Apocalyptic conflict, power politics, magic, the perils of new media, dragons and fake news. This week’s “Berliner Salon” hosted by the German ambassador to the UK and his wife did not lack imagination or ambition. On the stage in the elegant suite of reception rooms overlooking London’s Belgrave Square were the author Daniel Kehlmann, whose latest novel Tyll plays out during the Thirty Years’ War, in discussion with the novelist Ian McEwan. Surveying the audience of over 200, including a fair smattering of luminaries of cultural and intellectual London, Mr McEwan wondered whether similar gatherings were to be found at the British embassy in Berlin.
The timing for such a smart act of cultural diplomacy was good. There was talk of the similarities between the turmoil that engulfed 17th-century Europe and the present. The event took place at the start of week one of Brexit. With the UK severing its links with the EU, the focus shifts to developing or rediscovering new relationships across the Channel.
The salon belonged to a series of events that in various ways point to an attempt to craft a new chapter in Anglo-German relations — not always the smoothest of affairs. The week kicked off with a call from the heads of the UK and German parliamentary foreign affairs committees, Tom Tugendhat and Norbert Röttgen, for a bilateral “friendship treaty”. This would span culture, education and foreign affairs, drawing on “shared values” and a pragmatic realisation that Brexit, which both opposed, is now a reality to be addressed.
Sensible stuff, no doubt. But not everyone might welcome this. Suspicions about that very British tendency to “divide and rule” are running high in a number of European capitals. Mr Röttgen is well aware of such sensitivities but says it would be a “misunderstanding” of the proposal. The unity of the EU is a given. Mr Tugendhat adds that bilateral treaties and agreements already exist among EU members, such as between the UK and France in the area of defence.
Helene von Bismarck, a historian of British-German relations, says that following the rowdy and often ugly rhetoric that has distinguished the Brexit process, “anything that promotes language learning, student exchanges and scientific co-operation is a good thing”. She sees comparisons with the 1963 Elysée Treaty inked by Charles de Gaulle of France and West Germany’s Konrad Adenauer. The effects of that pillar of Franco-German relations were initially felt in cultural and “soft power” ventures.
The future of Anglo-German relations also featured prominently this week in the German Symposium at the London School of Economics. It a drew clutch of German political heavyweights, including Robert Habeck, co-leader of the Greens and touted as the party’s possible first chancellor, and Friedrich Merz of the Christian Democrats.
For all their differences in emphasis — Mr Habeck talked about addressing identity and cultural issues; Mr Merz called for more imagination in European industrial policy — there were notable similarities when it came to Brexit. This was a wake-up call that highlighted the EU’s frailties, they said. The “Brits” would be sorely missed, though it might be easier to work with them as outsiders than grumpy insiders. For the EU to survive, more effort was required to bolster its existing structures, which meant Germany would need to give more ground.
One next step might be the Königswinter conference in April. This year’s bilateral gabfest of good intentions will be held in London. The event’s relevance has waxed and waned over the 70 years since it was founded with the aim of improving mutual understanding. At times there was talk of winding it up as it was no longer relevant in the wider EU setting. Now it might just have acquired a new purpose as a place to start putting some meat on the bones laid out by Messrs Röttgen and Tugendhat. And for those who like their pragmatic bilateralism served up with a flash of symbolic grandeur, there might also be something on offer. There is talk that the organisers want to mark the anniversary in a big way. How about enlisting one of the still-working members of the House of Windsor, the very embodiment of Anglo-German co-operation?