06/22/2016 11:57 AM
Why Germany Needs the British
In just under two weeks, the people will decide if they want to remain in the EU or not. Brexit would be a catastrophe for everyone, including the UK itself. Why we need the British and the British need us. An Appeal.
It’s not easy to like England at the moment. One of the reasons is standing in the market square of Preston, located on the windy western side of the island, with his sandy hair, wrinkled blazer and jeans. Until recently, Boris Johnson was mayor of London.
But now, microphone in hand, he is fighting against Europe. Behind him is a red-painted campaign bus emblazoned with the words: “We send the EU £50 million a day.” Johnson bounces on his toes like a birthday boy: a new survey has just come out indicating that the Brexit camp is in the lead. A personal success.
Boris, as everyone calls him, has become the leading figure in the anti-EU campaign, and ahead of the June 23 referendum, polls show that the British trust him more than any other politician. His announcement that he would fight for the Brexit movement dominated the headlines, partly because it was also a declaration of war against his Conservative party colleague David Cameron, the British prime minister. Since then, Johnson has been rolling around Britain in his red bus like a thunderstorm. In Devon, he compared the EU to Hitler; in Stafford, he said Brussels prohibits the sale of bananas in packs of more than two or three and for that reason alone, Britain should leave. The newspapers have reported that he only wants to allow immigrants into the country if they can speak good English.
“Does anybody know how many of our laws are made in Brussels?” he asks loudly into the microphone. “Sixty per cent. We’re losing control over our democracy.” The 150 spectators clap and cheer. And isn’t it time, Johnson asks, to take control of our immigration policy? Immigrants, he claims, are partly to blame for the fact that wages are so low. “Vote Leave, my friends!”
It has been going on like this for weeks, no, for months. And at some point, after all the relentless bellowing, one finds oneself wondering: yeah, actually why not? Why not let the British take the step that many are apparently longing for: separation from the EU? The rest of Europe wouldn’t have to suffer their intransigence any longer and they could be content and happy on their island. Wouldn’t that be the perfect solution for everyone?
The answer is no. Were the British to leave the EU, it would be a threefold catastrophe: bad for Germany, bad for Britain and cataclysmic for Europe.
Following Brexit, Germany would lose an important ally and, as a large central power on the continent, it would be definitively condemned to take on the leadership role it never wanted. Britain would be giving up access to a European market of 500 million people and would pay a high price for its isolation. After Brexit, the union as a whole would become economically weaker, domestically more fragile and externally more vulnerable – a situation in which Britain would suffer as well. And that’s not even close to all.
Brexit would send tremors not just through Europe, but through the entire western world. All allied nations want the UK to remain part of Europe: the Americans, Chinese, Australians and Japanese. Furthermore, almost all economists have warned against leaving the EU, from the Bank of England to the World Trade Organisation. The only internationally known politician in favour of Brexit is Donald Trump – and, if nothing else does, that alone should make the British worry.
We need the British because they belong to Europe, and because without them, the union of European peoples becomes pointless and lost. We need them because they are part of the community of pragmatic, reasonable countries and because they are politically, culturally and economically similar to us Germans. They are closer to us than the Portuguese or the Croatians; we share their scepticism of state profligacy; and we also share their frustration with the EU. Only with the British can we make the EU better and lead it into a new future. Without them, we would have to walk this path without a significant part of Europe alongside us.
Video: Remain or leave?
Is this really happening? It can’t be true that the urbane, courageous and strategically astute British, of all people, want to pull out – that they are leaving now that times are tough. We need them because the continent would otherwise descend into rashness, pettiness and lethargy.
Have those who are campaigning for Brexit forgotten the events of the 20th century? Two world wars, millions of dead and a continent turned into a battlefield. The UK took the lead when it came to defeating Adolf Hitler.
Europe isn’t just Brussels. Europe is the successful attempt to learn from the last century and leave the horrors and wars behind. We have created a unique community, an alliance of the willing, one in which erstwhile arch-enemies work together peacefully. Do the British want to risk destroying all that, or do they want to try to improve the processes governing our cooperation?
The UK was never an enthusiastic member of the European club. Nevertheless, British history is irrevocably linked to the continent. As historian Brendan Simms writes in his newly published book, Britain’s Europe, Europe has almost always been more important to Britain than the rest of the world. The British Empire primarily served strategic interests based on the balance of power on the continent: against Spain in the 16th and 17th centuries; later against France and tsarist Russia; and against Nazi Germany in the 20th century.
Europe made Britain and Britain made Europe. Leaving the continent geographically is not an option. Sorry. And even if the British have been uncomfortable European partners at times, they are irreplaceable – and they are still Europeans. They have a lot to lose should they turn their backs on Europe, but they have much more to win should they decide to stay. They need us just as we need them.
In case some in Britain have missed this, the referendum is not taking place in innocent times. The refugee crisis and the war in Syria are shaking Europe’s self-confidence while populists and extremists are gaining ground and autocrats are popping up on Europe’s periphery. Economically, the continent is faced with adversaries in Asia – first and foremost China – while in southern Europe we have to find a way to drastically reduce youth unemployment.
The last thing we Germans, we Europeans need is a messy divorce from Britain. Without Britain, Europe isn’t just impractical, it makes little sense. But where does the bitterness and yearning for Brexit come from?
The Brexiteers’ fight is dominated by the desire to return England to its past glory. The posters read: “We want our country back.”
“Let’s take back control of our country,” agrees Michael Gove, secretary of state for justice and another leading Brexit campaigner alongside Boris Johnson. It’s about nation and identity – and about setting boundaries. Britain should not tie its fortunes to a sinking continent, they argue. Instead, the country must break its bonds and turn to the world at large, to the Commonwealth and beyond.
A phantom pain lurks within the debate. Still today, the famous 1962 quote from former US secretary of state Dean Acheson remains valid: “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.”
Brexiteers paint a picture of a besieged country stuck deep in crisis, and then stoke fears of further decline. That too is a tradition in Britain. The constant fear of decline has tortured and agonised the English soul since the middle of the 15th century, when England lost France, supposedly because the British had become frail, were divided at home and were suffering under a weak monarchy. An inferiority complex is also part of England.
Partly out of fear and partly out of anger, the Brexit camp is waging war against the powers-that-be in Brussels, against the loss of self-determination in united Europe and against “unregulated immigration” in their own country. It is an “us versus them” campaign. The fight has become as dirty as possible in the country of Shakespeare, where political battles are portrayed as wars and, by the end, the stage is covered in corpses. Gove and Johnson have turned the referendum into a plebiscite against immigrants, against eastern Europeans and Turks. Those elements have made the Brexit camp’s campaign even more anti-European than it already was.
The central figure of the Remain campaign is also its greatest handicap. For years, David Cameron acted like the most sceptical of British Eurosceptics. He is a tactician, not a strategist, and he promised to hold the referendum because he wanted to be re-elected. His conversion to EU advocate was never credible, and the voters have noticed. The situation is no different with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn: he too is only a half-hearted European.
‘The More Mud You Throw, the More It Sticks’
The Brexit movement has invested a lot of energy in exposing its opponents’ contradictions, focusing on immigration and the billions in contributions Britain makes to the EU. Many of the claims made by the Brexit supporters are just as outrageous as Ukip head Nigel Farage’s claim that sexual harassment like that in Cologne on New Year’s Eve would happen in Britain were the country not to leave the EU. And the £50m that London allegedly sends to Brussels each day is just as misleading. In fact, it is less than half that.
“The more mud you throw, the more it sticks,” says Hugo Dixon. He is fighting for Remain and runs the website infacts.org, where he tries to refute Brexit propaganda. Dixon has made it his mission to rescue the truth.
His favourite myths: Turkey will become an EU member in four years; Brussels is in the process of building up a secret army; the British healthcare system, the NHS, can only be saved by Brexit; and Europe needs Britain more than Britain needs Europe. But the campaign has shown that many British people believe such claims. The Daily Star recently reported that the EU wants to ban kettles. Some surveys indicate that the Brexit camp is in the lead.
The majority of supporters are older, working-class British citizens. Matthew Goodwin, a political scientist at the University of Kent, calls this group the “left behind”. He has been monitoring the Eurosceptic movement for years and says that the country’s two main parties have given up on the fringes of society and focused their attentions on the centre. As a result, in the course of deindustrialisation, a new, economically insecure group has developed that holds views diametrically opposed to those of liberal city dwellers. They are less open to the world, largely anti-immigration and Eurosceptic.
Animation: Why we love the British
Goodwin also sees long-term generational changes in the values that shape the outlook of voters on issues such as race and immigration, national identity, Europe and ethnic diversity. But not everybody shares these different values. Ukip has cleverly taken advantage of the potential of the “left behind”. Last year, the party received almost 4 million votes. That is 4 million people who will vote for Brexit.
Britain has often derived part of its identity from its separation from the European continent. The conservative elite has also promulgated the narrative of an island that must defend itself from external threats and, if necessary, face those dangers alone. For those who buy that narrative, Europe was always populated by the others.
There’s also the fact that the UK entered the European Economic Community in a time of economic weakness. The British were sceptical in 1975 when they had to decide between staying and leaving. The Conservative party fought to stay part of the EEC for economic reasons and saw Europe as an opportunity for advancement and growth, while the majority of Labour fought against it.
In the 1980s, the Margaret Thatcher decade, the Tories’ mood turned against Europe. If one wanted to identify a date on which the Conservatives turned to Euroscepticism, it would have to be September 8, 1988, the day that Jacques Delors, rhetorically at least, spat in the Iron Lady’s face.
Delors, who was the head of the European commission, was speaking in support of the EU before the British Trades Union Congress. He promised more protection and security for workers – an outrage for Thatcher, who had gone to great lengths to rip the country from the grasp of the unions and strengthen the business and banking sectors.
A short while later, she said, “We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at a European level with a European superstate.”
That statement was a battle cry for the Tories. “Europe” was no longer a mere free trade zone, as Thatcher wanted it, but an ideological project driven by the Germans and the French and steered by bureaucrats on the continent.
We can no longer convince the British to love the EU. It’s too late for that. But perhaps we should use this opportunity to mention how much the rest of Europe admires them. It’s unbelievable that they don’t seem to see how much they’ve shaped the continent, how much we value them here, how close we Germans feel to them – that too is part of the story.
This island is part of the global avant garde – in human rights, in freedom movements, in culture and in its talent for being cool. The urge for freedom is a thread that runs through British history – from the Magna Carta in the 13th century, when English barons cheekily wrested their rights from the king, up to the suffragettes of the 20th century fighting for women’s right to vote. It was only a short step to the miniskirt, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and punk. In the 1960s and 1970s, Europe wanted to be just as free as England. The British may have lost an empire, but they invented pop and presented the world with cultural exports from James Bond to Twiggy’s haircut. They are more colourful, shriller, louder and livelier than anyone else could ever be.
Germany has always looked across the Channel with some degree of envy. On our emotional map of Europe, the Italians were responsible for love and good food, the French for beauty and elegance and the Brits for nonchalance and progress. They have an inner independence that we Germans lack, in addition to myriad anti-authoritarian, defiant tendencies. A lot of what happened in Britain spilled over to us sooner or later, reinforcing our cultural ties.
The country has always exerted political power in those moments when it has pursued a specific goal and thrown all its energy into achieving it. Churchill freed Europe, Thatcher drove forward the single market, Blair pushed ahead with enlargement. The British contributed greatly to security and prosperity on the continent. But every time they pulled back, order began to crumble. Britain is always at its best when it doesn’t turn its back on Europe, writes historian Christopher Clark.
Strange that it is again necessary to tell the British that they are most successful when finding allies and forging alliances. Over the past few decades, the country has been granted many of the special requests it demanded from Brussels – contrary to claims often made by the pro-Brexit camp. They are neither in the eurozone nor in the Schengen area, and likely never will be. Countless initiatives that were jump-started by London are essential for Europe, such as the liberalisation of the services sector. The British government was on the winning side in the vast majority of European council decisions.
Back in 1984, Thatcher negotiated a rebate on EU contributions and since then the country has been reimbursed a considerable portion of those transfers. The savings over the course of three decades has amounted to 111bn. Should the British remain, they would no longer be bound to aspire to an “ever closer union” or have to go along with EU integration.
When it comes to trade, the British are a pragmatic people, which makes it even more incomprehensible that the Brexit movement wants to cut the links to the continent that the UK has built up over decades. Even Eurosceptics admit that an economic shock would follow Brexit. Those who want to avoid such an outcome cannot leave.
Britain’s recent resurgence as a car manufacturer was only possible because foreign companies were able to send their vehicles across Europe easily from their British factories. Almost half of the cars produced in Britain last year were sold in the EU. Honda, Toyota and Nissan put their factories there because they could export to Europe without paying customs.
Only a third of the parts for the auto sector come from Britain and the supply chains stretch across the continent. The consultancy Roland Berger estimates that 80,000 jobs would be lost in the Midlands and northern England were Britain to leave the EU. Furthermore, foreign investment in Britain amounts to over £50bn each year and no leading economy has a greater share of it. More than half of those investments were made because the investors are interested in accessing EU markets. The purchase orders for the successful British space industry are likewise almost entirely European.
To torpedo all that isn’t just irresponsible, it’s dangerous. Cross-border trade, of course, wouldn’t come to a standstill in the event of Brexit, but the consequences for the British economy, fragile enough as it is, would be bad. Indeed, the uncertainty created by the Brexit debate is already having effects. Since the end of November, the British pound has dropped 10% against the euro, and further losses are certain. Central banks across Europe are already working on a crisis plan and one official at the European Central Bank in Frankfurt says that British financial institutions may need a significant injection of euros on June 24 following Brexit because investors would become nervous. His institution, he says, has set aside precautionary funds.
London owes its rise as a global centre of finance to the fact that it is where Europe’s business is done. The British financial sector is responsible for close to 10% of the country’s economy and after Brexit, it would be forced to contend with ascendant rivals. Investment banks like JP Morgan have suggested that they would move parts of their businesses away from the UK.
The British Have a Lot To Gain If They Stay
What happens after Brexit? Even if the exit of an EU member seems neatly regulated on paper, it will be a messy break-up. That is certain. Article 50 of the treaty of Lisbon calls on countries that want to leave to communicate their intention to the European council. The EU would then negotiate an agreement and the exit would be implemented two years later. At least in theory.
Officials in Brussels, however, believe the negotiations would be complicated and slow. And there could be plenty of conflict. The delays would start with the fact that it is up to Britain to determine when it officially notifies the council of its intent to leave. Only then does the two-year period begin. Hardly anyone in London expects Cameron to remain head of government if the British vote to leave and it could take months before a new cabinet has gotten its bearings, potentially with Boris Johnson as prime minister. But no one in Brussels wants to wait that long.
Furthermore, nobody has experience with this kind of situation. Thus far in European history, the focus has always been on deepening EU integration, not the opposite. There are only small-scale precedents, like the exit of Greenland in 1985. Those negotiations took two years.
It’s not only the big questions that would need to be discussed but a thousand small ones as well. What would happen to Britain’s EU presidency in 2017? How would the British contribute to the pensions of EU officials from whose work they profited? Officials in London and Brussels would have to spend two years figuring out how to disentangle their legal systems.
Europe won’t make things easy for the British, and for good reason. The pro-Brexit camp’s belief that they can preserve the advantages of the single market without the responsibilities of membership is laughable. Firstly, because others don’t have these advantages. Secondly, because Europe doesn’t want to encourage potential copycats like Marine Le Pen, head of France’s Front National. Le Pen has announced that, should she win the French presidential election next year – however unlikely that may be – she would hold a referendum of her own. The more gently the British are treated, the more appealing it will become for others to extort special rights.
The new British-European relationship is likely to be modelled on the examples of Norway, Iceland or Liechtenstein. The rules of the domestic market would largely still apply, though with the disadvantages that London would have no say in making the rules, would have to pay to enter the market, and would have to continue letting EU citizens enter the country.
Should there be no agreement within two years, the statutes of the World Trade Organisation come into effect. The EU would impose tariffs on British imports and vice versa. Britain would be back to where it once was. In the 20th century.
The truth is no one knows what will happen on June 24 if the British vote to leave. No one in Brussels, no one in London and no one in Berlin. German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble says no one can predict how the financial markets will react post-Brexit. “We are preparing for all possible scenarios to limit the risks,” Schäuble said in an interview with DER SPIEGEL. In the case of Brexit, he says, we must remain calm and offer the markets some orientation.
“An exit would be more dangerous for Britain than for the rest of the EU,” says one Social Democrat member of the German government. No one wants Brexit, the cabinet member argues, but if it happens, the opportunities it would present must be taken advantage of. The Social Democrats in particular are hoping for a shift towards closer EU integration.
Some among chancellor Merkel’s conservatives, by contrast, are considering whether to reopen negotiations with London in the case of Brexit and possibly making further concessions to the British. “Even if Britain, contrary to our expectations, votes in favour of Brexit, we shouldn’t immediately slam the door shut, but instead sound out what might be possible to prevent an exit,” says Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman for the conservatives in the German parliament.
Of course, Brexit won’t be followed by an apocalypse or a third world war as Cameron has insinuated. But Britain will be alone. The country will pivot away from Europe and there will be a process of mutual distancing. Europeans will find it more difficult to settle in the UK, to live and work there, and the same will go for Brits in Europe. That will be the most awkward consequence of Brexit – a creeping estrangement between friends.
The British always wanted to make Europe more efficient and less top-heavy. They would be hurting themselves were they to throw away decades of work and weaken Europe at a moment when it is facing more problems than virtually ever before. The British would suffer from a weakened EU just as much as everyone else.
The bizarre thing is that the Brexiteers aren’t even making the effort to plan for life after the EU. They have no idea where the journey would lead. Their plan is: we are slamming the door and then we’ll see what happens next. Michael Gove has said, in all seriousness, that Albania’s status could make an attractive goal. They are also hoping for trade deals with India, China and the US, even though US president Barack Obama has said that Britain would have to go to the back of the queue. They hope that the world will open up the way it used to. They have no more to offer than hope and patriotism.
As banal as it sounds, Britain is a European state. The separation is a fiction and the island mentality a myth. In the first century, England was a colony of the Roman empire, and when the Romans left, the Saxons settled there from today’s northern Germany. The English Channel was never any greater an obstacle than the Rhine or the Alps. The early Britons profited from their location at a junction of several trade routes. Isolation, as historian Brendan Simms wrote, never really existed as an option for them.
After the Norman conquest, England became a European power, a kingdom whose reach once stretched as far as the Pyrenees. Even Paris was once under English rule. And of course the crown deployed skillful marriage policies to weave itself together with other noble houses to stabilise the monarchy. George I, the Guelph king from Hanover, founded a German-English dynasty in 1714 that ruled Britain for nearly two centuries.
That isn’t merely royal folklore, but proof of the political, cultural, and social affinity between the Germans and the British. Of course we have an interest in Britain. We have shared experiences, including the experiences of conflict and war. Europe is a resonance chamber, and the British belong to it.
Yes, the EU is bureaucratic, complacent and opaque. The Brexit camp is right about all that. Europe is often its own biggest enemy. Naivety and sentimentality have made the EU sluggish and prevented it from addressing crises with a single voice. That’s exactly why the British are so important, as a force for reason, provided they identify their goals and fight resolutely for them. The battles in recent years have largely been the product of Cameron’s clumsy EU policy. But the mood in Brussels has long since become more pragmatic. The British have a lot to gain if they stay.
Last week, European council president Donald Tusk said that a federal Europe was no solution to the problem of how this fractured community could be rescued. “We failed to notice that ordinary people … do not share our euro-enthusiasm,” he said. “Disillusioned with the great visions of the future, they demand that we cope with the present reality better than we have been doing until now.”
That was both a blow to the idealists and a message to the island off the coast: a vote to remain in the EU would not be a vote for the status quo. Cameron has already said that he would not stand in the way of greater integration in the eurozone. This means that he at least would no longer block tighter cooperation among Europe’s core states.
Germany also has much to gain from Britain remaining in the EU. Firstly, the UK is an important ally to counter the southern states and France on issues like budget discipline and economic policy. Secondly, the UK provides vital support in the fight against the populists. Merkel has already announced that she will, just like Britain, cut child benefits for EU immigrants when the children don’t live in Germany.
Britain also helps stabilise Europe’s power structures. Brexit could increase the perception of German dominance on the continent and provoke resistance from other states, says Hans Kundnani, foreign policy expert at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. This, he argues, could result in opposing coalitions that would reduce Germany’s influence: “Paradoxically, therefore, Germany could in reality be weaker in an EU without the UK.”
The whole of the continent also benefits from Britain when it comes to security and defence. It’s true that Nato is still responsible for providing Europe’s military deterrent. But in an era of hybrid warfare and provocations such as those that Putin has been pursuing for some time, Europe cannot rely solely on the US arsenal to protect it. Nato is increasingly reliant on a strong EU that can agree on the imposition of joint sanctions.
Britain brings stability to the EU. It is key to the transatlantic relationship, binds the Commonwealth nations to Europe, and makes us more open and outward looking. London is Europe’s most European city, a metropolis of diversity, and an urban model for the entire continent. That in itself makes the prospect of Brexit so absurd.
The polling stations will open on June 23 at 7am and will close at 10pm. Britain is the nation of “common sense”, and the British are not people to duck responsibility and flee difficult tasks. They will hopefully remember that when they vote on what their – and Europe’s – future should look like. They have a choice between the 1950s retro-vision of splendid isolation as propagated by Johnson, Farage and Gove, and a Europe that is more ready than ever for renewal. It should not be a difficult choice.
This referendum is the most momentous decision to be made in decades. Brexit would be a triumph of cynicism over reason. The 20th century showed that everyone benefits when Britain faces up to problems instead of running away. It’s enough to make you want to drive around the island with a megaphone shouting: “Vote leave, and we’ll all lose. If you remain, you will win.”
There’s a well-meaning pro-European campaign by continental Europeans in London called “Hug a Brit”. But there’s nothing more embarrassing for a Briton than to be embraced by a European, not to mention a stranger. Better would be a firm handshake, coupled with an honest, straightforward appeal: remain.