The Brexit referendum vote caused heartbreak for many Germans and, while attitudes have hardened over the past two years, there are still compelling reasons why the EU and UK should remain close friends, writes Eva Oer.
The day before the Brexit referendum, a German friend of mine posted a selfie with not only a Union Jack pillow, but also a Union Jack coffee mug, a mug with the pictures of William and Kate and all the other United Kingdom paraphernalia she could gather – asking her British friends to “please, please, please vote Remain”.
Well, she was heartbroken the next day. And from what I saw and heard, a large majority of Germans – including me – felt that way. Much like a jilted lover, there was an incredible sense of rejection – why does the UK not want to be with us?
Most Germans were shocked, plain and simple. It still seems like such an outlandish thing to do. Why would you choose to do something that will very probably damage your economy, and also plunge many British expats in EU member states and EU citizens living in the UK into an insecure situation?
The UK always seemed to hold a special place among the member states. It was regarded as the stray one which often wanted special treatment and opt-outs, but it was also such a vital, influential and important part of the EU and nobody wanted Britain to leave.
“Shortly after the Brexit referendum, there was no question parliamentarians asked me more often than: ‘Is there still any chance the UK could stay in the EU?’” recalls political scientist Nicolai von Ondarza, who works for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
But two years on, German attitudes have changed. The mood might best be described with the saying: “Don’t try to stop a rolling stone.” Even if most Germans would love the UK to stay within the EU, it seems like a sense of acceptance has set in – and in some cases, maybe even a little defiance.
For the UK, this also means that most Germans are not in favour of the EU being lenient in the Brexit negotiations. To stay with the relationship break-up theme, the overwhelming feeling is: “If you have to leave, just go – but we’re keeping the dog.” In a survey last year, the German public broadcaster ZDF asked German voters what kind of concessions they thought the EU should make to the UK during the negotiations. Only one per cent supported “very big” concessions and only 13 per cent backed “big” concessions. The overwhelming majority did not like the idea, with 32 per cent not wanting any concessions to be made at all.
As a member state, the UK has a special status. But the British Government seemed to think this would still apply after having split up with the EU. EU member states won’t let that happen.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, explained more than once that there would be no cherry-picking of the best bits of EU membership. German industry backs this stance – much to the chagrin of Brexiteers who thought Germany would pursue a deal that was much more favourable to the UK for its own economic reasons. But as Markus Kerber, the head of Germany’s biggest business lobby group BDI, said in an interview the EU single market is simply more important to the industry than trade with the UK.
I still cannot understand why any country would choose such an act of self-harm – or, dare I say, self-destruction?
Of course, the EU has many flaws. There certainly is a lack of democracy and transparency regarding the European Commission in Brussels. The commission’s presidejnt, Jean-Claude Juncker, recently demonstrated a dreadful lack of awareness of this when he appointed his aide, the German Martin Selmayr, as secretary-general in a move that irritated many. Even EU ombudsman Emily O’Reilly said it had damaged public trust in the institutions. Still, no consequences await either Juncker or his aide. There are EU citizens who feel incredibly, utterly mistreated by Brussels. Greece is just one example of a country that has been put under enormous pressure by the European Commission and other member states.
But still, there are some issues that countries cannot deal with on their own and which require action on an EU level. Just think about the fight against tax evasion which is not only a European but also a global issue. If we believe Prime Minister Theresa May, she will start another race to the bottom by offering the lowest corporation tax within the G20 after Brexit – that’s what she promised at a business meeting in New York during the United Nations General Assembly in September. How can anyone expect the EU to go easy on the UK if May follows through with a plan as threatening as this?
But there’s one thing even more frightening for us: the EU needs the UK when it comes to defending liberal democracy. There has been a surge of right-wing populism all over Europe; Germany itself has its own new set of far-right populist politicians like Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).
In von Ondarza’s view, even if Germans wouldn’t put the UK in the same corner as some countries with very illiberal tendencies like Hungary, Brexit has been seen as a sign of the erosion of what we call “the West“, much like the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States.
There are Europeans who believe the UK will ask for EU membership again in a few years. But we can’t wait that long. People like the former Trump strategist Stephen Bannon are already here today, scheming for a shift to the extreme right within the European Parliament. So we need the UK more than ever to help face such illiberal tendencies – and I would like to believe that the UK needs us other Europeans, too.
Eva Oer is an editor for the German national daily Taz die Tageszeitung based in Berlin. She will be spending two months at The Scotsman as part of the George Weidenfeld Bursary newsroom exchange programme.