12 Days before the Brexit referendum in 2016, the German newsmagazine SPIEGEL begged the British people on its cover page: ‘Please don’t go’. Although the majority of voters taking part in the referendum voted to leave, the Germans continued to hope that Britain will remain in the European Union. ‘Hope is the last to die’, as a well-known German saying goes. In October 2018, leading German newspapers reported optimistically that the mood in Britain has changed, and a report from the People’s Vote March in London for Germany’s most popular news programme Tagesschau suggested that there is still hope for a Brexit U-turn. Why is it so difficult for the Germans to accept the result of the 2016 referendum?
There are many reasons why politicians, journalists, businesses, and ordinary people in Germany dread Brexit. Two deserve particular attention because they will shape the future relationship between the two countries: unlike in other European countries, the German population’s belief in the European project is at a record high. Although many Germans view developments and debates in Brussels with a critical eye, most, including leading politicians, believe that the European Union has helped to create and maintain peace and political stability in the region and that their country benefits from being a member of the European Union. Yet in the face of growing nationalist sentiment across Europe and major disagreements regarding immigration and other issues, even the greatest Euro-enthusiasts had to realise that the EU is vulnerable. In the minds of many Germans, this raises a worrying question: if the UK shows that it can be done without huge economic damage, who will be the next to leave the European Union?
Another reason why Germany doesn’t want the UK to leave the EU that it wants to maintain close economic, cultural and political ties with Britain. In 2016, the UK was one of Germany’s most important trading partners. Business leaders in Germany and in the UK have warned that a no-deal Brexit could have dramatic economic consequences for both countries. But for us Germans, it’s not just about business. 97.8% of German children learn English in school, and German students love to study at British Universities. The Germans love Shakespeare, Ed Sheeran, and the Royals (almost 7.5 million people in Germany watched live coverage of the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle).
Angela Merkel’s response to Brexit reflects the German Brexit Angst. On the one hand, she uses every opportunity to defend the European project and highlights that no country can have the benefits of membership without embracing the duties and responsibilities that this involves. On the other hand, she has warned against a ‘rigid approach to Brexit talks’ and seeks to minimise the damage for stakeholders in Germany and Britain. At this stage, it is of critical importance that we see beyond these and other official political statements and focus on concrete issues.
Businesses, research centres, and ‘expats’ in both countries have long begun to prepare for the post-Brexit future. A significant rise in applications for permanent residency and citizenship by German citizens in the UK and by Brits in Germany, new research funding schemes and academic partnerships like the Oxford-Berlin partnership, as well as lobbying efforts and contingency plans by business leaders in both countries show that many people don’t want to accept that Britain’s divorce from Europe will destroy cultural exchanges, economic relations, and strategic alliances between the UK and Germany. Now is the perfect time to invest in such relations and alliances, and the Germans are keener to do so than you might think.