Brexit day: Views from Germany

One of our aims for this blog is to share perspectives from the European mainland. So as Britain officially exits the EU, here are a couple of editorial pieces from the German press …

Europe’s Island

Translation of a comment piece by Stefan Kornelius in Süddeutsche Zeitung, 01.02.2020.

Throughout their history Europeans have drawn borders and marked their territory. And then they have ignored these borders and discarded them. The map of Europe is like a living organism: alliances forged and then broken, marriages made to increase territory, and then countries divided up again to satisfy the offspring. Wars were waged and peace treaties signed. It was always borders that marked what had changed. The border is one of the most important symbols of structure and power. Even today, the desire of the British for a border is so overwhelming that they are leaving the European Union in order to satisfy the need for identity, control and unity. Therefore 31 January is a historic day, because it brings about a new political border in Europe. It changes the balance on the continent and it changes the rules of the game.

It is of course astonishing how much the EU has handled Brexit as a British spectacle and not as an integral European problem. The unity of the EU during the gruelling years leading up to the exit should not detract from the fact that something tectonic is happening for Europe as a whole. And that is not about qualified majorities or the balance of votes in the European Parliament, rather it is about the principal dynamic of the continent towards unity or fracturing.

The European Union was always a growing construct, promising expansion and belonging. It gave meaning to the idea that things could be better for a country that gives up some of its power and sovereignty in favour of a common structure. To that extent the EU was a project to eliminate borders, an answer to centuries of warlike politics of division. But it is noteworthy how little this idea played a role with voters, even in a history-concious country like Great Britain.

In view of its power the EU might view Great Britain’s exit from the spectator gallery. But actually it should take a look at itself. The promise of expansion has for the first time gone into reverse. The EU is shrinking rather than growing, And prospects for further growth frittered away, most recently in the case of small but strategically important North Macedonia. Beyond the simple question of in or out, fractures in the Union can no longer be glossed over. Divisions criss-cross the member states: law violations are furiously ignored as in the case of Poland because the community lacks the means to address them; budget deficits pile up and are tolerated, as in France, because the economic importance of the member state allows no other alternative. Military deficiencies are criticised but accepted, as in the case of Germany, because the domestic political constraints are understood and the foreign policy ambitions not really believed.

Europe is an amalgam of interests and exceptionalisms. Next month’s budget negotiations will provide living proof of that. Europe without Great Britain will not automatically become a haven of unity, even whilst the British contribution had always to be handled very carefully. The exit may seem like a distant event, because the country occupied a peculiar role in the Union from day one. Currency and full freedom of movement had never arrived in Britain because London preferred to keep its distance.

Exit does not necessarily mean estrangement though. Great Britain remains geographically and politically a part of Europe, it is only leaving Europe’s institutions. Interests remain tightly bound together – trade, markets, security, science, education, employment. But it will become more difficult to steer the relationship. Success will be measured by whether the EU finds a pragmatic way through, which satisfies the British need for independence, yet does not become a template for every copycat whose nationalistic hackles are raised by such topics as the rule of law or agricultural subsidies. Institutions like those in Brussels are not just symbolically important, rather they have a steering, balancing and therefore calming effect. The price of participation is giving up a bit of one’s sovereignty – a price the British were ultimately unwilling to pay.

Sovereignty is a blossoming concept in these times, which are crying out for more order and security. Sovereignty promises that you are the master of your own destiny, that you can fend off impositions from outside. And that is a quaint proposition in a world that has achieved such an enormous degree of interdependence. No state is an island any more, not even Great Britain.

Alongside European self-confidence and indifference, the second biggest irritation of this historic day is delivered by the Leave supporters in all their superficial joyfulness. A song about the end of humiliation and vassal-statehood is being sung with hilarious ignorance. But there are no great ideas for the future, not even a blueprint for the new relationships with old neighbours, let alone ideas for healing a deeply divided country at home. Images of new greatness have so far only resulted in a narrow-minded denial of reality and a trivialisation of the problems.

Even so the country is not suddenly going to disappear from Europe’s geographical and political orbit. Britain remains Europe’s island.

Genug geheult

Translation of a comment piece by Jan Ross in Die Zeit, 31.01.2020.

Enough crying! Great Britain was always only half-European – and that’s how it will remain. Brexit is not a misfortune but an incentive.

This Friday Europe endures Brexit, exhausted but unreconciled. Many on the continent may feel relieved that with formal exit of the UK from the European Union the most troublesome part of the wrench is now over – but they still find the British decision to leave as devastatingly foolish as they did on day one. And the undertones of injured pride remain unchanged. In this situation it is worthwhile taking a step back to view matters with a cool head.

Great Britain has always been a half-European country, a sea-faring nation, colonial power and since the Second World War a privileged ally of the United States. It was half outside, as long as it belonged in the EU, with a long history of exceptions and opt-outs from the rules. After it has left the EU, it will be half-inside in a “comprehensive”, “broad”, “deep” and “flexible” partnership, as both Europeans and Britons describe their aspirations. Seen in this way Brexit is not a catastrophe, but rather an expression of normality in the British-European relationship. Not the only solution imaginable (up to now Britain’s internally distanced version of EU-membership was an alternative one), but nonetheless plausible and manageable.

Britain is in no way as radical as the EU believes

The biggest concrete worry on the continent is that in the future the British will compete unfairly from an economic perspective, through tax dumping and lax regulation. This fear seems doubly exaggerated. For one thing it misjudges British society, which is in no way so trusting of the market and competition as, say, America. The welfare state (embodied through an almost religiously revered public health system, the NHS) lives on as a strong tradition despite the reforms of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. Even after Brexit, Great Britain will hardly covert to unrestrained hypercapitalism – rather it will continue to retain a European social model.

And in so far as the British may use their exit from the EU to liberalise and reduce bureaucracy, this should not be a cause for the continent to lament or fight it, but rather to learn. Maybe a bit of buccaneering competition could do the EU some good? Chancellor Merkel recently commented in the Financial Times, in surprisingly Brexit-friendly terms, that this could serve as a wake-up call. “From a positive point of view, we need to ask ourselves which of our rules are actually right and useful to us,” … and which, that of course means, are no longer suitable and could be abolished.

For the negotiations that are now beginning on the future EU-British relationship, one task presents itself above all others: concentration on the fundamentals of world politics. More important than battles over individual economic advantage is the ability to cooperate on international and global issues. When it comes to handling Russia, the Middle East and China – but also Donald Trump’s USA – the Union and Britain have very similar interests. Whether on climate change or Iran, there is no strategically relevant field in which Prime Minister Boris Johnson has so far indicated that he wants to set the country on an anti-EU course. Against American pressure the government in London decided to involve the Chinese company Huawei in construction of its 5G network – a signal that the UK will not become a vassal state of the USA after Brexit. British-European integration may be in the past, but not a British-European alliance.

In spite of some weaknesses and mistakes that have been revealed by the Brexit process, Britain possesses an invaluable strength: an instinctive and vital sense of freedom. A liberal country is one in which one can freely offend the tastes of the majority, whether that is as a Muslim woman choosing to wear an Islamic veil or an investment banker unashamedly making money. More than most, even amongst European countries, the UK remains this type of place. The EU is now losing this internal voice of liberalism, and for us on the continent the is the actual, bitter loss of Brexit.


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