In this third exchange of ideas on Brexit between two young Europeans, our pen pals argue how Germany on top benefits from European economic integration and whether the UK will be isolated in this globalised world after leaving the EU.
A Correspondence between James Hall and Ulrich Czeranka
London, 5 April 2018
I had pondered for some time about how to start such a correspondence. But I shall merely dive in. I am a 22 year old. And I am one of the 27 percent of the 18-24 age group who voted leave in the EU referendum. Having been a history student at the time, that minority becomes even smaller, with a mere 15 percent of UK students voting to leave the European Union. And so my time studying at university where I believe 9 out of 10 professors backed remain, was one full of debates and conversations where it could have been I alone in a room full of remainers. Although I did find the almost constant debates and discussions on the subject interesting, I found the variety or lack of variety of opinions and outlooks troubling.
Nonetheless, long before the momentous referendum came about in 2016, I had been what some would call eurosceptic. I have however always viewed that label as rather soft. I have never had doubts or reservations about the European Union, that connotes an idea of me being unsure or in some way just lacking the ‘right’ information. One would be sceptical about something they do not know for certain. I however know that I am in no way doubtful or have any reservations about an organisation like the EU.
The key reason that I voted leave in that rather haphazard referendum was for the parliamentary sovereignty which was initially signed away when the UK joined the European Economic Community. This right to govern oneself is something which was grown and cultivated over hundreds of years in England and it was the same for the entirety of the United Kingdom and I think it was in no way the right of any generation to merely hand over that inheritance for some regulatory alignment with our European neighbours, among other things. That being my primary reason but I do have many other reasons for my decision to cast my vote in that way, but that can be explored if you were so curious.
To bring matters to the present, I have been greatly dissatisfied with how the Conservative party under Theresa May has handled the negotiations surrounding Brexit. The transitional deal which the government has recently returned with, there are many UK concessions and with nothing in return from the EU. But in short I, like many other leavers have seen many details around that two year transitional deal when it comes to the EU’s terms, on issues ranging from immigration to fisheries. As being an example of the government handing over a generous deal to the EU with nothing in return. And I believe that this deal was the product of the governments uneasy belief in its own ability to exercise muscles of governance like the ability to make trade deals and to control one’s borders. These being aspects of governance which withered during our 43 years within the EU. And ones which must be fully utilised when we do finally leave the EU.
I look forward to your reply and your thoughts on the matter.
Kind regards from the UK,
Brno, 11 April 2018
Just to give you a little context about myself. I am a 26 old German student, currently finishing my master degree in the Czech Republic. And I am one of those students that make jokes about Brexit when meeting a Brit. Before this turns into a text that you probably saw enough in the last months (even though some parts are unavoidable), I want to state that I can see the normativism behind the EU project and especially how Germany treats the EU and how certain circles treat Brexit. Nonetheless, I regard Brexit as a mistake and one of the biggest populist moves in modern European History.
As a young German, I feel rather positive about the EU or Europe, two terms which are not easy to separate in the German discourse. However, the decision to leave the EU came not as a shock for me. The rising euroscepticism in Germany, especially channelled by the AfD, and all over Europe is undeniable. But it did not come with a surprise as I am aware of the special role of the UK in Europe’s history and in the EU system. Unlike other countries, no normative filter are existing to block efforts to leave the EU, partially or fully. This was at least true for many decades. The important role of “rational” economic facts in the British debate goes back to the 1970s. But even though explaining it through history is appealing and it explains partly the mindset behind, it is still not understandable for me.
I can see that over many decades, the EU was used by politicians as a scapegoat. And for me it seems not necessarily out of euroscepticism but political calculation. Thatcher used the EU to demand some money back and Cameron was not doing it for the anti-EU sentiments.
That is normal politics. But to picture the EU as an inefficient kraken is out of proportion. Yes, the EU is expensive, unflexibel and full of errors. But is it really because of the institutions or is it the fault of the member states and the nature of cooperation? For me that means that I cannot blame the EU institutions for failures but national governments. Maybe that would be different if I would be a citizen of a small country as the one I am currently living in. But the UK is no small state and it certainly does not perceive itself like that. What they did during the campaign was blaming the EU for responsibilities that never left the scope of the UK Government.
Why does a MEP have so much say in a campaign and why is the Mayor of London supporting a campaign while his city is becoming unlivable for small and normal income families and singles? You cannot blame Schengen, Dublin and the Euro for that. But the real fear should be the international market position. The solution cannot be revoking the Commonwealth. That may work for exporting the Premier League but for the rest of the economy? I’m not quite sure if the British elite that steered this project arrived in reality yet.
In the end I would say that we are not so different in our argumentation. I’m also eurosceptic so to say. The German austerity was and is a huge mistake and the issues in the system are undeniable there. But the EU remains a strong block when it comes to external (economic) relations. This includes a sophisticated technocratic system, that has however never left the scope of national sovereignty. I would therefore turn your argument around: Sovereignty in our globalised world is not possible for one European state alone. This also applies to the UK. I’m not sure if all your politicians are aware that the great colonial times are long over.
London, 22 May 2018
Well with the size of the topic and its almost constant place in British News, it only makes sense to bring such a thing up when in the company of a Brit, but I am sure many people on both sides of the debate mainly care to see a conclusion to it all. Seeing as the UK leaving the EU has effectively taken over political discussion and I would say, rightly so, it’s no small issue. However I am curious as to how you would define and view “populism” seeing as its recently been a word thrown around by politicians, media and public figures who seek to slap a label on to something they either do not like or simply disagree with. Populism as I understand it, is a political philosophy where one supports the rights and concerns of ordinary people in opposition to a privileged elite. And so if you were to view Brexit in that frame, then indeed it was one of the most important populist statements, made by the British people in recent times. We Brits are not known to be the most politically radical and yet it is Britain that chose to have such a vote and then voting to leave the political bloc called the European Union.
As you say so yourself, a German has a very different perspective on the EU and rightly so. The EU and its greater economic integration of members has disproportionately benefited Germany. Mainly due to Germany’s policy of wage suppression, which many economists have described as a competitive devaluation or ‘beggar thy neighbour’ policy. Germany’s gains in competitiveness were immediately translated to gains in trade, since the freedom of goods, services, persons and capital allowed German products to circulate freely and quickly throughout the European Union. These are the fundamental freedoms of EU law and are vigorously protected by the European Court of Justice. German policy would not have been successful without them.
However, on the matter of your allocation of the blame for the EU’s faults on the individual members instead of the EU and its institutions, I wholly disagree. I would say that it is the institutions themselves and their inability to reform that has spurred this surge in anti-EU sentiments. Alongside outside factors of course, like those of the mismanagement of the migrant crisis. All the while most European people are having something one may call an identity crisis. Moreover, when an institution wishes to govern and regulate the vastly different nations of Europe, it is bound to be a behemoth. Europe a continent of differing cultures, languages, economies and peoples. This political entity has had many in the past that wish to govern it and it is clear that the EU is no longer that mere economic community it once was. It has the stated goal of forming a European federal state. Your own Angela Merkel stated as such on many occasions, most aptly when she said, “We need a political Union, which means we must cede powers to Europe and give Europe control.”
And whenever an issue or person gets in the way of that agenda, the rules are ignored and elections dismissed. One such example would be the EU’s rescue of its ill conceived single currency. The European Union itself has dismissed the votes made by other member states, just two examples would be that of 2005 national votes on the EU constitution which of course pushed for a greater union and the people of France and the Netherlands voted “no” to that ceding of control to the EU. Nonetheless their votes were nothing more than a bump in the road for those who want a united European state and the results were largely dismissed.
I shall say I do agree with you that there are many things that my country’s government could do to attempt to address the concerns of the British people. When our national parliamentary sovereignty is restored and once 2016’s vote has woken up many of the UK’s elected representatives to those minor things known as the concerns of the people. Lastly, I must come to your point about a European nation can not stand alone in this globalised world. That ignores the fact that the vast majority of nations in this globalised world exist outside of a political bloc which seeks to create a superstate.
And although we don’t live in the golden age of Britain that of the 18th and 19th centuries or the colonial times which you mentioned, the UK is nonetheless an important international nation. The UK leads in a number of areas that of course include financial services where in recent years the financial trade surplus surpassed that of the US and Switzerland combined. Secondly, there’s the fact that the UK topped the Forbes Best countries for business this year, after receiving more in foreign investments than any European nation and lastly English my native tongue and the very language that we’re having this discussion in, is also the official language of 53 countries in the world and some estimates put the number of people who speak English, worldwide at 400 million. Those being just some of the reasons why I doubt that the United Kingdom would be isolated and alone when it is outside of the European Union.
Nonetheless I am curious to read your response and apologise for my late response to your email.
Brno, 6 June 2018
I really tried to find an objective angle or at least an angle that would make me understand the British position better. Partly I managed that, mostly I failed. The reason why it had to fail, are the uncertainties that surround Brexit. In order to avoid repetition, I want to focus on two perspectives you offered. One is the economic perspective. You argued that the UK is one of the most important nations, especially in the finance sector. While this is undeniable true, there are several factors that stand in the way in the future. The fiscal deficit is such a point. Also missing (private and public) national savings is an issue of concern. This already shows that the money that floats around in London is not necessarily for the people’s benefit and the frame that makes London the greatest financial hub in the world is threatened.
The economic statistics of the UK are in my opinion often covering important deficits just because London is performing so well. Look at the statistics of European regions. While the region of London performs by far the highest in all of Europe in terms of GDP per capita, other regions are competing on a different (lower) level. One just needs to go to Outer London (South) that is way below EU average. There are challenges that I don’t see getting better through Brexit as the centralised system further contributes to this gap and the financial resources are limited.
If we just focus on the services in the sector you highlighted, I would raise the question, how Brexit would benefit the financial service sector? And more importantly, will the people benefit from it? I don’t think that London’s financial sector can grow indefinitely. It becomes too big to control and other regions stay underdeveloped.
I believe that the initiatives e.g. in Scotland are caused by this and not, as some may argue, by EU propaganda. I don’t want to seem like a socialist here but is the financial market really the one horse the Brits should bet on? And even if, how can historical, linguistic and cultural ties be sufficient in replacing the highly institutionalised European market externally and internally? The most irritating, I bet also for businesses, is the total confusion on how to continue with the EU. It’s almost like the EU is some kind of colony of the United Kingdom and (English) politicians can decide how to continue. Even though London is also important for the EU, the rest of the countries won’t wait until a decision is made by the Lords in London.
But we even don’t need to go into detail here. Why do I need to be thoughtful when (some) Brexiters argue stuff like: “It is the expression of a legitimate and natural desire to self-govern of the people, by the people, for the people. (Boris Johnson)” or people driving around in a bus that states to spend EU money on healthcare. I don’t want to discard legitimate fear. I also understand that macroeconomics is not sexy for the people in Essex or Wales, but there doesn’t seem to be a real plan behind closed doors.
Therefore it is necessary to focus more on populism. I understand populism the way you do. I would add a dimension of a heartland. So I would follow the definition of Bryder (2009) who states that populists “see themselves as ‘true democrats’, who voice popular opinions and grievances systematically ignored by authorities and fight to reclaim people sovereignty from elites in power.” That is not necessarily a problem. There are of course issues like that and the elite is far from being the good person in that case. What I find irritating is that the movement was not a movement from below. First it was initiated by that move from Cameron and was then taken up by populists such as Farage. These figures seem to concentrate solely on populism, leading to the ignorance of important more detailed questions as outlined above.
I don’t want to discard the movement as purely populistic. But I believe that steering the blame towards the EU and not towards traditional British neoliberalism and other more globalised factors is a cheap move. This is also one reason I find difficult to support a campaign that basically refuses to admit any responsibility. Not only are many issues in the UK self-made but they are often too big to solve alone. It is a big mistake to leave important regional platforms, institutions and discourses empty.
Another puzzle I find is the fear of GB to be sucked into a “political Union”. You argued that Merkel pushes for a political union. This statement was made in the context of the Euro and the crisis. And in the context of the systematic errors that were made during the 1990s where several economists were arguing already back then that a monetary union without financial union is a mistake. I would therefore understand Macron’s call for a better economic system and not towards a hegemonic German project. A true federal union will not be achieved in near future, so why the fear of the British people? Maybe they are not sufficiently included in EU discourses, given their perceived and real special status?
Everything will still be a national decision. The UK is neither in the Euro, nor in Schengen. Why is the fear greater than the opportunities within the European Union? In my opinion this is rather a self-centered fear. I am not sure how preserved the colonial legacy still is in the eyes of the people but what I experience in debates with hardliner brexiters is that there is still hope in the Commonwealth. Statements made by Farage like: “Can you imagine how frightened our friends in the EU will be if we use the Commonwealth after Brexit?”, hint that there is still such a thinking in certain circles.
In total I see Brexit as a result of populist game play and not economic necessity. But I may be wrong. And I am trying not to follow the hidden or open wishes of some Europeans who wish the worst for the UK just to show that the EU is better. I would rather argue that project “Europe” with all its errors and benefits should not continue without the United Kingdom. Brexit helped me to realise how less I actually know about your country and culture.
Ulrich Czeranka is a 26 old German student, currently finishing his master degree in Brno, Czech Republic. Before he studied European Studies with emphasis on Eastern Europe in Chemnitz, Germany. He is very interested in European politics and eager to discuss the current Brexit negotiations as long as the UK is still part of the EU.
James Hall is a Medieval History Masters student and has a BA in History. He has spent most of his life in London and has experienced first hand the divide between the metropolitan centre of the UK and the rest of the country. James seeks to highlight the importance of history in his desired career. And has a particular interest in the evolution of common law and the parliamentary system. In addition to James’ interest in history and politics. He enjoys to travel and has visited many of the historic cities of Europe. Which primarily comes from his appreciation of the deep and rich cultural heritage that Europe as a continent has.
The project “UK Pen Pal” is part of Polis180’s programme area Post-Brexit Europe. The project will feature correspondences on the Polis Blog. If you wish to take part in the project or help us find participants who will, feel free to contact david.tschorr(at)polis180.org and adrian.eppel(at)polis180.org.
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