Brexit Eye Opener

Thank You, Britain!

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Next stop Continental Europe?
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Britain’s vote to leave the European Union could trigger similar votes in E.U. members such as Denmark and the Netherlands.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Britons voted by 52 percent to 48 percent to leave the European Union in a referendum last week.
    • Britain is the world’s fifth-largest economy and the second-largest in Europe after Germany.
    • Many right-wing and center-right politicians in Europe would like referendum votes on E.U. membership in their countries.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

The British are not spoilsports. They play their own game, and decided to leave the confining conformity of the European Union. Any thinking person should realize they had good reasons to do so. Britain doesn’t just belong to Europe, Britain belongs among all nations. That was how Winston Churchill saw it.

Great Britain is oriented outwardly more strongly than any other country in our hemisphere. Its people, in the words of former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson, don’t share “the obsession for the European perspective.”

“We have a global perspective, due to our ties to the Commonwealth and the rest of the English-speaking world,” Mr. Lawson said. “Today every country trades with every other country in the world. That’s what globalization means.”

The world’s fifth largest economy doesn’t need bureaucratic Brussels for that.

Now that the British have voted to leave the European bloc, it’s our chance to reshape how we think. The future is open — provided you really want to consider the future of Brussels, “the Gentle Monster,” and not just “believe” in it.

Here on the continent, the unloved E.U. system endures — like the leaning tower of Pisa, with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on the top floor.

Ulrike Guérot, director of the Berlin-based think tank, European Democracy Lab, wrote last week that “you almost have to hope for a Brexit, so the resulting shock waves will force the continent into a fundamental rethink.”

Over the past months Britain has shown the European public how to do that. The debate and decision hasn’t changed a thing about the Earth: Its geography is still the same.

But it has been good for Europe as a whole, because it brought arguments for and against E.U. membership into the open, on both sides of the Channel. Thanks, Great Britain! Now people on the continent will also join the debate — which is what political bosses in Brussels fear the most.

Bondage is never without an alternative: Three decades ago, as the Soviet bloc crumbled, such a break with the past was called “glasnost” and “perestroika.”

Once again the British Isles have taken the lead in freedom. It was, after all, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 that gave Europe democracy and freedom of speech. Because of English laws, wrote Voltaire, “all people enjoy natural rights, which had been robbed by monarchies.”

But in Prussian Berlin, leaders took another path in the 17th century under Frederick William, known as the “Great Elector” — namely that modernization must proceed from the top. It has remained that way ever since. No modern German leader, for instance, would have considered allowing the German people to vote on whether they wanted to leave the European Union.

Brexit vs. Bremain. The fact that it came down to such a debate seems perverse, or at least populist, to the politically correct dance instructors in Berlin.

In the end, the British vote wasn’t even as close as expected. But the results aren’t the only important thing: The fact that this referendum was possible in the first place is magnificent! Ultimately, the British set an example for all other Europeans, who so far have been deprived of such a vote.

We Germans are more familiar with “precautionary measures” taken by professional politicians. We know it by the way Germany’s unification treaty was shaped, or better yet, imposed. We know it by the way the Deutsche Mark was tossed out in favor of the euro — without the general public having a say.

 

The European Union Map-01

 

And no one has forgotten how, overnight, German forces were sent to bomb Belgrade in 1999, contrary to the expressed ban in the German constitution (and most likely against 90 percent of the voters). This is where thinking about politics becomes a bottomless pit and you have to be careful not to get terribly angry. 

I know, I know: It’s not always with evil intent. But the political class in Germany sees itself less as representatives of the people and more like teachers — and the people are hard-to-teach pupils. For political leaders today, it’s just table talk among old friends when they meet next over prosecco and quail breasts at their private showings in Berlin.

One of the great experts on England and Germany, the best-selling author Dietrich Schwanitz, was for many years a professor of English literature at the University of Hamburg. To Mr. Schwanitz, the German mindset boils down to Shakespeare: Germany sees itself in Hamlet, he said. And like Hamlet, it reflects back, possessed by an unredeemed past and a fixation on murder and victims.

It wasn’t by chance, for instance, that while the Brexit debate raged in London, the German parliament was busy passing a resolution that looked back to World War I. The 1915 Armenian massacre by Ottoman forces was genocide, an emotionally stricken parliament declared.

Britain, in the meantime, is blithely looking forward. They have made the impossible possible. Everything that gets on the nerves of Germans (and the French and the Italians and the Poles, etc.) – that the European Union can be monstrous, faceless and amorphous — has been overcome with a single blow.

Nevertheless, here on the continent, the unloved E.U. system continues — like the leaning tower of Pisa, with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on the top floor. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her entourage will firmly resolve to also roll past Britain’s decision and not face up to it.

When Ms. Merkel took office 10 years ago, she had a completely different point of view. “Less Europe is more Europe,” she argued then.

It’s somewhat like the great foreign minister of the Austrian Empire, Klemens von Metternich, who engineered the division of post-Napoleonic Europe in the early 19th century. His international diplomacy was hailed for preventing major wars in Europe at the time. But in the end, as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in a doctoral dissertation, “his success made inevitable the ultimate collapse of the state he fought so long to preserve.”

Now, after the people in Britain were allowed to decide, the European Metternichs of today can no longer evade the question: Should the E.U.’s other citizens also be made the bearers of European policy? Or will they only be allowed to remain spectators of a theatrical production they cannot influence?

To ask the question is to answer it. We’re on the road into the open!

 

To contact the author: gastautor@handelsblatt.com

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