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Brexit – und wie weiter?

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Die British Chamber of Commere in Germany zählt deutschlandweit rund 1000 Mitglieder. In der Region Niedersachsen/Bremen steht Ubbo Oltmanns ehrenamtlich an der Spitze dieses deutsch-britischen Netzwerks. In der NW schreibt Oltmanns über den Stand der Brexit-Vereinbarungen nach der Einigung Ende 2020. Und äußert seine persönliche Einschätzung zum Verhältnis zwischen Königreich und Kontinenaleuropa in einem Beitrag in englischer Sprache. Titel: Unscrambling Eggs – zu deutsch etwa: Rührei wieder trennen.

„Vier Jahre Polit-Drama sind vorbei: Großbritannien und die EU haben sich in allerletzter Minute auf einen Deal geeinigt. Das ist zunächst eine gute Nachricht. Die Unternehmen wissen, womit sie es zu tun haben und können planen.

Moment: Wissen sie das, können sie das? Tatsächlich bestehen noch immer zahlreiche Unsicherheiten hinsichtlich der konkreten Bestimmungen zum grenzüberschreitenden Handel und den damit verbundenen Prozessen und Regulierungssystemen.

Während die Menschen im Vereinigten Königreich erste Folgen des Austritts in Supermarktregalen und bei Sicherheitsbehörden, bei Studenten oder Spediteuren, im Tourismus oder an Gerichten spüren, müssen Unternehmen jetzt den Inhalt des Abkommens verdauen und überlegen, was die Bestimmungen für den grenzüberschreitenden Waren-, Personen- und Datenverkehr sowie für ihre Lieferketten und Partner bedeuten. Zulassungsgebühren, Zertifikate, Zollerklärungen – es gilt, neu zu kalkulieren.

Der Brexit bedeutet für viele Unternehmen eine zusätzliche Bürde. Viele haben ohnehin schon mit den Auswirkungen der Coronavirus-Pandemie zu kämpfen. Hier sind jetzt Pragmatismus und Entschlossenheit gefordert, damit die neuen Beziehungen zwischen Großbritannien und der EU funktionieren.

Auch die Politik bleibt gefordert:

–  die Ratifizierung zügig voranzutreiben, um Volkswirtschaften und Handel Sicherheit zu geben.

–  den Unternehmen klare, präzise und detaillierte Anleitungen zu geben, damit sie die erforderlichen Änderungen schnell vornehmen können.

–  flexibel in den kommenden Wochen und Monaten Erleichterungen zuzulassen, um Unternehmen bei der Anpassung an die neuen Handelsregeln zu helfen.

Die British Chamber of Commerce in Germany wird ihr Netzwerk nutzen, um die Politik beim Erreichen dieser Ziele zu begleiten – mit Rat und Unterstützung, Forderungen und Ideen. Klar ist: Bei dem Abkommen handelt es sich um einen „bare bones deal“ für den zollfreien Handel mit Gütern. Aber um einen „no-deal“ für viele andere Sektoren, was den Zugang zum EU-Markt erheblich einschränkt. Die Banken und Finanzdienstleister, der Datenschutz und Dienstleister, sie alle werden von dem Deal nicht erfasst. Für sie gibt es bislang kein Abkommen, keine Regelungen. Und damit keine sichere Grundlage für ihre Geschäfte.

Der Brexit-Deal kann und darf deshalb nur die erste Version eines Handelsabkommens zwischen Großbritannien und der EU sein. Die Regierungen müssen in den kommenden Jahren weiterverhandeln, um alle Wirtschaftssektoren einzubeziehen und einen größtmöglichen Marktzugang zu ermöglichen.

So kann das Abkommen sogar ein Ausgangspunkt für eine tiefere Zusammenarbeit sein, während wir unsere Volkswirtschaften neu starten, umbauen und erneuern. Und die Voraussetzung schaffen, dass Unternehmen endlich wieder sicher planen, investieren und neue Möglichkeiten ergreifen können. Denn auch, wenn der Brexit vieles erschwert, geht es jetzt darum, neue Chancen zu sehen und zu ergreifen.“

 

Ubbo Oltmann’s personal view:

Unscrambling eggs

The UK and the EU – a historical misunderstanding?

 

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Aren’t these lines, taken from “Macbeth” (Act 5, Scene 5) and written by William Shakespeare 400 and a few years ago, a perfect description of the Brexit mess and its consequences that we are experiencing today?

Most of us with an interest in British affairs have received, heard and read an abundance of information about our current main topic, Brexit. We get a lot of information and large amounts of facts and figures on past and present bilateral trade, economic developments and future projections. They elaborate on various Brexit scenarios and their possible outcomes with regards to customs clearances and other trade-related issues, and subsequent legislation. The usual news feed actually does contain a lot of interesting, albeit mostly economic or current political, information.

Bearing the Shakespearean passage I started with in mind, I recently decided to look beyond all the facts and figures that have been so thoroughly discussed over the past three years. For perhaps it is all a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying – nothing!

Instead, I would like to share with you a broader view of British-EU – and, for that matter, British–German – relations and why I think that the Brexit vote was no real surprise. This approach explains things better by initiating a closer look at the history of these relations. I should add, however, that I used to think I had a good understanding of Britain and its people, but on the 24th of June 2016 and in the months thereafter, I realised that I did not have the faintest idea! Surely, many of us feel this way.

After all, it was Britain’s Sir Winston Churchill who put forth the idea of a “United Nations of Europe” after the Second World War, as a project for peace. Mr Churchill addressed The Congress of Europe on May 7, 1948, in The Hague, saying: “Men will be proud to say: I am a European!”

Nonetheless, Sir Winston made it clear from the beginning, that the United Kingdom would be favourable to the project, but not part of it. The idea became reality in June 1952, after the audacious reconciliation between France and Germany, when 6 European nations formed the European Coal and Steel Community, without the UK. This was labelled the “Gate to unity in Europe”. 

Germany’s Chancellor at the time, Konrad Adenauer, kept campaigning for British participation in uniting Europe. He once said:“Great Britain should play a role in Europe, so we are not left alone with the more or less hysterical French!”

In March 1957 in Rome, six nations – France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg – formed the European Economic Community (EEC), marking the beginning of the political unification of Europe. The UK was not much interested and did not even send members of the press. At that moment, it forfeited its chance to take a leading role in the process of building a European union, which was often interpreted as arrogance rooted in an imperial mentality still prevailing at the time. After all, Great Britain had been the greatest colonial power in world history.

The foundation of the EEC spurred economic growth on the continent in the 1960s; meanwhile, the UK economy stagnated. Subsequently, the UK applied for admission twice, in 1961 and again in 1967. In 1963, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan visited the French President to convince him of a British membership, or even leadership. General de Gaulle, protecting the French hegemony in the EEC, said “Non!” to both applications. Shortly after Macmillan’s visit, de Gaulle remarked:

“England in effect is insular, she is maritime […]. In short, the nature, the structure, the very (economic) situation that are England’s differ profoundly from those of the continentals. […] These means are obviously incompatible with the system which the Six have established quite naturally for themselves.”

Needless to say, de Gaulle’s hard position wasn’t uplifting for the Brits.

The Germans carried on being pro-British. When British Foreign Secretary George Brown met his German counterpart, Willy Brandt, he said: “Willy, you have to let us in, so we can take the lead!” The British position couldn’t be any clearer: either completely out, or inside in a leadership role. In the quoted positions, you can already sense the contrasting perceptions and frictions that existed before the UK even joined the EEC.

This did happen soon after de Gaulle resigned in April 1969, thus paving the way for new opportunities. But in the UK, feelings were still mixed. Many people feared rising prices, being obliged to buy expensive European products instead of cheaper ones from, say, New Zealand, due to it being part of the Commonwealth. It became obvious here already that there was not a political perception, but more an economic one. To quote the Bard again: Ay, there’s the rub! Since the whole idea was generally labelled a “common market” in the UK, it was naturally understood as an economic union, in contrast to French and German EU ambitions.

In summer 1970, official accession talks began and lasted almost two and a half years. The talks amounted to a debate concerning the British demand to join only under the condition of being granted special rights.

On 1 January 1973, under pro-European Tory PM Edward Heath, the UK joined the EEC. After Heath lost the elections in 1974, the Labour Party formed a new government under Prime Minister Harold Wilson. In a move not very different from David Cameron’s with his Tories some 40 years later, Wilson first negotiated better conditions for the United Kingdom and then initiated a referendum. It was then that Labour MP David Ennals famously summed up the problem of leaving the EEC: “You cannot unscramble the egg!” 

The first referendum in the UK on the question of European membership took place on 5 June 1975. The question put to the British electorate was:

Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community (the Common Market)?

A simple YES / NO answer was permitted (to be marked with a single ‘X’).

The “Yes” campaign was officially supported by Wilson, and the majority of his cabinet. The Labour Party itself was quite split on the issue. The „No“ campaign was led by the left wing of the Labour Party, including some cabinet ministers. This is probably the root for understanding Mr Corbyn’s present behaviour. Eventually, the Labour Party itself did not campaign on either side.

In this context, I should mention that our then newly elected Chancellor Helmut Schmidt travelled to a Labour Party convention in order to convince his party friends of the advantages of a membership in the Common Market. He held a speech on November 30th, 1974, which can be viewed on YouTube today. It was as serious as it was amusing and is thus really worth watching. My favourite quote from his speech is this one: “I cannot totally avoid putting myself in the position of a man who, in front of ladies and gentlemen belonging to the Salvation Army, tries to convince them of the advantages of drinking!

Interestingly enough, seen from today, the YES campaign was supported by the majority of the Conservative Party, including its newly elected leader Margaret Thatcher — 249 out of 275 party members in Parliament supported staying in the European Community in a free vote.

The result of the referendum was clear: 67% voted to stay in the Common Market. Home Secretary Roy Jenkins made this remarkable statement after the result had come out: “It puts the uncertainty behind us. It commits Britain to Europe; it commits us to playing an active, constructive and enthusiastic role in it.”

In 1979 Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. She was very much in favour of the EU as a market, in contrast to any nature of a political community. But the EEC meant an ever-increasing political union, not just free trade and good economic ties. In this context, it is important to notice to what extent the sovereignty of Britain was – and is – crucial for the British people.

Mrs Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterrand got along quite well, which, unfortunately, was not the case with her and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. In her bold and steadfast “I want my money back” campaign, the prime minister eventually reached an agreement on the famous Brit rebate in 1985, which meant a payback of 66% of the British yearly net contribution to the EU.

To put this into perspective, between 1985 and 2017, this rebate saved UK taxpayers a total sum of 128 billion euros,  a sum almost equivalent to the entire European budget for a full year. I’m not mentioning this to foster debates on cherry picking, but rather to show that money was not the driver. With such a significant rebate, the UK had quite a financial advantage that will be lost with any Brexit.

When, in 1990, John Major became PM, it meant a new generation of politicians. He said:”We want to be at the heart of Europe!” But his party, the Tories, urged him at the same time to negotiate exit options from the EU.

In May 1995, the Eurotunnel opened. It was an event that had quite an impact on the British mind – and not a very positive one, for that matter. Nowadays, about 10 million people travel on the tunnel trains, each year. The travel time between London and Brussels is only 2 hours and 40 minutes.

Furthermore, there is no real need to mention that the Brits did not abolish the border passport control in 1995, as Continental Europe did. And, of course, they did not give up the pound for the euro; nor did they adopt the metric measurement system. Indeed, even for non-Brits, either would have been unthinkable, I’d say!

When, in 2004, the EU was enlarged with the accession of 10 eastern European states, the UK was fast in opening their labour market to these work forces, which resulted in the strong immigration issue during the Brexit campaign, nailed in the outcry: “Take back control!” Thus, the referendum in 2016 was characterised by three major issues: (1) a protest against London, or what it stood for, (2) immigration, and (3) sovereignty. Of course, we could further elaborate on the two sides of the Brexit vote and how heterogeneous each is, in itself – be it old versus young, rural versus urban, or workers versus the establishment –, but would take this essay too far afield.

Before concluding, there is one more important feature I wish to highlight: A study co-authored by researchers at Queen Mary University of London has revealed that negative coverage of the European Union in UK newspapers increased from 24 to 45 per cent between 1974 and 2013.

Actually, according to another source I once read, in the 4 years prior to the Brexit referendum, UK media coverage of the EU was 4 times as negative as the coverage of the Syrian war, which, beyond doubt, is a very bad contemporary event.

I now ask all of you to imagine being asked to vote on whether to remain in the EU, or leave it, after having read in the papers every day, year after year, about how bad the EU is. Well, you might feel, as I do, that a vote of 48% to remain was actually quite a success!

After sharing this historical perspective with you, let me conclude that the relationship between the UK and the EU didn’t go well from the very beginning and, therefore, isn’t – thus far, at least – ending well. It has been a series of misunderstandings and differing perceptions. To the pragmatic British, the EU is understood as a basis for economic opportunity, while the Germans and French have a more idealistic approach beyond economic benefits – namely one that strives to form a political union that would sustain peace in Europe.

Over time, I have developed a better understanding of the British mentality after learning the historical aspects I have mentioned here.

So, here we are, trying to unscramble the egg! – watching the political chaos created by a referendum result that shouldn’t, after all, have been so very surprising. Brexit, a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. A tale full of sound and fury!

I think, it is bad for the Brits, bad for the EU, bad for all of us. I personally assess the Brexit vote as a catastrophe. Europe is already losing its political and economic relevance, and this unfortunate development is further nurtured by the UK leaving the EU. In 1950, Europe had about 25% of the world’s population; it is estimated that this proportion will drop to merely 7% by 2050.

Hopefully, we all agree that, as important as the European Union is, Europe is more than the EU. Indeed, it is often said that the UK is leaving the EU but not Europe!

This is where we start the future: by respecting history, respecting the vote of the British people, cooperating closely to deliver on this vote while trying even harder to mitigate subsequent problems. These are mostly regarded as economic in nature, but I think there is a lot more to it. Therefore, I can’t stress strongly enough that only education fosters understanding, and that understanding builds bridges. And the key for future cooperation lies in the respect and decency with which we allow the UK to leave. This includes offering the UK the chance to re-enter the EU, be it in 5 or in 50 years.

I shall finally quote the words of His Royal Highness Prince Charles, which he spoke in Berlin on 7 May of this year:

Today, we are so much more than simply neighbours: we are friends and natural partners, bound together by our common experience, mutual interests and shared values, and deeply invested in each other’s futures.

This tale is far different from one told by an idiot. This is our common ground.