Part of the Newgate public affairs team spent time in Berlin last week meeting business and political leaders to discuss Brexit. Below we set out some of our impressions. These are obviously in no way scientific, but they do give a flavour of the thinking in Berlin.
A deep sense of loss is one way to characterise the feeling in Berlin about the UK’s departure. That combined with a sort of indignation and determination that ‘things must be different’ for the UK after we’ve left. They are uncomfortable with the idea that the EU must ‘punish’ the UK economically, but do want things to be obviously different in some way.
Preserving the integrity of the Union is probably the main priority for the German Government. We in the UK have always misunderstood just how determined most people on the Continent are to preserve both the EU and the Euro. Threats to either are taken extraordinarily seriously. Our leaving the EU is obviously seen as an attack on the integrity of the Union and will be treated accordingly.
The determination to continue the process of political and economic integration remains as robust as ever. The idea that this may not actually be in everyone in Europe’s interest seems never to surface in conversation. And the UK’s disquiet over further political integration is something that appears not to be a consideration or to even inform their debate about our decision last summer.
Interestingly there is genuine concern that many in the UK would recognise about immigration from some parts of the world. Traditional German hospitality towards genuine refugees is in evidence but there is a strongly expressed desire for immigrants to adopt ‘German values’. I was struck at the depth of feeling about Turkey’s Erdogan and what is perceived as rejection of German values by many people of Turkish origin living in Germany.
There is also awareness of – and discomfort about – what is seen as meddling by the European Court in German law, and in the highly respected German Constitution in particular.
One or two people we met were concerned about the UK being able to adopt lower standards, environmental standards for instance, which would provide British-based companies with advantages not enjoyed by their German/EU based companies where higher, more expensive standards may have been imposed.
There is also complete consensus that they UK must pay what it has already agreed to as an EU member state. There is in fact no real argument about this as we know the UK government have already said that the UK will pay what it owes.
The most surprising finding though was the amount of support for the UK not bothering with a negotiated exit. The idea – considered a radical fringe idea here – that the UK should just leave and use WTO rules as the basis of future trade with the EU was considered rather sensible. They think that protracted bitter and painful negotiations may actually not be worth it. After all, most countries in the world trade with the EU quite happily without a special trade arrangement.
We were also reminded that Germany has a general election in September and that much of what we hear about Brexit from German politicians is actually said in that context, rather than the UK domestic debate.
So, in conclusion, we heard that the UK ‘must pay’, but that Germans recoil from the idea that the UK should be punished for its decision. There is an absolute determination to protect the EU, which they believe should continue to integrate. And finally, that many of the concerns that drove the decision here last year are apparent in Germany too.