Whenever the former German chancellor Angela Merkel visited Britain, the sycophantic welcome she received reflected her then reputation as one of the world’s most respected leaders. Mrs Merkel was viewed as the wisest stateswoman of her generation, a bulwark of the liberal order, and calm and careful while others were impetuous and ideological.
That reputation for strategical brilliance evaporated the moment Vladimir Putin launched his murderous assault on Ukraine. For all the pleasantries, the visit of her successor Olaf Scholz to the UK yesterday to some extent reflected that.
In recent weeks, Germany has been forced to confront the consequences of the short-sighted decisions that Mrs Merkel and her predecessors made. Mr Scholz has announced an increase in military spending that will eventually see the country meet its Nato obligations after so many years of failing to do so. He has also promised that Berlin will wean itself off its dependence on Russian oil and gas, a policy on which he emphasised that Germany was making progress at a Downing Street press conference yesterday.
However, Berlin’s critics – particularly in Eastern Europe – contend that it is not moving anywhere near fast enough and that it is still prioritising economic self-interest over the lives of Ukrainians. Since the invasion began, the country has paid billions of euros to Russia, helping to support Putin’s war machine. It is reported to be resisting moves at the EU level to impose a full embargo on Russian energy exports. Its dependence is admittedly large, but is Germany really doing all it can, as Mr Scholz asserted yesterday?
The horrors that the Kremlin is inflicting on the Ukrainian people – including a missile fired at a packed train station – are such that the West’s response cannot be clouded by outdated theories about “engaging” Putin strategically or tying Russia into the West via trade. That ship sailed when the Russian leader chose to attempt to crush a democratic European state.
To its credit, the UK Government has realised this. There are elements of the British response that can be criticised as insufficient. Its refugee policy, in particular, appears to have become bogged down in health and safety bureaucracy, with potential hosts being told that their homes are not suitable for Ukrainians on ridiculous grounds such as that they have bare floorboards. But ministers have got the big calls right.
However, the West’s strength derives in part from its unity of purpose. For too long, Germany was allowed to assume the mantle of leadership in Europe without taking on the responsibility that entails. Let us hope that its promises of change this time are real.