David Frost told a parliamentary committee last week that his last private trip abroad before the pandemic was to Berlin for a performance of Das Rheingold. The first part of Wagner’s Ring cycle appears to be something of a favourite of the Brexit minister, who also went to see it in Hamburg in May 2018.
“Danke für eine wunderschöne Vorstellung von Das Rheingold heute Abend!” he tweeted afterwards.
Frost may have been picking up negotiating tips from the god Wotan, who sets off a catastrophic sequence of events by entering into a contract with a couple of giants which he never intended to honour. But it’s more likely that he is one of a multitude of cultivated Brexiteers whose dislike of the European Union does nothing to diminish their passion for European culture and particularly for German music.
Frost’s cabinet colleague Michael Gove is another Wagnerian, an annual visitor to the Bayreuth Festival in normal times, often with former chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne. On Friday, Boris Johnson will welcome to Chequers another annual presence at Bayreuth, German chancellor Angela Merkel.
Merkel is also a football fan and along with millions of Germans, she will have watched this week as the home crowd at Wembley booed the German national anthem. It is the kind of coarse hostility Germans are accustomed to from the English but it still stings, partly because it’s a reminder of their history of unrequited love.
Very British, an exhibition that toured a number of cities in Germany recently, celebrated the two countries’ relationship from a German perspective. It traced how the former adversary and occupying power quickly became a treasured ally and a political and cultural role model after the second World War.
Generations of Germans loved British post-war cultural products, from the Beatles and James Bond to the Mini and the Parka jacket. But they also respected Britain’s long, unbroken democratic tradition and its respect for the rule of law and constitutional norms.
Britain’s decision to leave the EU was both legitimate and in accordance with the European treaties but Johnson’s conduct during the negotiations has shaken the confidence of Britain’s neighbours in his good faith and commitment to the best of his country’s democratic tradition. Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) no longer has a sister party in Britain but the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) has – the Conservative Party, with which it shares a group in the Council of Europe.
Although Merkel will leave office later this year, Johnson will use her farewell visit to Chequers to build the foundation for a better bilateral relationship under her successor. He will flatter the former physicist by announcing a new award in her honour for British and German women scientists.
Merkel will address Johnson’s cabinet and they will agree to hold annual joint British-German cabinet meetings and to expand links across a range of sectors.
“The UK and Germany have a steadfast friendship and a shared outlook on many issues. Our scientists, innovators and industrialists work together every day to make the world a better place. Over the 16 years of Chancellor Merkel’s tenure the UK-Germany relationship has been re-energised and re-invigorated for a new era. And the new joint ventures we will agree today will leave a legacy that will last for generations,” said the British prime minister on Wednesday.
Earlier this week, foreign secretary Dominic Raab and his German counterpart Heiko Mass signed a joint declaration on foreign and security policy co-operation, stressing their shared priorities on climate change, China and the Indo-Pacific. Raab stressed the bilateral relationship but the joint declaration makes clear that Berlin sees its relationship with London within a broader context.
“For Germany, its membership of the European Union remains a key reference point and it supports co-operation between the EU and the UK. Regarding bilateral undertakings, Germany, as an EU Member State, will ensure the highest possible level of transparency towards the institutions and Member States of the European Union,” it says.
The two governments reaffirmed their commitment to the rules-based international systembut if Johnson wants to strengthen his relationship with Merkel’s successor, he will have to show that he feels bound by international agreements, including the Northern Ireland protocol.
Frost could remind the prime minister – and himself – of the words in Das Rheingold of Fasolt, one of the giants, when Wotan tries to wriggle out of their agreement: “What you are, you are only by contracts; limited and well defined is your power . . . I will curse all your wisdom and flee from your peace if openly, honourably and freely you do not know to keep faith in your bond.”