When a breakup makes you rethink your relationship: Brexit and Germany

Why We Wrote This

Public sentiment doesn’t always drive government policy. But Germany’s disappointment over Brexit may affect its relationship with a good friend – and how it thinks about the EU’s future.

John MacDougall/AP
German enthusiasm for the U.K. was on display as Britain's Prince Charles greets a crowd during his visit to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, May 7, 2019.

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Two world wars notwithstanding, Germans have a special place in their hearts for Britain, especially its reputation for liberal pragmatism. And the British royals are wildly popular. But Britain’s planned withdrawal from the European Union, Brexit, has left most Germans bewildered, and somewhat bereft.

“The U.K. was one of the allied forces that welcomed Germany back as a European nation” after World War II, points out Norbert Röttgen, head of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, and now the U.K. is turning its back. Politicians are particularly wary of Britain’s likely next prime minister, Boris Johnson, a champion of Brexit who has made anti-German comments in the past.

But even after Britain leaves the EU, ties between Berlin and London are expected to remain strong: The two nations are close trading partners and allies on the international scene. Germans may be disappointed by Brexit, and not understand it, says Helmut Scholz, a left-leaning politician, “but that doesn’t affect the bilateral relationship.”

When Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, and his wife the Duchess of Cornwall visited this historic city recently, thousands of Anglophiles waved Union Jacks and German flags on the central Marktplatz square to greet them.

The royal House of Windsor is hugely popular in Germany, a sentiment that reflects a broader affection for a country long admired as liberal and pragmatic.

That image has been tarnished by the 2016 Brexit referendum taking Britain out of the European Union. But Germany will still miss the U.K. more than other members of the bloc, even if Berlin is counting on continued strong bilateral ties with London after Brexit.

Its politicians are bewildered that Britain is turning its back on the post-war European order. “After the horrors of the Second World War, the U.K. was one of the allied forces that welcomed Germany back as a European nation,” points out Norbert Röttgen, who heads the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “These historic ties are deeply ingrained in the German collective memory.”

Even Jürgen Klopp, the manager of Europe’s soccer champions, Liverpool, and the most popular German in Britain, has weighed in. “I’m 51 years old so I have never experienced a war,” he told the BBC last May. “We are really blessed in our generation, but the past showed us that as long as strong partners are together, Europe is a much safer place.”

“The Germans are just shaking their heads and wondering how on earth did this happen,” says Fraser Cameron, senior adviser at the European Policy Center in Brussels. “There has been a mixture of exasperation, frustration, and sheer incredulity” over Brexit, he adds. “Now the German mood is one of resignation.”

A fondness for Britain, unrequited

Jon Worth, an Englishman, has lived in Berlin for six years and is in the process of becoming a German citizen. The author of a popular blog on Brexit, Mr. Worth recalls how, on the day after the British electorate voted to leave the EU in June 2016, he went to his sports club and one of his colleagues – a technician with the police force – approached him.

“He put his arm around me and said: ‘Jon, don’t worry, it’ll be okay, you can stay.’ The attitude towards me has not changed,” he says. But while there is great fondness for the U.K. among the German elite, he finds, that feeling is not reciprocated. “If British politicians have spent any time anywhere else it’s usually the USA,” Mr. Worth says. “There is not any sort of cultural affinity with Germany whatsoever.”

Ties are closer on the music front. Closing a recent show at the open-air Zitadelle venue, Kele Okereke, singer in British indie band Bloc Party, told the audience how sad he was that the next time he visited Berlin, Britain would most likely have left Europe. There was a collective shaking of heads in the crowd, a mixture of Berliner 30-somethings and British expats.

Those foreigners are especially concerned about how Brexit will play out. Over 17,000 Britons became naturalized Germans between 2016 and 2018, more than three times as many as in the previous 15 years.  A significant number of Brits whose ancestors fled the Nazis are now reclaiming German citizenship.

Thoughts on Boris Johnson

Helmut Scholz, a European Parliament member from the left-wing German party Die Linke, will be sorry to see Britain leave the EU; he is a fan of the U.K., where his daughter went to university and he has close political ties.

But he sees Brexit as a useful warning sign. “We have similar [nationalist] tendencies in all EU member states,” he points out. We were critical of the [British] decision to leave but we need to ask the question within the EU what we can do to stop other countries taking the same decision. It is time for European countries to recognize their common values and responsibilities in a common market and show we are willing to protect these values,” says Mr. Scholz.

Mr. Scholz, who is personally acquainted with the British Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, has an especially sour view of Boris Johnson, the champion of Brexit who is expected to be Britain’s next prime minister. Mr. Johnson has made himself unpopular with Germans for a series of anti-German remarks, including comparing the EU to the Third Reich. “It will be interesting if Boris Johnson really becomes the new prime minister, as everyone expects. Poor Britain!” says Mr. Sholz.

That attitude is shared across the German political spectrum. In an interview with the British parliamentary magazine The House, Elmar Brok, a long-time associate of conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel, said he enjoyed Mr. Johnson’s company but did not think he was suitable to be leader of his country.

During the European elections campaign, the Social Democrats tweeted a picture of Mr. Johnson dangling from a zip-wire waving a Union Jack with the caption, “This is what happens when populists muscle in: Chaos.”

Ties that still bind

Many Germans still harbor the hope Britain will opt for a second referendum and end up staying.

“The discussions in the aftermath of the referendum have shown how difficult it is to reverse 40 years of EU integration. Since the negative repercussions of Brexit have only become clear after the vote, a second referendum to revoke or confirm one’s position in my view seems sensible,” says Dr. Röttgen.

Even if this doesn’t happen, ties will remain strong, not least because of the two countries’ trade relationship. The U.K. is Germany’s fourth most important export destination and Germany is Britain’s second biggest foreign market after the United States.

Beyond that, “the U.K. and Germany stand together on every major international issue which confronts us, from global trade to the nuclear deal with Iran, to climate change,” Britain’s ambassador to Germany, Sir Sebastian Wood, said in an interview with a local English-language newspaper last year. “That won’t change. Why should it?”

 “The relationship with Britain is still very close and that hasn’t changed,” agrees Mr. Scholz. “Young people are very disappointed with Brexit, and they don’t understand it, but that doesn’t affect the bilateral relationship.”

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