HC Deb 24 May 1995 vol 260 cc861-9

1 pm

Mr. Mike Watson (Glasgow, Central)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Will you rule that the apt title for the debate that is about to begin is "British-German Relations" or "United Kingdom-German Relations"? I do not wish to delay the debate—indeed, I am secretary of the British-German all-party parliamentary group, and I look forward to it—but it is irritating for those of us in the House who are Scottish, Irish or Welsh continually to hear talk of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and so on. May we please get the terminology right in future?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

We must wait to hear what the debate is about before we decide whether the title is appropriate.

1.1 pm

Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North)

I entirely agree with the point of order raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. Watson). He is absolutely right. The debate should have been entitled "British-German Relations". The purpose of my debate is to argue the case, before the Anglo-German summit later this week, for a much closer and stronger Anglo-German alliance. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree with that.

My visits to Germany recently have convinced me that there are some very strong common interests between the two countries. I have been fortunate enough to visit Germany and speak to well over 100 leading and representative Germans during the past two years in gathering material for a book, about which modesty prevents me from saying anything more. I am indebted, however, to the Ebert Stiftung and the Deutsche-Englische Gesellschaft for enabling me to make the trips, and I also thank the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee for giving me the opportunity to meet three successive presidents of the Bundesbank.

In November 1993, Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Secretary, described the relationship with London as "unspectacular … solid, dependable, professional". A correspondent of The Times commented that Kinkel might have been describing his relationship with his dentist. My case this afternoon is that, given the joint experience, common interest and common problems of the two countries, something warmer than a dentist-patient relationship is needed. Positive and sustained steps, especially by the British side, should be taken to strengthen Anglo-German understanding.

Sadly, British attitudes to Germany and the Germans are far too often characterised by misunderstanding, envy and sometimes downright ignorance. Despite all the good work of the various British-German institutions, including those in which my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Central is involved, the British know very little about modern Germany. German is almost never the first foreign language taught in schools. Few learn subsequently about German politics, institutions or culture, and most British tourists go not to Germany but to France and the Mediterranean countries for their holidays. Indeed, a recent Financial Times poll showed that only 5 per cent. of British people have recently been to Germany, although 20 per cent. of Germans have recently been to Britain.

As a result, British views about Germany are shaped not by direct contact, as they ought to be, but by an unhappy combination of national stereotyping, memories of two world wars and half-digested scraps of information. Such poor information is basically due, with some notable exceptions, to the rather inadequate coverage of Germany even in the quality press, while the treatment of Germany by the tabloids is—frankly—a national disgrace.

In the political class, there is, I fear, an element of envy. Germans seems to have done so much better than us in the post-war world. British politicians, especially on the right, fear the German economy when it is strong and criticise it when it is weak. There are totally unjustified concerns about the prospect of an over-powerful Germany. That underlying assumption coloured Mrs. Thatcher's attitude to unification, which, as we know, was extremely hostile and very bad for British-German relations.

It is time that we treated the Germans as allies and friends. They have earned our trust and respect by the way in which they have conducted themselves over the past 50 years.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

In connection with what the hon. Gentleman has just said and his earlier statements about the fact that German is not taught as our first foreign language, does he agree that a student gains greater satisfaction from learning German rather than French because it is far more easy for an Englishman—nay, even a Scotsman—to speak German with a convincing accent? Indeed, German grammar enables one to understand English grammar, which, given that Latin is no longer studied at school, is very useful.

Mr. Radice

We ought to learn both.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

English and German?

Mr. Radice

We ought to learn German and French. I hope that one or two of us know a little English already.

What are the facts about modern Germany? The federal republic, now extended eastward through unification, has been the most successful regime in German history, not only economically but socially and democratically. Drawing on British and American experience and advice, playing to German strengths, and above all learning the lessons of the past, the founding fathers have devised a set of democratic rules and institutions which, over 40 years, have stood the test of time. They include the federal structure, the system of political consensus—shaped partly by proportional representation, the 5 per cent. hurdle, strong political parties, and so on—the social market institutions, which introduce considerable consensus into economic and industrial decision making, and, of course, a long-term perspective, which has been such a feature of German economic success.

We should note that it is remarkable how successful the federal republic has been in tackling the huge twin problems of unification and the restructuring of the German economy within the existing democratic and social consensus framework. The process of unification may have taken longer than the optimists expected, but most fair-minded observers conclude that there will be blooming landscapes, as promised by Chancellor Kohl at the Frauenkirche in Dresden in 1990. Of course, the process has taken much longer than he expected.

At the same time as proving its democratic credentials internally, Germany has showed itself to be a very good neighbour. It is significant that the new unity of Germany, firmly tied to the west and with no enemies and territorial claims to the east—the fruits of Ostpolitik—has been accepted by its European neighbours, including, in the end, if reluctantly, by the British.

Far more unites the United Kingdom and Germany than separates them. The two countries are now economically almost entirely interdependent. Germany is Britain's largest export market, while Britain is Germany's fourth largest export market. Germany is one of the largest investors in Britain. There are 1,000 German firms located here, which bring with them hundreds of thousands of jobs. Britain is a substantial investor in Germany, including the eastern Lander. A stable and prosperous Germany is a key British interest, just as a stable and prosperous Britain is a key German interest. To put it very basically, jobs in the United Kingdom and Germany depend on each other's markets, which is real interdependence.

At the same time, we have close defence links. Both countries have been members of NATO and allies for 40 years. As the United States cuts its forces on the European mainland, British-German defence co-operation will assume an even greater importance. It is impossible to imagine defending the mainland of Europe without that strong alliance between the British and the Germans.

We are both key members of the European Union. Sadly, our relationship has been marred by quarrels and spats, especially following Britain's humiliating exit from the exchange rate mechanism, but there again, we have substantial common interests. They include: a commitment to free markets; an open European Union; extending EU membership to the east; and support for subsidiarity. I submit that a more positive line in Europe by the British Government would bring out those shared views and assumptions.

Given those common interests, it is essential that positive and sustained steps should be taken to strengthen the Anglo-German relationship. The most important priority is improved knowledge of each other's countries. Lack of knowledge allows prejudice to gain hold and, as opinion polls show, it also generates distrust. Last year, a disturbing poll showed that 48 per cent. of Germans distrusted the British, and 50 per cent. of Britons distrusted the Germans. In both cases, that was the highest percentage for attitudes to another major country. That ought to give Ministers some cause for concern.

The key is to expand existing systems of educational and youth exchanges, which are both too small and without sufficient financial backing, especially on the British side. A mass programme of exchanges is required on the Franco-German model. While doing research for my book, I found out that 10 times more is spent on Franco-German exchanges than on Anglo-German exchanges. Something must be done there.

German language teaching should be stepped up dramatically in British schools, as should the number of German courses at British universities. It is interesting and significant that a new centre for German studies at Birmingham university has mainly been financed by German, not British, firms. It is essential for young Germans and Britons to have an informed view of one another.

Industry has a responsibility. British and German firms, which depend so much on each other's markets, ought to be more proactive in expanding awareness of each other's countries. Building on the work of the many Anglo-German institutions, voluntary organisations, political parties and trades unions ought to be expanding their co-operation with their opposite numbers.

Despite all that is sometimes said about twinning, there is a lot to be said for more of it at town, city and regional levels. Two towns in my constituency are twinned with German towns, and it is about much more than just town councillors' junketing. For example, there are youth and school exchanges and so forth, which do a power of good on both sides.

Above all, we need a Government lead, especially by the British Government. I want to hear British Ministers heralding German social democratic and economic achievements. I would like to hear them say a little more often that the Germans are good democrats and have been—have proved themselves to be—good neighbours. I would like to hear them say that it is in Britain's interests to have a strong, prosperous and democratic Germany, playing a leading role in Europe.

I am sure that the Anglo-German summit communiquè will include a number of worthy, but minor, measures. I suspect, however, that the time has come for some more symbolic act of friendship. In 1963, the French and Germans signed a treaty, which was a defining moment in modern European political history. In 1995, there is surely a case for an Anglo-German—I should more properly say British-German—state treaty, which would put British-German relations on a new and more constructive footing. Such an initiative would be good not only for Britain and Germany but for Europe as well.

1.14 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tony Baldry)

We are all very grateful to the hon. Member for Durham, North (Mr. Radice) for his timely raising of such an important subject in the House this week. It is a pity that we have only half an hour in which to debate the subject, as a number of hon. Members clearly take an interest, and I fear that there will not be time to allow them to take part.

On Friday, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will have some discussions with the German Chancellor and Foreign Minister in Bonn. That will be the culmination of a series of meetings between Ministers of finance, trade, economy and defence, and I therefore welcome this opportunity to review the state of our bilateral relationship with such a close and important partner in Europe as Germany.

The debate is also timely because, as the hon. Gentleman said, he has just published a book on the subject. He was overly modest about it. I would be slightly suspicious of a book that had an endorsement from the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) on its dust cover, but the hon. Member for Durham, North more than redeems himself by frequent and accurate references within it to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman reminds us of my right hon. Friend's commitment for Britain to be where we belong, at the very heart of Europe, working with our partners in building the future. It may encourage the hon. Gentleman to know that we have acquired a copy of his book for the Foreign Office library. Having read it, I can say that it is certainly a useful contribution to Anglo-German relations.

Mr. Radice

I must correct the Minister: the leader of the Liberal party made a nice comment about a previous book, not that one.

Mr. Baldry

I would be suspicious of any author of any book about which the leader of the Liberal party makes nice comments.

This partnership is perhaps most obvious to the business community. When Britain joined the European Economic Community in 1973, bilateral British-German trade totalled £2.2 billion in both directions. In 1994, by contrast, we exported some £17.7 billion worth of goods to Germany and imported £22.7 billion. Germany was our biggest trading partner in the European Union, and only just second to the United States worldwide.

In the same year, Britain was the top attraction for German investors, who invested more than £1.5 billion in the United Kingdom, which is well ahead of German investment in the United States. Our industry is benefiting from German investment, of which BMW's purchase of Rover is but one example.

In the other direction, Britain was the fourth largest investor in Germany, with some £282 million. Around 1,000 British companies have subsidiaries in Germany. British companies have been among the leaders investing in the new German states of the former East Germany. Governments encourage, while companies take the decisions. Economically, our present and future relations are closely intertwined. That is the case politically as well.

Mr. MacShane

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Baldry

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give way, because we have had one lengthy intervention in a short debate. This is a half-hour Adjournment debate, and, in fairness to the contribution of the hon. Member for Durham, North, I have a lot that I would like to say.

We recently commemorated 50 years of peace and reconciliation in Europe. Germany is a fully fledged and sovereign partner within the Union, with which we have, and will continue to have, the closest possible relations. We have been close to Germany because of the presence of British troops since the end of the war in the old West Germany; because of Britain's contribution to the establishment of democracy in the new Germany in the early years after the war; and because of our thinking on a range of issues, from the need to promote non-protectionist trade worldwide to the need to extend security and prosperity to the states of central and eastern Europe. That is all dictated by the same concerns.

The presence here of the German Chancellor and German Federal President on 6 and 7 May, and the Prime Minister's presence at commemorations in Berlin on 8 May, have served to emphasise that closeness. I am glad to say that it has also found a warm echo in the public and media response in both countries. I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman's comments about the role of the media in ensuring a responsible approach to the way in which we view not only Germany but other countries.

The year 1995 has already been memorable in Anglo-German relations. Not all the memories were comfortable, but I am glad to say that we were both able to commemorate the end of world war two in the most appropriate way—for example, in Dresden, Hamburg, London and Berlin.

Britain and Germany are, and will remain, key players in setting out how Europe will develop over the coming years. This concerns not only the institutions of the European Union, but the Union's relationship, and our two countries' relationships, with the rest of Europe—especially with Russia and its former allies. Too much attention has been focused on the differences between Germany and the United Kingdom on certain European issues, but we are sufficiently mature democracies to accept that it is unrealistic to agree on absolutely everything. Instead, we should capitalise on the benefits we gain from a dynamic relationship.

Together we want to see a strong Europe and a free Europe. Britain and Germany are the two main bulwarks against a fortress Europe. We are both concerned about the dangers of instability in central Europe; about competitiveness at home in the face of challenges from outside Europe; about the need for a Europe which is deregulated internally and adheres strictly to the principles of subsidiarity; about the need for financial discipline in the budget; and about the need for a cohesive common foreign and security policy. These are all issues on which we have a common concern and approach.

On a large number of the fundamentals of European policy, Britain and Germany agree. Naturally, there are some aspects of the European Union on which we do not agree. Our geography, history and constitutional experiences are different. In some ways, even our ways of thinking are different. It is natural that there should be intense debate about the future of Europe. The development of the European Union is taking place at the frontier of politics. We are inventing something quite new and unique, and debate is therefore essential.

A successful Europe for the future needs to be competitive in its business and trade, strong and active in its defence and security arrangements, flexible in the development of its institutions and, above all, in touch with its peoples. Britain and Germany share these concerns.

We believe in a Europe which holds its own in the open markets of the world. The protectionist blueprint is an illusion which will not protect but destroy jobs. Free trade brings growth and prosperity. That is why we need a single market free of unnecessary regulation. Britain and Germany have together put their shoulders energetically to this wheel, with the establishment of an Anglo-German deregulation group at last year's summit. I hope that, later this week, we shall be able to explain more fully the actions which we have taken to keep this subject high on the European agenda.

On European security, we stand side by side in our convictions. We believe in a European security architecture which rests on firm foundations—the alliance's collective security guarantee and the United States' commitment. But we need to build on those solid foundations. The German constitutional court's decision last July on the possible deployment of the Bundeswehr out of area increases the scope for Germany to play her part. It also widened the range—already considerable—over which we can co-operate in defence.

Several initiatives have been implemented following last year's British-German summit to assist the countries of central and eastern Europe. For example, we jointly organised a seminar in January attended by nine of those countries, and preparation for a trilateral peacekeeping exercise with Hungary is well in hand. Indeed, there is the closest possible relationship between our armed forces. Again, I hope there will be more to say about that after the summit meeting later this week.

Britain and Germany have set much of the agenda for Europe in the last decade on issues such as budgetary discipline, subsidiarity, deregulation, tackling fraud and promoting free trade. These are things which matter to our people in their daily lives. They matter to our prosperity. It is wrong to pretend that Europe has just one motor. There are several, and the British-German motor is one of the more important. It runs rather quietly, as good motors usually do, but is none the less powerful.

Consultation and co-operation with German colleagues at official level has become an inherent part of our lives. In the case of my own Department and the diplomatic service, for example, there are two members of the German foreign service working in the FCO, and two British diplomats working in the German foreign ministry in Bonn. Overseas, our embassies work closely together to our mutual benefit, sharing information and—in one or two places—sharing premises.

For Ministers, too, a close relationship and consultation exists. This week, for example, the federal German Minister for education, science, research and technology has been visiting the UK for talks with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Ministers of finance, trade and economy and defence have had profitable discussions in recent weeks, of which the Prime Minister and Chancellor Kohl will take account in this week's summit.

My right hon. Friends have been much encouraged by the pragmatism of our German partners. The results of those deliberations should be announced on Friday, especially on defence and on increasing mutual public awareness, particularly among young people. I agree very much with what the hon. Gentleman said about the importance of ensuring that there is the greatest understanding between our two countries, particularly among young people.

So much for official co-operation. The Anglo-German relationship does not rest solely on contacts between Governments. What about links between communities? A directory of British-German co-operation put out jointly by the German embassy and the FCO earlier this year lists more than 12 pages of towns with twins in Germany. I suspect that the constituency towns of most hon. Members are linked with towns in Germany, and the towns sometimes exchange strange things. For example, Banbury is twinned with Hennef, which has a British post box, telephone box and other artefacts in its main square. We have received similar gifts from Hennef.

Latest estimates suggest that there are around 8,000 Germans studying at British universities, and around 2,500 British students in Germany. Although at school level there are no central statistics, a best guess would be that around 20,000 schoolchildren are involved in school exchanges each year.

Yet despite this solid foundation, in the subjective field of attitudes and mutual perceptions, both countries seem sometimes to be stuck in a time warp. It is human nature to prefer familiar prejudices to new facts, and to keep existing opinions rather than look at the evidence. Germany, more than most, suffers the effects of this in the UK. As the hon. Gentleman said, opinion polls show that there is still too much mistrust between Britons and Germans. That is regrettable.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister intends to discuss with Chancellor Kohl what further steps the two Governments might take to help expose old stereotypes for what they are. There are a number of measures to be considered, with the objective of improving access to information on each other's countries, and increasing contacts and exchanges still further.

Just as we must ensure that there is clear understanding among the people of our two countries of the realities of life, so we must ensure that there is a clear understanding between politicians of both countries. Among politicians, there is sometimes a temptation to create bogeys where Germany is concerned. One of those bogeys is that our views and the views of Germany are diametrically opposed.

I do not think that that is the case. We do not agree on everything with the Germans—nor does any other member state. Each nation has its own traditions and its own objectives for the forthcoming intergovernmental conference, the outcome of which must be agreed by all. But there is much on which we do agree with the Germans.

We both believe in a liberal, free-trading and competitive Europe. We both believe in an outward-looking Europe, and in the importance of enlarging Europe. We both believe in the importance of subsidiarity in Europe, and we both want to deregulate Europe. As substantial net contributors, both Germany and ourselves want to see value for money in the European Union, and proper financial control.

Another bogey raised too often about Germany among politicians in this country is that the Germans will pursue a federalist agenda in 1996. I suspect that there are some in Germany who still subscribe to a vision of the future of the European Union as a federal super-state. But it is more important to look at what German politicians have been saying. Chancellor Kohl made it clear when he said: We do not want a European 'superstate' … In a Europe of the future, we will remain Germans, Britons, Italians or Frenchmen. He clearly subscribes to a Europe of nation states. Only last week, Werner Hoyer, the German Minister of State for Europe and study group representative, said of the IGC: The wheel does not have to be reinvented. But the bearings … have to be checked to ensure that they are functioning … properly". That does not sound like a bid for radical federalism to me. The people of Europe do not want a centralised, interventionist Europe, and it is not what their economies need. That is why we have made it clear that, if such proposals are made at the intergovernmental conference, we shall not accept them.

In 1995, we have shown how far our two countries have been reconciled since the war, and how much progress has been made. Now is the time to build on that progress and move forward. I hope that I have shown how the Government are doing exactly that. It is right that we should be aware of Germany's economic and political strengths in Europe. We can acknowledge how far Germany has come—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We now move to the debate on the smuggling of tobacco and alcohol.