Reforming Europe

Germans for Brexit?

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If they could vote, a few Germans would also like to see Britain leave the European Union.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    There are those in Germany who are hoping the shock of a break-up will have a long-awaited cleansing effect, forcing long overdue reforms that make the European Union more responsive to voters.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Britain will go to the polls on Thursday to decide whether or not to remain a part of the 28 nation European Union.
    • A YouGov poll last month found that 52 percent of Germans want Britain to stay in the European Union, compared to just 26 percent that would prefer them to leave.
    • Britain’s financial contribution to the European Union was about 13 billion pounds in 2015, second only to Germany
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    Audio

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They may be few in numbers but they do exist – the Germans who want Britain to leave the European Union.

“The sworn horror scenarios are nonsense. If the Brits want to leave the E.U., they should go,” Nikolaus Doll, editor of German daily Die Welt wrote this month. “An exit of Great Britain is not a catastrophe for Europe but a salvation. A Brexit could even strengthen the union.”

While a majority of Germans support Britain in the European Union, Mr. Doll is part of the minority that believes Britain’s exit could actually benefit the bloc by helping its remaining nations grow closer together.

The European Union, most in this group agree, is in crisis. Getting rid of the detractors might be the only way to keep the European Union’s core afloat. The European Union might also be able to use the shock of Britain’s exit to finally agree a series of much-needed reforms to make it more responsive to voter concerns.

It’s a question that Lenny Fischer has struggled with for much of the past year: “For a very long time, I have been pro-Brexit,” the German banking executive, until recently head of BHF Kleinwort Benson Group, admitted at a Handelsblatt Global Edition event in London Tuesday night.

Yet as the day of the referendum nears, Mr. Fischer said he’s having something of a change of heart.

By the end of Thursday, the European Union will know if Brexit supporters have gotten their wish. That’s when Britain goes to the polls to decide whether or not their country should remain part of the 28-nation European Union.

Mr. Fischer said he still supports Brexit in principle. Yet the nastiness of the campaign, and the recent dominance of the immigration debate rather than more earnest issues of E.U. reform, have left him fearing that neither side would learn the proper lessons that should come from a divorce. That has left him tempted to vote “Remain” if he had a vote.

“I have not changed my mind, but everything has become so emotional,” Mr. Fischer said. He warned continental Europe against threatening to “punish” Britain for leaving by giving them a raw deal.

“You don’t say to someone: ‘Don’t divorce me, because if you do you won’t get anything to eat afterward.’ That doesn’t make for a happy marriage,” he said. “If it is a divorce, let it be a divorce of civilized people.”

 

Would You Prefer Britain to (2)-01

 

Mr. Fischer’s ideal alternative? A European Union of two halves. His vision would be that Britain rejoins a more limited economic bloc at a later stage – one that could also be joined by other E.U. countries that are skeptical of a deeper political union. Those core countries that want to deepen integration would then be free to move forward.

“I think it’s completely inevitable,” he said of a two-speed Europe. “Otherwise the whole thing will blow up.”

Mr. Fischer’s views are in the minority. While many Germans might be at times frustrated with Britain’s role in Europe, a clear majority have consistently supported them staying inside the 28-nation bloc.

A YouGov poll last month found that 52 percent of Germans want Britain to stay in the European Union, compared to just 26 percent that would prefer them to leave.

Unlike in Britain itself, there is also unity among the country’s political parties that a British exit is a risk that the European Union cannot afford. Members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and the center-left Social Democrats have both urged Britain to stay.

 

Even the euroskeptic Alternative for Germany party, the AfD, has said it would prefer Britain to remain part of the bloc. The party, which has been tough on immigration and skeptical of the euro currency, still wants the broader European Union to remain intact.

“An exit of Britain from the European Union would be fatal,” AfD leader Frauke Petry said earlier this year. “Above all we would lose an economically-strong member and one of the most significant net financial contributors,” she added.

In other words, one of the main reasons why British Brexit supporters want to leave is also why most Germans, even right-wing voices, want Britain to stay: The country contributes financially to the European Union.

According to the British Treasury, Britain’s financial contribution to the European Union was about 13 billion pounds ($19 billion) in 2015, second only to Germany, though Britain’s net contribution (after money it receives back through E.U. projects) is about 8.5 billion pounds.

That is also what distinguishes Britain from Greece, for example, where a bitter debate over hundreds of billions in bailouts prompted a number of German politicians and economists to call on Athens to simply cut the cord and quit the euro last summer.

Nevertheless, there are those German voices this time around that believe a reformed European Union without Britain might be the only realistic way forward.

“The Brits should make a decision. It’s time to call out to them: Then go!” wrote Miriam Meckel, editor in chief of WirtschaftsWoche, a weekly business newspaper and sister publication of Handelsblatt.

“The departure will for the first time show us what we have been missing,” Ms. Meckel added. “For Europe, it may finally be the healing shock that this bureaucratic standstill of a European ideal needs to get its groove back.”

 

Christopher Cermak is an editor with Handelsblatt Global Edition. He is in London this week as part of Handelsblatt’s extensive coverage of the British referendum. To contact the author: cermak@handelsblatt.com

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