Archive for November, 2011

Anglo-German summitry: the joke that isn’t funny.

The UK and Germany agree on core economic goals – fiscal discipline, increased competitiveness and the summary execution of unreliable Mediterranean partners. So why not work together to solve the Eurozone crisis? In his visit to Berlin last week, the British Prime Minister called for quick and decisive joint action.

It was not to be. The pro-European idealists David Cameron remembered from his last Berlin trip were gone. The Germans who now greeted him might look the same right down to their intense-looking spectacles, but this is a new species. Gone is their will for action.

This was not the first failed rapprochement between the two countries. Indeed, so pointless have Anglo-German summits become that commentators compare them to meetings between moths and light bulbs: a strange urge draws the British to Berlin where they knock about with some clever idea before fluttering off feeling misunderstood. And, hallo, there they are again a year later as if they had learnt nothing.

It would be a shame to spoil this perennial fun, but all the same, before their next trip to Berlin the British might like to pause and wonder why their attempts at rapprochement have never worked.

The reason is simple really. Although they agree on many overarching aims, both countries pursue their political goals in fundamentally different ways. Germans like to think before they act. The British aren’t so keen.

It’s easy to see why the British ignore this difference: they have often attributed their way of doing things to their German ancestors. When the ancient Germans saw off the Romans, the British tell themselves, they preserved the relaxed Anglo-Saxon attitude towards complexity, disorder and the unexpected.

British political culture is still something of a rearguard battle against the Romans. Too much rational reflection, say the Brits, only leads to cynicism, introspection and scepticism. Overzealous attempts to apply science to society lead only to fatalism, unethical behaviour and simplistic efforts to tidy up a complex reality.

They can’t quite believe those ruddy German barbarians would think otherwise. Yet that is the case. Kant and co. certainly recognised the dangers of too much reasoning. But instead of falling into anti-intellectualism, laissez-faire and muddling-through as the English did, German Enlightenment philosophers tried to provide a rational footing for spontaneity, faith and enthusiasm.

Their whole-hearted conversion to rationalism has left the Germans with a capacity for idealism which is quite beyond the British. But it also means that if the rational logic behind their idealism unravels, Germans can fall into drastic scepticism. And it is at just such moments that they look enviously across at the unthinking English, wonder what might have been, and then wish them every failure.

The German government’s frosty reaction to Cameron’s charm offensive bore all these traits. Berlin already suspects that it has fallen prey to an irrational idealism about the EU. It was therefore well prepared for a patronising lecture from the British Prime Minister on the comparative merits of muddling through. When Cameron instead exhorted Berlin to rediscover its irrational enthusiasm, it was like a rag to a bull.

If the Germans are to find their way back to European action, it will be via a well-trodden Kantian path and not through British intervention. First, they will recall the old lesson that too much thinking can lead to unhealthy scepticism – the lesson that too much rationalising can lead to distinctly unreasonable behaviour.

If examined too closely, for example, European “solidarity” and “trust” may well look like a mere front for Mediterranean free-riding; “European integration” might these days look like the recipe for Europe-wide political disintegration; the technocratisation of European democracies might well seem a reasonable countermeasure. But these are mere tricks of the mind which must be resisted.

Then Berlin will seek out what it views as a rational basis for a renewed pro-European idealism. As Angela Merkel and a leaked memo made clear on Friday, this will be rooted in a sober stocktaking of the EU and its comparative strengths and weaknesses. It will not be based on the superficial displays of ‘bazooka power’ demanded by the British.

And, with that, the Anglo-German non-conversation will continue. It’s a shame really. Proper dialogue between them could make Berlin and London critically examine their own respective political cultures and their noxious side-effects. It is no coincidence that the EU’s crisis is driven by unregulated markets and overly individualistic inter-state relations on the one hand, and stifling one-size-fits-all regulations on the other.

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