Thursday, 28 March 2013

Berlin is still the key

Sometimes politics and the outside world display a beautiful, if apparently pointless, synchronicity.

As if trying to tell us something, David Bowie goes straight to number one in the album chart by revisiting a profound source of inspiration for him – in his own words, “walking the dead” – that of partitioned, Cold War Berlin. A place where he recorded some of his most important work, including the title track of “Heroes”: written while looking out on a pair of furtive lovers kissing by the Wall. A few short years after this peak of creative brilliance, Bowie would slide into a creative cul-de-sac which would arguably take him a quarter-century – or more, depending on whom you talk to – to escape.

It is a special city; a city which, thirty years before Bowie’s sojourn there, had been considered so important as a symbol of freedom that America played a game of brinkmanship with the Soviet Union to defy its attempted siege of the city. It was only through a massive airlift of supplies that Berlin was able to beat the siege and then survive intact, as a Western enclave behind the Iron Curtain, for the following forty years.

Fast-forward to 2013: a rescue package is put together for Cyprus. Although the venue is Brussels, it is clear Berlin is driving the agenda and that the most important player is the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. After all, it is his country’s fiscal probity to which the euro-zone is hitched, along with its credibility.
Yes, sometimes the other big countries gang up on her, as happened last summer when they refused to follow her lead on a fiscal compact. But in general, it is clear who rules the roost. The celebrated “Franco-German axis” is not quite what it was, with a conservative Chancellor and a socialist President; but there are also deeper, longer-tem reasons why the axis has changed over the last half-century. Not only has France a significantly smaller economy than post-unification Germany, but over recent decades it has shown that neither is it as economically strong (and let alone as fiscally continent) as its neighbour.

But neither, of course, is Britain currently getting very close to Germany, for quite different reasons. These recent events come only a few weeks since David Cameron’s landmark referendum speech, where he successfully pretended, to pretty much no-one, that he would campaign not to leave the EU. And that is because he made the condition that all his European partners had to come round to his way of thinking – something currently about as likely to happen as, say, them all developing a spontaneous fondness for cricket, or Pimm’s.

And so, in the incredibly unlikely event that that were to happen, Cameron might campaign for a Yes vote. But with the current, hysterically anti-European mood of his party, such a campaign would be almost certainly be undertaken, on his part, from the back benches.

Unlike Cameron, politicians serious about Britain’s international future must take account of their future relationship with the whole of Europe but, above all, with Germany.

Now, not all figures on the British left might be as daft, or as downright insulting, as those who commissioned the recent New Statesman cover story ”The German Problem”, next to pictures of four of its leaders, including Hitler) might suggest. That said, it might still have been better if Miliband had put the same effort into wooing Merkel as he did into wooing the now-disastrously unpopular Hollande.

But he has at least made the right move in ruling out a referendum under Labour. And that is surely because, as Peter Mandelson noted last Thursday, that “Ed Miliband and the leaders of the Labour party would be clinically insane to wish that upon themselves.”

In other words, they would be unlikely to win it. It’s one of the oldest rules in politics, the turkeys-not-voting-for-Christmas rule. More a rule of low politics than high statesmanship, but nevertheless a highly useful one.

Yesterday, Douglas Alexander also noted US concern about Cameron’s dalliance with the “Out” brigade, and that “a British exit from the EU would fundamentally damage our partnership with America”. And the unspoken subtext is that that Europe is one with Germany at its centre; its reliable economic motor, as well as America’s gateway to the new markets to the East.

This consequent decline in standing with America and the world is a stunningly simple corollary, but one which still seems to elude a large proportion of this country and its politicians. Britain, like Bowie, is likely to have better days remembering the importance of Berlin in its history, and carrying that thought forward, into its future.

This post first published at LabourList

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