extension over the Northern Ireland protocol had been agreed so that a ‘pragmatic’ solution can be found.
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) July 2, 2021
Herzlich Willkommen in Chequers, Frau Bundeskanzlerin!🇬🇧🇩🇪 pic.twitter.com/gg6rgs7xnU
The efforts from both German and British politicians to find ways forward have naturally spooked the pro-EU camps in both countries. The Green party in Germany, who are currently polling in second place in the run-up to the German elections in September, may be a little more pragmatic than their British cousins on individual policy issues but are equally enthusiastic proponents of the EU project. Franziska Brantner, the party’s European spokesperson, was quickest out of the blocks to criticise Merkel’s approach to Britain. She warned that ‘bilateral agreements and talks must not become divisive in Europe.’
The German Greens are particularly concerned about a memorandum signed by the foreign ministers of both countries on Wednesday in which they agreed to build closer relations in foreign and security policy. Brantner argued that Germany should not have gone ahead with this before consulting the EU and finding a communal solution. How much influence the Green party will have on any future government formed in the post-Merkel era is therefore likely to have significant ramifications on the relationship between both countries.
For all the fear around Britain's future in Europe post-Brexit, the positive steps taken with a pragmatic German government show that the long-lasting ties with the continent do not need to be cut. Over the Channel lies another special relationship for Britain and it is one that has a chance to endure outside the European Union.