Helmut Schmidt, Germany’s Anglophile Chancellor

Helmut Schmidt, Germany’s Anglophile Chancellor

Mathias Haeussler

The West German chancellor Helmut Schmidt was an admirer of Britain from an early age. But his vision of European integration was not that of his British counterparts. 

On 5 July 1957 the Bundestag voted overwhelmingly in favour of the Treaties of Rome, which are still at the heart of today’s European Union. Not all Germany’s parliamentarians played along. The young Helmut Schmidt – a brash, chain-smoking Social Democrat from Hamburg – refused to support the Treaties, largely because of British non-participation. ‘Much as I was convinced of the necessity of European integration’, he later reflected, ‘I then thought … that the EEC could never be successful in the absence of British experience and pragmatism.’At the time, Schmidt – who later became West German chancellor from 1974 to 1982 – reflected the views of many continental politicians who looked for British help and leadership in the rebuilding of Europe. Born in 1918 and growing up in the port city of Hamburg, Schmidt had been exposed to British life and culture from an early age: his first trip abroad had been a three-week school exchange to Manchester in July 1932. In the immediate postwar years, Schmidt’s political socialisation was decisively furthered by the British regional commissioner in Hamburg, Sir Vaughan Berry, who frequently initiated informal Anglo-German tea parties with politically interested young locals. Such contacts were part of the reason why Schmidt soon acquired a reputation as an unabashed ‘Atlanticist’, who prioritised the Federal Republic’s links to the Anglo-American world over Franco-German relations. On the eve of Schmidt’s election in May 1974, the British Foreign Office predicted golden times for the British-German relationship, hoping that Schmidt’s Germany might align itself more closely with Britain rather than France.Such hopes were misguided. During his eight years in office, Schmidt developed an exceptionally close partnership with the French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, which resulted in major European initiatives, such as the creation of the European Council and the European Monetary System. Britain, by contrast, often seemed aloof from and dejected by this revitalised Franco-German axis, as Schmidt clashed heavily and repeatedly with his British counterparts, such as Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher, over key issues of EC politics. In later years, he appeared scornful about Britain’s supposedly destructive role in the European politics of the 1970s, explaining Wilson’s and Thatcher’s sceptical attitude towards the EC through a more general British Euroscepticism, allegedly ingrained in British history and culture. ‘The Queen, the Commonwealth and the special relationship with the US is much more important than Europe’, he asserted in one of his last interviews in December 2013, exclaiming that de Gaulle had been ‘right’ in vetoing British membership during the 1960s.What changed? Yet, the real story of the British-German relationship during Schmidt’s years in office is more complicated than his cliché-laden recollections suggest. At the heart of Schmidt’s frequent clashes with his British counterparts was not a seemingly eternal British aversion to all things European, as Schmidt would have it. The history of British-German relations under Schmidt is not one of unilateral obstructionism, but one of mutual misperceptions and misunderstandings, which can be explained by the two countries’ different paths towards the European integration process after 1945.Many of the deeper reasons behind the frequent bilateral clashes over Europe in the 1970s can be found in the decades prior to Schmidt’s chancellorship. His initial Anglophilia was certainly sincere. In the early 1960s, he even wrote a couple of highly polemical newspaper articles in which he criticised the French and German governments for pushing ahead with the European integration process without British involvement: ‘Hitler also underestimated England’, one headline read. As Schmidt rose through Germany’s political ranks in the 1960s, however, he started to approach the European question from a more strategic angle, which made him realise the paramount importance of France to the European project. Much like Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first chancellor, Schmidt now argued that his country’s exposed geostrategic location at the centre of Europe and its unique historical burden made it a strategic necessity to embed its postwar foreign policy firmly into a multilateral European framework, thereby making Germany’s political and economic resurgence palatable to its neighbours. The relationship with France, Schmidt came to believe, was the foundation for Germany’s postwar rehabilitation. By the mid-1960s, Schmidt had therefore reversed his position on British EC membership almost completely. ‘Given its particular interests and its resulting tight bonds to France’, he wrote at the time of Britain’s second EC application in 1967, German simply could not ‘act as a battering ram and immediately open up the door to the EC for the English by exercising pressure on Paris’. But it was a position determined by Schmidt’s calculating head rather than his Anglophile heart: the EC was imaginable without Britain; it was unimaginable without France.A difficult role to define The British perspective on postwar European integration was rather different. In the 1950s, British reactions to the various integration initiatives contemplated on the continent had ranged from indifference to hostility: perhaps for them, but definitely not for us. Instead, Britain’s postwar strategy was based on consolidating and maintaining the country’s global role: not without reason, when roughly half of its trade was still conducted with the Commonwealth. Confronted with the country’s postwar decline and facing the realities of a rapidly emerging European trading bloc on the continent, however, Britain’s political leaders soon changed their minds and applied twice for EEC membership: under Harold Macmillan in 1961-3 and Harold Wilson in 1967. But these applications were driven largely by negative motivations: if you can’t beat them, join them. The subsequent vetoes by de Gaulle added insult to injury, leaving Britain without a progressive European policy for much of the 1960s. When Britain eventually joined the EC in January 1973, it therefore had to define its role in an institutional framework that had already consolidated itself and to accept rules and mechanisms that often seemed ill-suited to Britain’s interests and preferences.By the time of Schmidt’s election in May 1974, then, British and German attitudes towards the EC had evolved very differently over two decades. For 1970s Germany, EC membership had come to signify the country’s postwar political and economic rehabilitation; for Britain, by contrast, it seemed to symbolise the country’s postwar decline and transformation into a medium-sized European power. It did not help that Britain joined the EC on the eve of a global economic crisis, with rapidly rising food prices and double-digit inflation dominating much of Britain’s first decade inside the EC. Membership was not the economic panacea various governments had portrayed it to be.These factors pointed to future problems for the British-German relationship under Schmidt. He may have wrapped his personal attachment to the European integration process in less idealistic language than most, but he had nonetheless become firmly attached to the EC as the major strategic framework for Germany’s postwar rehabilitation. That is why he reacted strongly whenever he felt the EC’s cohesion or past achievements were under threat. British leaders, by contrast, lacked a comparably powerful imperative for EC membership. They approached the issue from a much more transactional and, at times, openly antagonistic angle – even if it meant prolonged crises with their European partners.Take Wilson’s ‘renegotiation & referendum’ ploy in 1974-5, for example. From Wilson’s perspective, it was a clever strategy to appease the formidable anti-EC wing of his Labour Party while, in the long run, ensuring Britain’s continuing membership. To Schmidt, however, Wilson’s approach seemed like a cynical prioritisation of narrow party political interests at the expense of his European partners. That is why he ganged up with Giscard to ensure that the renegotiations amounted to some cosmetic changes only. Wilson’s strategy paid off domestically, as the 1975 referendum result testifies. But the price was a fundamental deterioration of German trust in Britain’s commitment to Europe.Margaret Thatcher’s resolute attempts to reduce Britain’s disproportionately high contributions to the EC budget reveals similar dynamics. For Thatcher, the budget issue was a major obstacle that had to be solved first, if Britain was to play a full and active role inside the EC, whereas Schmidt regarded her single-minded pursuit of the budget question as a fundamental challenge to the EC’s principles and foundations. This is why Thatcher’s attempts to get Schmidt on her side backfired so dramatically, even though Germany would also probably have gained from any major reform of the EC’s financing structures. Schmidt, however, saw Germany’s high budget contributions as a short-term economic price for a long-term strategic gain: the EC’s political cohesion and stability. It was a logic that worked well from a German perspective; it failed to convince many British observers.Thatcher moves closer The irony is that Thatcher’s first years in office saw Britain move closer to Europe than ever before. At the same time that the prime minister was demanding ‘her money back’ in Brussels, she also worked tirelessly behind the scenes to foster joint European positions within the transatlantic alliance against the background of the so-called ‘second’ Cold War. In the major transatlantic crises over NATO’s dual-track decision, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the Siberian gas pipeline project, Thatcher frequently defended European viewpoints in Washington – much to the dismay of her American counterpart Ronald Reagan. But it was the Iron Lady who usually caught the headlines in Germany and who stands tall as the supreme embodiment of British Euroscepticism, even today.The frequent fights between Schmidt and his British rivals did not therefore signify a more general British aversion to all things European, as Schmidt would suggest so frequently in later years. Indeed, Britain had played a vital and proactive role in the reconstruction of Europe ever since the late 1940s, as its role in the establishment of the Organisation for European Economic Cooperation (OEEC) and NATO testifies. The reason why intra-EC tensions have nonetheless come to dominate perceptions of the British-German relationship after 1945 can again be found in the particular historical context of postwar Europe. For most Germans of Schmidt’s generation, the European project exerted a strong emotional pull that stretched far beyond the concrete advantages of a customs union: it offered a unique opportunity to rehabilitate and reinvent postwar Germany within a European framework and to distance itself from the horrors of the recent past. Wilson and Thatcher, by contrast, may have concluded rationally that EC membership was in Britain’s national interest, but they lacked any comparative emotive and personal attachment to the European project. The EC therefore remained only one of many possible arenas for European cooperation in 1970s Britain – and not one that suited the country particularly well. For most Germans, however, the EC had by that time become the only framework for European cooperation. Any criticisms of its institutions and policies were almost inevitably interpreted as more general attacks on the very principles of European cooperation and solidarity. This is the big European misunderstanding that lies at the heart of British-German relations under Schmidt.Today’s European Union bears rather little resemblance to the EC of the 1970s. Nonetheless, some of the key dynamics tearing Britain and Germany apart in the 1970s can still be witnessed in contemporary debates over ‘Brexit’: Britain is still ill at ease with many of the EU’s most basic institutional characteristics and principles, whereas Germany seems anxious to preserve the EU’s substance and cohesion, even at significant cost. It is thus tempting to read Schmidt’s journey as merely one episode of a much longer history where the European integration process has acquired an importance for Germany which – for various reasons – has never been replicated in Britain. Yet Schmidt’s story also shows that these different British and German perspectives were the result of the specific historical context of the immediate postwar decades and that they centred primarily on the concrete mechanisms and dynamics of the European Community in the 1970s. They should not be treated as evidence of an allegedly eternal British Euroscepticism, deeply rooted in British culture and history, contrary to Schmidt’s musings in later years.Mathias Haeussler is Lumley Research Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

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