Few family histories better underline the complex relationship between Britain and Germany than Christian Lawrence’s. Here he explains why his fellow countrymen are so sad to see the UK leave
It is often said of the Germans that we start a conversation by talking about our ancestry. Well I am a German, living in Munich, Bavaria, but with a surname like Lawrence it’s not surprising that I have English ancestry.
My father was a u-boat commander who, after surrender in 1945, spent two years as a POW in England and Scotland. His father too was a naval officer in the First World War, fighting the Royal Navy on various German battleships.
My great-great grandfather John Lawrence emigrated from Southwalk to Stettin, then in Prussian-ruled Pomerania (and now Szczecin in Poland) in 1830 as a 17-year old, because his family could not sustain 10 children. He became a Prussian citizen later on. My own son John was born in London during my time as an expatriate for a German company. He has dual German and British citizenship. Somehow a family circle has closed.
This qualifies me to have strong views on the question of Brexit. When early last year, well before the referendum, I mistakenly handed some euro notes to a London cab driver, he rejected my money and shouted at me: ‘I don’t take this crap.’ Back home in Munich, two of my neighbours, both very educated anglophiles, declared it completely impossible that a majority of the British people would vote for Brexit. I thought I knew something about the sentiment of the ‘man on the street’ they did not. I offered a bet which I won on June 24 last year.
I wish I had not won my two bottles of red wine, not only because I am a European but also because I think Britain is heading down the wrong path, driven by myths that don’t stand up to the reality test. The UK’s tabloid media whispered in the ear of my cab driver and his many fellow countrymen and women that ‘Europe’ wanted to change British identity, that it resented its tradition and values, and wanted to regulate its way of life to the smallest detail.
The advent of populist politicians and the echo-chambers on social media made it possible that such post-factual feelings got the upper hand and led to a decision the vast majority of my fellow Germans think should never have happened.
‘Why should we care of what the Germans think?’, I can almost hear my London cabbie saying, in his obvious contempt of anything ‘European’, with probably Germany being rather high on the list of the not-so-popular countries from ‘the continent’.
My answer would be, that we in Europe are sitting in one boat. As Germany’s newly elected president Frank-Walter Steinmeier recently said, it is impossible that one European country can better make its voice heard or pursue its interests on its own. Helmut Kohl was laughed at when he said that European unity is a matter of war and peace. Today, only a naive person would do so. As we have seen on two recent occasions, tensions can flame up quickly: Lord Howard’s comparison of the unclear Gibraltar situation with Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands, as well as the hint of blackmail from Theresa May’s Article 50 letter, which appeared to suggest a link between security and economics.
Peace and democracy in Europe cannot be taken for granted and are now more fragile than they have been for many years.
For the first time in history the EU offers its members an institutional mechanism to sort differences peacefully. Nobody envisages a war. However, with the rise of nationalist movements all over Europe, the threshold for aggressive behaviour is lower than for a long time, and interested external parties are doing everything they can to support disintegration, and, with modern social media, they have the means to rally the people in an unprecedented way.
When it comes to democratic values, our only allies, the US, are presently occupied with themselves, and have sent questionable signals about a united Europe. Nobody doubts that the EU is in strong need of reform. The idea of the Maastricht Treaty and its successors of the ‘ever closer union’ has failed to convince people, not just in the UK, and for many good reasons. But can we afford to go back to the romantic concept of ‘free nations, competing with each other’, as advocated by the UK government?
The answer, especially from a British perspective, has to be given by looking at the real issues as well as opportunities for Britain today – topics of importance, that go beyond the size and shape of bananas or similar trivia the alleged European ‘superstate’ is blamed for. These issues are: globalisation, climate change, terrorism, migration, to name just the most important. On the opportunity side, standard-setting in digitalisation, especially for artificial intelligence, come to mind as well.
What is the best position for the UK to wield its influence on these real threats and real opportunities? A position from inside the EU with all its flaws or from outside, with (yet-to-be-written) trade agreements, cutting off the boundaries of the ‘European Bureaucracy’?
The answer lies in the British history, where over many centuries, foreign policy followed the concept of balance of power. Britain consistently engaged in alliances with continental powers in order to prevent the hegemony of one nation, whether it was Spain, the Netherlands, France or Germany. A modernised version of this concept would have to accept that the world economic and political powers of today can best be checked from within a body that shares the same or similar values as Britain, but has enough critical mass to withstand the pressure of large and sometimes ruthless opponents.
Britain could never fulfil this task on its own. In theory it could wield its influence together with the US, but will such a liaison be realistic given that 44% of UK exports are bought by the other EU countries? If Britain wants to continue the balance of power concept, the only way it can do so is from within the EU. Leaving the EU would be a sharp contradiction of the principle the UK has successfully pursued for a centuries.
Probably the vast majority of Germans are regretting the decision of the British people very much. Many of us feel we need British pragmatism, British views on fundamental economic principles, British political values. Many of us wish the British government might find a way to ease the consequences of the vote of June 23.