Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Don't Leave Us! Why Germany Needs the British

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.

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