Dr Phillip Lee is MP for Bracknell and a member of the Energy & Climate Change Select Committee. Follow Phillip on Twitter.
In 2006, I had the good fortune of attending the World Cup in Germany as a then long-standing member of the Englandfans supporters' club. Travelling up and down the country, one witnessed genuine pride in staging one of the world's great sporting events. German flags were held aloft and their national anthem sung, both in a manner not seen since the War. It was as if Germany had rediscovered its sense of nationhood, a strong pride in being German once more. For a travelling English fan with a strong interest in politics (not as uncommon as you might think!), it was a tremendous sight to behold. The scars of the past were healed and a unified Germany was moving on, free to make geopolitical decisions with no need to reference a dark history from a previous century. Recently, I've come to think that I was premature in forming that judgement. To me, the German approach to the eurozone crisis has been baffling. Why is it so determined to defend the Euro at such huge financial cost to itself? The market protection argument would only be acceptable if the total profit on their exported goods could comfortably absorb regular trillion Euro payments to the Mediterranean. So, if it is not money, what is driving them?
No one can accuse Germans of collective amnesia. From the classroom to the walls of the Reichstag, the deeds of yesteryear are writ large on the psyche of the nation. Germans are taught to remember. Their past cannot be understated. My personal visits to both Auschwitz and Yad Vashem certainly shocked me into a new perspective. And like millions of others, members of my family made sacrifices in defending our islands from the twisted ambitions of an Austrian megalomaniac. So, as the dust began to settle after the Second World War it is no surprise that clever Continental powers understood Germanyʼs overwhelming sense of guilt would provide an opportunity. Here was a chance to build a giant bureaucracy that channelled huge amounts of money away from the wealth generators to those incapable of adjusting to the fiscal discipline demanded by capitalism and demographic change, all under the cloak of war prevention. A gravy train subsequently left the North, heading South and West everyday. Maybe it was our island mentality, or our close economic and cultural ties to America, but somehow we remained sceptical of what the Latin-dominated political elite proposed for closer integration within Europe. That scepticism may well have since saved our skin but conversely our disengagement might now explain the current economic tragedy.
Over the last two years I have visited Germany on delegations generously organised by the Konrad-Adenaur-Stiftung. Meetings with Members of the Bundestag, foreign policy advisers and economists have been unsurprisingly dominated by the eurozone crisis. The genuinely-held and widespread belief has been that the European 'Grand Projet' is still considered central to Germany's security. Now, this did not come as much of a shock. What did surprise me, though, have been occasional references to Germany's past. As someone whose father was born in 1946 and who is too young to have ever voted for Mrs Thatcher, she who infamously feared a unified Germany, I do wonder when it will be acceptable for German politicians not to have such regard for the past. Obviously, recent history is not irrelevant. As the grandson of a living survivor of the war I recognise that terrible memories of that conflagration remain fresh. I am merely suggesting that if Germany is making economic decisions without concentrating solely on present financial and demographic realities it would be misguided. As Edmund Burke once advised, "Never plan the future by the past." Modern Germany has every reason to be proud of its economy, proud of its successful reunification, proud of the subsequent redevelopment of Berlin as its capital and, above all, proud of its role in stabilising post-war Europe. It no longer needs to self-flagellate. By continuing to do so, I believe that Germany is doing Europe a real disservice.
And what of ourselves? Newspaper stories about Europe often include crude references to the past. The Prime Minister is either Churchillian or Chamberlainesque. Tanks are often on 'our lawn'. To be sure, if we also continue to live in the past we will have no future. For unlike Mrs Thatcher, I have no fear of a resurgent Germany. Let's be honest, we Brits have more in common with the Germans than they do with the French. And, in view of the fact that the Eurozone was originally conceived in Paris, our Teutonic friends could be persuaded of the merits of a closer relationship with us, we who share a similar socioeconomic outlook. Interestingly, reports from last week's EU meeting indicate that both Germany and Britain wanted realistic budget settlements especially with respect to the CAP. This cannot have gone unnoticed by our French cousins. It might be the first evidence of a crack in the Franco-German relationship. If so, I believe that Britain would do well to apply pressure to that potential stress fracture.
Of course, I recognise that being radical is not common in foreign policy. Slow evolution over decades with a close adherence to much trusted maxims is thought more effective: a close, 'special' relationship with America and a reserved engagement with our Continental partners, admittedly laced with a bit of 'enlarge, divide and rule' to frustrate the French. That has long been the British way. I now think that Britain's best interests are served by having a much closer relationship with Germany. To date, the main obstacle to this has been the Euro. Clearly, there is no British appetite for the single currency and there is no realistic chance of us ever joining it as currently constituted. However, what if the eurozone, and the EU along with it, fundamentally changed in the next few years? More importantly, what if Anglo-Saxon economics based on tight fiscal rules and true competition become de rigueur? The Germans might then just begin to think that a new axis in Europe could serve their longer term economic interests. Achieving that goal might seem unlikely now. I am convinced, though, that it is worthy of pursuit. As with football, securing it will require us both to look forward not back. Encouragingly for Europe, goals involving our two countries have often been historic. Ask Geoff and Gerd.