Gordon Brown Visits Germany: Moscow Spat Clouds Berlin Love-In

By Sebastian Borger in London

The diplomatic escalation between London and Moscow overshadowed new British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's visit to Berlin on Monday, which otherwise would have been hailed as a small sensation.

Gordon Brown's visit to Berlin was his first trip abroad as British Prime Minister. His predecessor Tony Blair chose Washington as his first destination.
AP

Gordon Brown's visit to Berlin was his first trip abroad as British Prime Minister. His predecessor Tony Blair chose Washington as his first destination.

It was meant to be a harmonious first visit with German political ally Angela Merkel. The new British prime minister and the German chancellor almost pulled off the performance, too. But just hours prior to Gordon Brown's arrival in Berlin, harsh news from London and Moscow intervened.

The speaker of the Russian Foreign Ministry called Britain's behavior "provocative" and "immoral." There would be "serious consequences" if the British government carried out its plans to expel four Russian diplomats from the country. Britain's new foreign minister, David Miliband, announced the expulsions on Monday. The decision was prompted by irritation over Russia's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the main suspect in the murder of Alexander Litvinenko, to Britain.

Brown had hardly landed in Berlin when, with Merkel at his side, he commented on the escalation between his government and Moscow. "We want the best possible relationship with Russia," he said. "We want to work constructively with Russia on Iran, the Middle East and all other major issues." But then the prime minister defended the expulsion of the diplomats. "When a murder takes place, when a number of innocent civilians were put at risk ... when an independent prosecuting authority makes it absolutely clear what is in the interest of justice and there is no forthcoming cooperation, then action has to be taken." Brown also said he was "sad" about Russia's lack of cooperation.

Brown added that he wants the issue to be resolved as quickly as possible -- a stance fully supported by Merkel. She said Britain had made its decision after a thorough evaluation of the results of the criminal investigation into Litvinenko's death. She said she hoped the current tensions could be overcome quickly, so the good relations that everyone wants with Russia can be resumed.

A Small Sensation

Given the flap caused by the crisis in diplomatic relations between Britain and Russia, one aspect of the visit -- which would have been touted as a small sensation under different circumstances -- almost went unnoticed. Brown's visit to Berlin was his first trip abroad as prime minister. His choice to visit Germany first was a surprise.

True, he only stayed a few hours. It could almost be called a "blitz" visit, if that weren't wholly inappropriate in the context of a British politician, in whose language the word "blitz" is inevitably associated with war. Still, the Prime Minister's first foreign visit was packed with symbolic value. "Our bilateral relationship could hardly be better," said Wolfgang Ischinger, the German ambassador to Britain. Brown's visit, he added, was a testament to Merkel's international success.

With her pragmatic and ultimately successful European Union (EU) presidency, she has impressed the British, because she accommodated their vision of an EU Lite. Berlin's statement on the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome set a new tone. It called for the union to maintain its achievements so far and cooperate on political issues like environmental protection, anti-terrorism and immigration. It also called on Europe to abandon constant pressure towards an "ever more tightly knit" EU. One important reason Merkel could broker an agreement on the planned EU Treaty was that she took all British concerns into account. Brown's predecessor Tony Blair thanked her in his own way. It was partly due to friendly pressure from the outgoing prime minister that the Kaczynski twins, from Poland -- however grudgingly -- endorsed the treaty in the end.

"Excellent Cooperation"

Brown was full of praise for Merkel during his visit. He also made many promises concerning future cooperation within the EU. "Our countries have had excellent cooperation and relations. I look forward to strengthening these relationships," Brown said. Closer cooperation is especially necessary in the area of anti-terrorism, he added. Brown also praised Merkel's efforts for worldwide climate protection measures. Through her work as rotating EU president, he said, Merkel has shown the world that more needs to be done to curb climate change.

One area where there has been little cooperation in Britain has been the euro. Tony Blair wanted to adopt Europe's common currency but never succeeded in building enough public or political support. During his visit on Monday night, Brown did not exclude the possibility of the euro's introduction in Britain. He spoke vaguely about the need to confront the consequences of globalization, adding that this would involve an ongoing assessment of economic development within the EU.

Brown praised Germany for its economic growth and emphasized several times that it was both an honor and a special pleasure to be received by Merkel. The German chancellor returned the compliment by predicting that cooperation with Brown would be just as successful as it had been with Tony Blair.

United in their Bewilderment over Sarkozy

There are tangible "shared interests" behind the impetus for closer ties between Brown and Merkel and, by extension, Britain and Germany, Britain's former Europe minister, Denis MacShane, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "We are equally interested in good trans-Atlantic relations, in free and open trade within the EU and in economic reforms that create new employment."

Wishful thinking may play some role in this. But it's clear that between their major EU allies, the British have focused on Germany because the activism of new French President Nicolas Sarkozy -- which sometimes seems a bit aimless -- makes them uncomfortable. Merkel is likely to understand the Brits' concerns.

But the first foreign policy steps taken by Brown and his team appear to have been planned and considered very carefully. Of course the British prime minister and his foreign minister, David Miliband, emphasize their legendary "special relationship" with their former colony across the Atlantic whenever they can. "Our strongest bilateral relationship is with the United States because it is in our national interest," Miliband told the BBC over the weekend. And Brown's spokesman at 10 Downing Street said the prime minister had already spoken extensively with US President George W. Bush three times on the phone.

Blair Flew To Washington First

In contrast to Tony Blair, however, Brown chose not to fly to Washington for his first trip abroad. He sent his his close confidant and international development secretary, Douglas Alexander, instead. Last week Alexander gave a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations in the capital, an organization which has long taken a critical stance on Bush's Iraq policy. But Alexander emphasized strong trans-Atlantic ties. "Today the UK stands together with the US in confronting international terrorism and confronting violent insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan," he said.

But he also emphasized the importance of non-military instruments in foreign policy. "In the 20th century a country’s might was too often measured in what they could destroy," he said. "In the 21st, strength should be measured by what we can build together." He added that the future belongs to a policy that is "internationalist not isolationist; multilateralist not unilateralist; active not passive; and driven by core values consistently applied, not special interests."

That's one more common feature between the foreign policies of Britain and Germany. The German chancellor and the British prime minister don't just share a similar background as the children of preachers. They also correspond to "the school of rational, systematic politician" -- a stark contrast to their predecessors Tony Blair and Gerhard Schröder, who tended to act on instinct, one top diplomat in London said.

Still, although the interests of Merkel and Brown largely coincide for the time being, the German-British love-in will only get more interesting when it comes time to resolve a real conflict.

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