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The Problem with Germans Commenting on Brexit

This is a negotiation blog, not a political one. But what can I do? Brexit is one of the most important and exciting negotiations in recent history! I simply can´t help it. So what is the problem with that?

Is it that Germans should not comment on Brexit at all? Certainly not. Like the UK we are a member of the EU. And like the UK we will be massively affected by the outcome of the negotiations. Politically, diplomatically and economically, the effect on us will be quite negative. There is a very broad consensus in this country that the UK would ideally not have decided to leave. But if it must, its relationship with Europe should he a close as possible. We have a huge stake in these negotiations. So it is natural that we should comment on them.

The problem is with the “how.” More specifically, the way in which we make these comments is as important as their content. Why? Far from being an accidental victim of Brexit, we are one of its causes. Real and imagined, past and present, ideas about Germany and its role in Europe have majorly impacted the referendum result. Just think of the German carmaker argument. Or the fear that the EU is just another, this time peaceful, attempt to dominate Europe. And it is quite possible that Angela Merkel´s open border policy of 2015 decisively tilted the scales. When we comment on Brexit, there is a very real danger that we achieve the opposite of what we intend. Especially when the comment is critical.

On the night of Theresa May´s defeat in the House of Commons I was listening to the BBC. A German MP was called and asked about his view on the matter. The first thing he said, quite agitated and in our trademark accent, was that he was “angry” at the vote. With audible indignation the interviewer asked how he could be angry at the House of Commons exercising its democratic duty. The interview went downhill from there. It convinced no one that a close relationship would be desirable. To the contrary. Many listeners probably thought: “This sort of behavior is exactly the reason why the UK should leave!” I certainly did. I have yet to meet the Brit who likes being lectured by Germans on parliamentary democracy. And yes, the reason is our history.

So, how to foster, rather than boycott, the desire for cooperation? Lets look at a stellar example of the necessary mindset. Rory Stewart MP was a guest in James O´Brien´s radio show in December. The host argued forcefully that the leaver´s case was “illegal and phantasy-based”, while the remainer’s case was not. Hence both sides could not be treated equally: “It is false equivalence that lead us into the Brexit mess. And doubling down on it seems an unlikely way out of it!” Stewart closed his eyes and very deliberately chose his words: “James, I don’t want to be tempted into slagging off remainers and brexiteers…” He laughed: “… when I am trying to bring people together.” (Min 7:30)

This MP would have much more reason than any German to be angry. Resisting the temptation to slag off behooves us even more than him. And being respectful is the only approach that may be conducive to our own objectives.

Georg Berkel