Good luck, Brits! A message from Germany

Europe's World

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Rupert Strachwitz
Rupert Strachwitz

Political scientist, CEO of the Maecenata Foundation and vice-chairman of the German British Society

Britain will need time to reflect on what has happened – to adjust to the many changes brought about by Brexit, and to prepare for all the challenges that still lie ahead. At the Munich Security Conference, the UK government was hardly visible. If this is what is meant by ‘taking back control’, and if Britain uses its new position to look inward rather than outward, that is an alarming prospect indeed, given all the common security and defence challenges at play.

To this end, we must think of Europe as more than the European Union, a structure ill-suited to deal with security issues. The plain truth is that in common defence policy and many other areas, it is vital that the small gap of the Channel not become a schism. Europeans must stick together, in order to fend off what may come our way courtesy of Messrs. Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and indeed Donald Trump, not to speak of a few others.

Big battles between the UK and the EU on how to organise a future relationship lie ahead, and the outcome is quite uncertain. That being said, ideas of Britain becoming a ‘Singapore-on-the-Channel’, of moving closer to the US, of again acting as an independent world power, are now less prominent than they were in the run-up and aftermath of the referendum. Indeed, the Prime Minister has been talking about maintaining a particularly strong relationship with the EU. We must wait and see what all this means.

A totally new European security and defence accord … must certainly include Britain

Meanwhile, Tom Tugendhat, Chair of the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee and Norbert Roettgen, his counterpart at the Bundestag, have jointly floated a proposal on the record to conclude a treaty of friendship between the UK and Germany, to match the one Germany and France concluded in 1963. Since the referendum, British politicians had repeatedly dropped hints to this effect informally, but while Brexit was being negotiated, Britain had to face the united 27. Now, this is different; the proposal merits serious attention.

So, what the future relationship may – and should – be driving towards is a three-tier arrangement: as close a relationship as possible between Britain and the EU, a totally new European security and defence accord that must certainly include Britain, and possibly, a new special relationship between Britain and Germany.

If this type of arrangement is agreed to over a reasonable period of time, Europeans – while missing Britain’s experience in global affairs, its share in Europe’s business, its clout in Europe’s civil society, and surely a lot of other things – will probably adapt to an EU without Britain. They certainly have less to lose than the British, who will still want to have a say in shaping a European future, though they can no longer enjoy full membership in a community of 500 million people that can stand up to China, Russia, and the US, offer free movement for business, training, studying, or leisure, while providing consular protection and legal protection through the European courts.

Responsible citizens all over Europe will continue to think alike – as great minds do

At this point, everything will depend on keeping as many bridges open as possible, building new ones, and saving what is worth saving from 47 years of British EEC and EU membership. Business is not everything. There exists a European notion of human and civil rights, developed not least by British philosophers. There exists a common history in which Britain has had its share – which is far older and more persuasive than a Lisbon or Maastricht or whatever EU treaty – and a European demos, to which Britons will continue to belong. There exists a plethora of personal and family ties that will not disappear or diminish, and a common European culture to which Britain is undoubtedly an essential contributor. The international language in Europe will continue to be English, and British players will continue to play a commandeering role in European civil society.

As it so often happens, civil society can in fact be relied upon to take the lead. When civil society activists from Britain, Germany, and elsewhere meet – be this on the fringes of a G20 conference, as rescue teams in disaster situations, or in a European cultural heritage organisation, youth camp, or university, no one really cares about nationalities or politicians and their power games. What they do care about is their common causes and shared interests. While the stewards of the state cling to the notion of being in the driver’s seat, what is on most citizens’ minds is strikingly different.

In the years to come, the main concerns of citizens will be focused on challenges like climate change, digitalisation, geopolitical shifts, an open society, multiple loyalties, human and civil rights, and multilateralism. Trust in governments has waned, in Britain as much as in the rest of Europe, and nearly everywhere in the world for that matter. Regaining the citizens’ trust will depend on how governments and politicians deal with these challenges, not on how they bolster their respective egos. Responsible citizens all over Europe will continue to think alike – as great minds do. It is in them that we may trust to guide us in the future.

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