Watching the Guy Fawkes Day parades and firework displays across Britain this week has been pretty fun. Some have been quite impressive, especially considering the English are a pleasantly understated people not prone to senseless flash and bombast. This year, one of the most interesting (and popular) shows occurred in Lewes, a town south of London famous for its annual Guy Fawkes celebration.
It wasn’t the fireworks, or the floats and decorations, that made this parade notable. Rather, it was one of the giant effigies featured, and then joyfully torched during the show. Planted right in the middle of the Lewes parade was a hulking effigy of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. That’s not all. They had her doing a Nazi salute while standing amid the rubble of Greece’s Acropolis.
Such blatant hostility toward Germany and its chancellor isn’t uncommon in Europe these days. And compared to the troubling anti-German, anti-Merkel scenes routinely coming out of Greece and other Mediterranean countries, the Lewes effigy is rather tame. Nevertheless, it was another small but noteworthy glimpse of the surging hostility in Britain toward the EU and one of its most powerful advocates, Germany.
Two weeks ago I wrote about how Britain is preparing to divorce from the EU. Since then, the tension between Britain and Europe has only intensified. If it continues like this, the November 22 EU summit is going to be a barn burner. The primary topic of discussion at the summit will be the EU budget, and whether or not it should be increased, frozen or reduced. The consensus among European nations is that the budget ought to be marginally increased or remain the same.
Britain ardently disagrees. This was made plain last week, when Britain’s Parliament, including numerous members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s party, not only voted against any increase in the EU budget, but demanded that the current budget be reduced. The vote is non-binding, meaning Mr. Cameron is not bound by English law to veto the budget increase. But Cameron is a modern-day politician, which makes him bound by political expediency. The prime minister surely understands that the only way to survive the EU summit—and perhaps even benefit domestically from it—is if he stands firm against an EU budget increase.
Of course, EU leaders are anxious and upset. Yesterday, Chancellor Merkel jetted to London to dine with Cameron and no doubt try to dissuade him from upending the EU summit. Here in Britain and Europe, many are coming to realize that there’s a lot at stake and that we may actually be coming into a milestone moment. Merkel’s trip to London “may be interpreted as a wake-up call for the British,” wrote Olaf Boehnke, a member of the European Council on Foreign Relations.
It is no coincidence that on the same day Merkel visited Cameron, virtually all of Britain’s main newspapers ran stories highlighting Germany’s mounting frustration.
“Listen, Britain. Germany’s Had Enough of You,” stated the headline in the Times. In the article, Alan Posener cites a recent editorial from the political editor of Bild, Germany’s most influential newspaper, making the case that Turkey is now more integrated and on better terms with Europe than Britain. “One way or another, Turkey is becoming more relevant to discussions on the future of Europe than Britain,’ concluded Posener.
The Telegraph was similarly dramatic, titling its article “Germany Is Losing Patience With Britain.” “When you spend time in both Britain and Germany,” wrote Mats Persson, “it is impossible not to notice how distant their stances on Europe have become.” Persson visits Germany often, has well-placed contacts and keeps abreast of the relationship. He writes that “recent reports suggest that Merkel’s frustrations have reached the point where she’s prepared to wave goodbye to Britain altogether.”
The Financial Times made similar points under the headline “UK and Germany: Exasperated Allies.”
Meanwhile, German politicians and the German media—many of whom have up till now preferred to see Britain remain in the EU—are also beginning to more openly vent their frustration and hopelessness. Last month, Spiegel Online reported how Chancellor Merkel once went out of her way to keep Britain in Europe—but not anymore. Merkel’s hopes for a Europe with Britain “have now been dashed,” it wrote. “The German government is convinced that the Euro Group will be the core of a new, more deeply integrated Europe.” The article compared Britain to Statler and Waldorf, the two muppets that sit in a box and hurl insults at the performers on The Muppet Show. (Several British papers reported that the comparison came directly from a frustrated Angela Merkel.)
George Parker and Quentin Peel, writing in the Financial Times recently, lamented the inevitable divorce. “In spite of the personal rapport, the two leaders [Merkel and Cameron] are heading in different directions,” they wrote. “From Berlin’s perspective, this impending drama is just another staging post in Britain’s protracted departure from the European mainstream and—potentially—its exit from the EU altogether.”
“The mood towards the UK in the German political establishment is a mix of exasperation and deep concern,” they wrote.
It’s easy to see where this is headed. Sometimes an unhappy relationship can be temporarily preserved, even as resentment and frustration continue to mount, as long as one party still desires the relationship, and is willing to compromise and work hard to keep it alive. That’s kind of the way the Britain-EU relationship has been ever since Britain joined the European Community in January 1973.
But what happens when both sides in a relationship become resentful, frustrated and angry?
We all know the answer: separation. ▪