Continental Drift by Jurgen Kronig

Britain may find its new coalition govern ment strange and hard to comprehend. But, says Jurgen Kronig, look to Germany, long accustomed to such arrangements, which is adopting attitudes to politics more like our own.


It is an ironic twist of fate: suddenly, Germany is discovering the attraction of a more sceptical attitude towards Europe. One could even argue that the Germans are becoming more British while at the same time Britain is slowly but surely morphing into a more “continental” European nation.  Of course this does not mean that the new coalition government in London is less Eurosceptic in its outlook. But David Cameron, using the Lib Dems as a counterbalance, has for the time being managed to soften the hostile instincts of the right wing of his party, preferring a more accommodating approach towards a European Union that faces its biggest crisis yet, while not expecting any trouble from the Lib Dems, the last bastion of integrationists in Britain. Even the greatest fan of further integration, following the logic of “ever closer Union”, must have recognised the futility of such a move. For the foreseeable future, the priority will be trying to prevent the EU, and especially the Eurozone, from falling apart. If there is no appetite for further “deepening” of the EU even in Germany one can safely assume that the traditionally awkward topic of Europe won’t bother this British government.  Another strange coincidence is that both Britain and Germany are governed by a coalition of Conservatives and Liberals. The only difference is that the German Liberals, the “Free Democrats”, are clearly more economic liberals, accused by their opponents of being unreconstructed “neoliberals”, the gravest possible sin in the eyes of the left. Nick Clegg’s party leans instinctively more to the left: it is more of a mixed bag, consisting of a greenish bourgeoisie, much mocked as the “beard and sandals brigade”; social democrats who were keenest on forming a “progressive alliance” with Labour, despite the lack of a majority for these parties; and classic Liberals in the tradition of the Whigs, suspicious of too much state influence.

Nobody knows how long this coalition will keep going once the supply of agreed political projects has been used up and the overriding need to cut the deficit subsides. The political fault lines and ideological divisions will, of course, return, but this is for the future.

At the moment one can’t but admire the decisive start of the Cameron/Clegg alliance and the speed with which it is pursuing its maybe too-ambitious reform agenda. For someone used to the long-drawnout negotiations and the endless haggling before a German coalition government can be formed, this came as a pleasant surprise. Just a week was needed to sort out everything, including a job for Vince Cable – no easy task, as everybody knows.  Compare this with more than four weeks of negotiations between Christian Democrats and Free Democrats in Germany. Even after the coalition agreement was signed and sealed the haggling between the two partners never stopped. Recently it became even worse, partly because of the “profile neurosis” of Guido Westerwelle, leader of the FDP and Germany’s new Foreign Secretary, and a flamboyant character who once took part in Germany’s Big Brother. He is one of these unfortunate political characters you instinctively want to disagree with, even if what he says makes sense, just because of the way he says it – a problem he shares with George Osborne.

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