Why Sunak is now banking on a special relationship with Germany

Armed with his landmark defence spending pledge, the prime minister found himself warmly welcomed on diplomatic visits to Warsaw and Berlin – but then his Rwanda scheme drew unfriendly fire from Emmanuel Macron. What does it all mean for Britain’s shifting alliances within Europe, asks Mary Dejevsky

Friday 26 April 2024 16:05 BST
Wednesday’s meeting between Rishi Sunak and his German counterpart, Olaf Scholz, was overshadowed by a diplomatic gaffe
Wednesday’s meeting between Rishi Sunak and his German counterpart, Olaf Scholz, was overshadowed by a diplomatic gaffe (AP)

Having delegated most of the country’s public diplomacy to Lord Cameron, since he unexpectedly signed him up as foreign secretary, Rishi Sunak has spent some of this week on what seemed a strange little diplomatic expedition of his own.

It was an expedition to Europe, no less – but not Europe in the sense of the EU, or Brussels, or even Paris, where the signalling might have been of a tentative post-Brexit rapprochement. The prime minister went to Poland and Germany, with what looked like rather different objectives in mind.

Poland and Germany... you hardly need any reminder that this country’s relations with both have been, how shall we say, problematic, over the past century or so. For all Sunak’s enthusing to his German “Freund”, Olaf (chancellor Scholz), about the long history of excellent relations, “long” seems to have a certain elasticity.

But let’s start where Sunak started, in Poland, as the order of these visits looked very deliberate. Make Warsaw feel special by touching down first in Poland, and only then fly on to Berlin for your first official visit to Germany as prime minister.

Yes, that’s right: Sunak has been prime minister since October 2022 without setting foot in the capital of the EU’s biggest and (still, just) richest member state. King Charles made a well-received state visit to Germany – the first of his reign – and Cameron dropped in on Berlin earlier this year, but until now, the prime minister had stayed away.

Sunak’s visit to Poland sent a host of signals. It can be seen as a mark of approval for the new government, headed by the nice, civilised Donald Tusk, following elections last year. Tusk has been less successful in steering his chosen course than his supporters, in Poland and Brussels, might have hoped, and his party lost seats in recent local elections, which does not bode well for the EU elections in June. But, for the moment, at least, Poland, led by Tusk, can be counted as a friend.

With their suspicion of EU federalism and their not-always-comfortable relations with Brussels, the Poles lost a like-minded ally in the EU with Brexit. Any resulting loss of influence, however, was more than compensated for after Russia invaded Ukraine, and Poland became the de facto leader of EU support for Kyiv, its position bolstered by its claim to have been “right about Russia”. A deep-seated strain of Euroscepticism in Poland, the sheer size of the country, and its support – albeit at times flagging – for Ukraine make Poland perhaps the most promising friend for post-Brexit Britain to cultivate in the EU.

The central theme of the visit – defence – suggested the direction of UK thinking and the criteria for choosing its best friends in the EU. Here, Sunak announced not only additional aid for Ukraine but what he called the “biggest strengthening of our national defence in a generation” – an increase in defence spending, to 2.5 per cent of GDP by 2030. As a token of his seriousness, Sunak had taken with him his defence secretary and chancellor. And there to meet them in Warsaw was not just Prime Minister Tusk but the secretary-general of Nato, Jens Stoltenberg.

Defence was also the theme when Sunak reached Berlin, with British Second World War rhetoric essentially “repurposed” to apply to the Cold War and today. So Sunak spoke in his post-visit video of the Brandenburg Gate as “a monument to freedom and peace” – with not a mention of the one-time Common Market as a peace project. We would “not waver in our defence of our country and the free democratic world”, he said, and success would “require the same qualities as prevailed in the Cold War”.

For all Sunak’s chumminess with Scholz, and their shared memories of Covid-era camaraderie as finance ministers, there could not but be a degree of awkwardness in the UK talking defence and military cooperation with the Germans, for obvious historical reasons but also because of misgivings about what the UK, like the US, sees as German timidity in supplying Ukraine.

The most recent controversy is over Germany’s Taurus missiles, which also produced what may or may not have been an embarrassing gaffe by Scholz when he justified Germany’s refusal to supply Taurus to Ukraine by saying that German troops would be needed for support on the ground – as was the case with the UK’s Storm Shadow. This was the first that the British public would have learnt about UK personnel on the ground in Ukraine, and the revelation was at the very least a breach of protocol (in mention of a third country), if not a straightforward intelligence lapse. It made for a very bad moment in German-UK relations that surely hovered over this week’s Scholz-Sunak meeting in Berlin.

For the UK to be making defence central to relations with Germany has another aspect, too. Britain’s long-standing defence partner in Europe has been France, and defence cooperation has been the fall-back topic for amicable discussion when there are tensions on other things. But this could be changing – on both sides.

On the one hand, there is a growing view that Germany, as Europe’s biggest aid supplier to Ukraine, is inevitably supplanting France as the EU leader in defence. Even if such a conclusion is premature, it cannot but be profoundly unwelcome to France, and especially to Emmanuel Macron, for whom “strategic autonomy” – ending Europe’s defence dependency on the US – has been a theme of his presidency.

He gave it another big plug this week in a speech at the Sorbonne, where he stressed the need for Europe to take more responsibility for its own defence, not just in cooperation between armed forces but in weapons production. “Strategic autonomy” has always been difficult for the UK to swallow, as it would imply a weakening of the transatlantic alliance, as championed by London – even if less dependence on the US might seem a sensible precaution, with the prospect of a new Trump presidency perhaps on the horizon.

In the same speech, Macron also seemed to throw diplomatic courtesies to the wind vis-a-vis the UK, when he condemned the very idea of sending asylum seekers – a policy personally championed by Rishi Sunak – to Rwanda as un-European. Coming so soon after the celebration earlier this month, in London and Paris, of the 120th anniversary of Entente Cordiale, this suggested that France might already have given up on relations with a post-Brexit UK, or at least with the current government.

There have been hints of France, too, flirting with closer defence links with Germany. It may just be coincidence but on the very day that Sunak was discussing joint defence projects with Scholz, the defence ministers of France and Germany were discussing their own bilateral plans in Paris.

It is probably too soon to say that the UK-France special defence relationship is either dead or dying but, with the UK so openly courting Poland and Germany in military and defence matters and with France seeming to give relations with London short shrift, its days look numbered.

Which raises a question, in turn, as to whether post-Brexit Britain is now looking for bilateral defence relationships with the bigger, more strategically positioned EU countries, rather than associating itself with a possible EU-wide defence project. Or, indeed, whether it could be making mischief with thoughts of perhaps driving a wedge between France and Germany on the major matter of European defence.

Certainly, the UK, with Sunak as prime minister, seems to be showing a preference for bilateral agreements with EU states, rather than collective deals with the bloc as a whole. This was most recently apparent from the immediate cold shoulder the government turned to the EU’s proposal for freedom of travel for young people, which could have been seen as an olive branch proffered towards improved relations.

As it happens, the approach was summarily rejected by Labour, too – which offers some of the clearest evidence yet of the approaching UK general election, where anything remotely resembling old-style EU freedom of movement is evidently taboo.

Curiously, of late it has fallen to Mark Carney, the former governor of the Bank of England, to provide the dissenting voice on Brexit and keep the Rejoiner flame alive – as he did in a speech in Toronto this week, in which claimed that leaving the EU had destroyed the UK’s future, and that it was faring even worse than he had feared. He doubled down on a previous assertion that the economy, which, in 2016, was 90 per cent the size of Germany’s, is now less than 70 per cent.

For now, Sunak, an unrepentant Brexiteer, has his focus on defence policy. The next test is likely to come in July, at Nato’s 75th anniversary summit in Washington. The UK’s apparent interest in closer defence relations with Germany and Poland, and its modest increase in support for Ukraine, could make for some interesting conversations – especially if France feels that its nose has been put out of joint, and the Nordic countries, boosted by Finland and Sweden, want to make their collective voice heard.

The greatest uncertainty might be not whether divisions will emerge but where the cracks may open up: between the US and a France-led group favouring EU strategic autonomy, or between those pledging support for Ukraine in perpetuity and those – who could include the US, the southern Europeans and maybe Germany – wanting the war to end.

Wherever the dividing lines run, however, the UK could find itself slap bang in the middle, marooned between a Europe it has left and an Atlanticism that is past its time.

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