Playing the lead role in Europe

UK companies have big opportunities in Germany, especially those in the green sectors

Andrew Whitehead

It’s official: just when Germany expected us to head for the EU exit door, it seems we’re their biggest trading partner. According to recent Bundesbank figures, the UK has overtaken France as Germany’s biggest global trade partner – with trade between the two countries hitting €153bn (£133bn) in the first nine months of 2012.

It’s probably a mistake to view this as a prelude to a waning of Germany’s recently strained enthusiasm for the eurozone core. Nonetheless, it is welcome news for UK plc, and coincides with a rise in British goods exports to Germany by 20 per cent over the first three quarters of the financial year, despite the continued economic gloom.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, one of the key UK export markets to Germany is car components – the Midlands being a key player.

But UK green goods and services are another success story. At last count, the sector was valued at around £122bn, and employs

almost a million people. Key sub-sectors are alternative fuels, building technologies and wind energy. Wave and tidal energy, and carbon finance also make a strong showing.

According to latest government figures, we exported £121m more green goods and services to Germany than we imported from them.

All the more surprising, then, to see UK companies apparently so thin on the ground at this month’s E-World energy fair in Essen, Germany. In what is billed as the world’s largest energy and water trade fair, I was expecting to be tripping over UK companies competing to win a share of business in Europe’s largest economy.

The opportunities in the energy sector are huge, in light of what the Germans call ‘Energiewende’ – the transition and reshaping of the industry in response to nuclear closures post-Fukushima and a surge in renewable energy, among other things. There are many themes that will be familiar to observers of the UK utility scene: a huge investment programme in transmission grids; new power stations and alternative energy technologies; and ever-increasing demand for innovative solutions to improve energy efficiency and develop smart grids.

However, if the long list of exhibitors in Essen was anything to go by, the domestic German utilities, manufacturers and service providers more or less have all bases covered.

Perhaps, with our own version of the Energiewende under way, there are enough opportunities for UK companies closer to home right now. A February trip to North Rhine-Westphalia in Germany’s industrial heartland is, after all, unlikely to be top of anyone’s bucket list.

However, it is clear that the UK and Germany have a lot more in common than a royal family and an unfair reputation for dodgy cuisine. A healthy trading relationship, built on a shared belief in liberal free market values, looks set to play an increasingly important part in the debate about the UK’s role in Europe.