As a German living in the UK for 40 years, I would like the British – for all kinds of political and cultural reasons – to stay in the European Union. With my English hat on, it’s a bit less clear cut. To understand the British psyche, you need a touch of bicultural enlightenment.
The more European or German politicians do to convince the Brits to remain in the EU, the more British eurosceptics will say the Europeans are acting for their own advantage. A real conundrum ahead of the referendum.
Political fine-tuning is needed. Non-British Europeans must find the right tone.
Sentimentality and emotion are neither suitable nor desirable. The Anglos always were from Mars, the Europeans from Venus. Confusingly, that’s even the case these days for the Germans.
There are many reasons why the British may prefer an exit. This island paradise is already overpopulated and, in most British eyes, subject to too much foreign influence.
After the 1990s EU membership widening, largely promoted by Britain, new immigrants from central and eastern Europe were welcome, especially Polish plumbers in the housing boom before the 2009 recession.
In post-downturn austerity Britain, migrants were less in favour. Populist UK politicians blamed high inflows on EU membership. Europe’s latest disarray over the refugee crisis has further hardened the rhetoric.
Germany may be able to cope, and eventually integrate these people, bolstering its workforce. The rest of Europe, including Britain, is struggling. Britain doesn’t and never will have the infrastructure to cope with large-scale immigration. It’s useful to have identity cards which help determine where people live and how many are in the country.
However, structures and regulations are alien to the British: another strong reason for EU antipathy. Unsurprisingly the UK displays huge opposition to Brussels regulation, lots of it of course unnecessary.
Thomas Kielinger, correspondent for Die Welt, has showcased this splendidly in his book Crossroads and Roundabouts. Everything in the UK is constantly in flux. Self-reliance and self-regulation are more important than rule by the authorities. The Germans like regulation; they stand patiently at a road crossing and wait for green to cross – whether cars are coming or not. All part of culture and love of Ordnungspolitik.
In UK business, labour flexibility is the name of the game. Employment laws don’t fit easily into Britain’s adversarial culture, yet they are the norm for consensus-minded Germans. Fear of Brussels surely explains why the UK press, much of it foreign-owned, is mostly eurosceptic. Proprietors must feel that, sooner or later, heavy-handed eurocrats will enforce ownership curbs.
As papers like The Sun and Daily Mail show, exit supporters have short, simple, seductive messages like ‘We want our country back from unelected overpaid bureaucrats in Brussels.’ A lot of it sounds pretty convincing to readers, who read the headlines on the front pages and turn to the sports pages for a proper read.
Much depends on how Europe portrays itself in the months leading up to voting day. Some positive news from the euro area would take the wind out of the ‘No’ campaigners’ sails. But if the immigration problem gets worse, which is more likely, many Brits will want to shut off the Channel tunnel for good. I will not exactly applaud as they slam the door. But I will understand why they are doing it – and a small part of my bicultural soul might even agree.
Bob Bischof is chairman of the German-British Forum and vice president of the German-British Chamber of Industry and Commerce. The two organisations and OMFIF are staging a conference in London on 3 March on the political, security, business and economic implications of a British EU exit. (for more information, please click here). This article is based on a speech delivered at the Kapitalmarkt Forum of Commerzbank AG in Hamburg in October 2015 (click here for link).