Teil des Kooperationsprojektes der Universität Göttingen und der Stiftung Adam von Trott mit dem Titel „Widerstand – Demokratie – Internationalität“ ist die Zusammenarbeit mit der Universität Oxford, an der Adam von Trott, ebenso wie an der Universität Göttingen, studierte. Die Adam-von-Trott-Lecture in Göttingen hielt am 5. November Prof. Wolfgang Merkel. Der Redner der Adam von Trott Memorial Lecture in Oxford war am 16. November Thomas Oppermann.


— Es gilt das gesprochene Wort —

“Germany, Britain and Europe: What Prospects?”

I´ll never forget June 23rd 2016: That day Britain decided to leave the EU. It was by a tiny margin of 51,9 % that people voted in favour of leaving the EU.

We had not expected the Brexit. And we were not prepared for it.

For Germany the “Leave” of Great Britain is a painful loss. I would describe it this way: In the diverse orchestra of the 28 EU-Members the UK and Germany played the same instruments: Reasonable economic policy, fair trade, financial transparency and fiscal discipline. We both know how to create successful economies!

The Germans knew: If Britain left the balance of those crucial discussions in the Council of Ministers would change. We would lose a natural ally.

The UK is Germany’s second largest trading partner. German companies employ a third of a million people in the UK and British companies employ a quarter of a million in Germany. Our military, our intelligence and law enforcement agencies work closely together. Our scientists’ co-author more papers than we do with any country other than the US.

Apart from these more rational reasons, the result of the Brexit-referendum was so disturbing because many Germans believe that Britons and Germans have quite a lot in common. Germans think that the British people are “like us”. Aren´t we both beer-drinking, sun-chair-occupying and football loving nations? Isn´t English a Germanic language, too? The UK gave us the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and shaped the lifestyle of generations of young Germans for decades.

And: We did not forget, that after World War II, it was the UK and the Western allies that provided political support and economic assistance to Western Germany under the Marshall Plan. At the time an outcast, it was generous to readmit Germany to the international community.

We are grateful that you liberated our country in 1945 and installed a democratic system and the rule of law. I grew up in the British sector of Germany, where the Brits still enjoy a great reputation.

Brexit is not only a loss for Germany, but for the entire European Union: The EU loses a veto power on the UN Security Council with a great foreign policy competence and an effective diplomatic network and a political powerhouse with a longstanding democratic tradition.

So why did the Brits decide to leave the EU?

And why would the Germans never do so?

You can actually reveal many characteristics of our two countries if you describe the relationship of Germany and the EU on the one side and Great Britain and the EU on the other side.

The British view on Europe has always been rather pragmatic than passionate. The main focus was on free trade and the internal market.

Most Britons saw the EU as an international organisation for economic cooperation. Even among Pro-Europeans there has only been limited support for the idea of the European Union as a political project.

The reservations have much to do with geography: Surrounded by the sea, the United Kingdom was protected for almost 1000 years from devastating wars and destructive ideologies which have rampaged across the European continent again and again.

By the way, the island location has another effect: There seems to be the illusion that the English Channel is wider than the Atlantic Ocean — following the motto “Fog in Channel, Continent Cut Off”.

The two world wars did not create a fundamental break in the continuity of Britain’s basic national story. They did not shatter their national institutions to the core and force them to rebuild the country from the bottom up.

In contrast: for most of its history Germany was not a geographically defined nation, but rather a cultural and linguistic concept with constantly shifting separate political entities.

It is interesting that after World War II the idea of a „United Europe“ was articulated and put forward by none other than Prime Minister Winston Churchill. However, Churchill’s ideal of Europe did not include Great Britain.

When the UK eventually entered the European Community in 1972 it was not the beginning of a love story. Margaret Thatcher’s „I want my money back“ only twelve years later and „take back control“ from the “Leave” campaign are reliable indicators of an ambivalent relationship.

After 44 years, it was David Cameron who thought it was about time to resolve this ambivalence by a popular vote. Cameron wanted to repair the split of his party, but ended up with the split of his country.

Now, there is a gap between Scotland and Northern Ireland (“Remain”) on the one side and England and Wales (“Leave”) on the other side.

And there is another fundamental gap between the younger and older generations: It was widely noticed that the overwhelming majority of young people voted “Remain”.

To me, it was moving to watch more than half a million people marching for Europe in London one month ago. The young people in Britain reject isolationism. They want to be part of the European family. They feel cosmopolitan. They see their future in a united and modern Europe.

By the way: That is exactly what Adam von Trott stood for.

Now let us have a look at the German perspective on the EU which is a completely different story.

After World War II, Germany was destroyed, divided and irritated about its national identity. There was no need at all for any nationalism or militarism. Germans were happy that they had survived and had a deep desire for stability and friendly neigboborship.

From the very beginning Europe was seen as a promise for peace and reconciliation.

The common market became a success story and helped to bring about prosperity in Germany. We enjoyed open borders and free traveling. The Erasmus program was a fantastic advertisement for Europe.

Let me summarize: European integration for us Germans meant peace, freedom, democracy and prosperity.

That is why for a long time the EU has been an emotional project and has become part of our post-war national identity. So the preamble of the German Constitution says: “Inspired by the determination to promote peace in the world as an equal partner in a united Europe,(…) the German people (…) have adopted this basic law.” Striving to protect the EU and making it better has become part of our national DNA. Mainstream Germany is deeply convinced that we will only do well if Europe does.

Do not misunderstand: I am not talking about the idea of a United States of Europe, where 27 member states – sooner or later – melt down to one nation state. I am talking about 27 member states sharing a unique type of transnational democracy, while keeping their national identity.

So you can see: The relationship of our two countries and the EU couldn’t be more different. The question is:

Will that divide Germany and UK?

Heaven forbid!

There is a folk-song in Germany called “Divorce is painful” (“Scheiden tut weh”). Some of you might know about this from private life and you can see it in the Brexit negotiations.

It does not make sense to comment the daily-changing state of Brexit discussion in the UK. It is not adequate to tell the British people what to do. But for Germany it is clear: remain or come back – the UK is always welcome in the EU.

But I am deeply convinced: It must be a fair deal. The Brexit must not poison our relationship. On the contrary: We have to work harder to maintain our friendship.

We should not forget that our civil societies have strong ties. As a matter of fact, we have to rediscover all the good British-German and British-European initiatives that already exist – be it the famous friendship among the fans of FC Liverpool and Borussia Mönchengladbach or the German-British Chamber of Commerce or school-exchange schemes or twin towns. And we have to come up with new ones! For example, Georg-August University Göttingen and Oxford University could extend their cooperation in the name of Adam von Trott.

The Brexit is clearly a defeat for the European idea. But, ironically this defeat helps us in two ways. First, Brexit was a wakeup call for Europe. Europe has to change. Europe needs to get better. We urgently need to work on that.

Second, the Brexit disaster is so disruptive and complicated that at least the governments of all other EU members are thoroughly scared of following the British example.

Even member-states like Poland and Hungary – whose politics are in a deep conflict with the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU – do not think about leaving the European Union.

A collapse of the European Union would not only have severe negative economic consequences for all of us. It would also endanger the European peace order.

If the EU did not exist, we would have to create it – right now!

I have no doubt that the EU will survive.

But no matter how emotionally one country identifies with the EU: The EU is not an end in itself.

So the decisive question is not: Will the EU survive?

The decisive questions is: Will our model of liberal democracy and social market economy be sustainable in a world of authoritarian rollback?

Honestly, I don´t have a perfect answer.

First of all, what does liberal democracy mean?

German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it this way: „Democracy is neither liberal nor illiberal. Rather, democracy is either liberal – or it does not exist. ´Illiberal democracy` is a contradiction in itself. Contrary to the views that have recently been adopted in some parts of Europe, democracy does not exist without the rule of law and the protection of minorities, it dies without human rights and civil liberties. And it stands and falls with the freedom of thought!“

Democracy is facing its most serious crisis in decades. According to “Freedom House” 71 countries experienced a decline in political rights and civil liberties in 2017. Only 35 improved.

The pressure on liberal democracies comes from inside and outside at the same time.

From the inside right-wing populists challenge our system.

Germany is unfortunately no longer an exception. For the first time since the 1950’s a right-wing Populist Party has been elected into Bundestag.

How could that happen?

Up to now there have been a few attempts to establish a right-wing party. But that never worked, because we had a broad consensus: never again!

But then the financial crisis shattered people´s trust in the state – not only in Germany but in all western countries. Many people lost their jobs, their homes and the savings that they had worked so hard for. As a consequence: people did not believe in the state’s ability to protect their modest wealth from greedy bankers and speculators.

Just as we were getting a grip on the consequences of the financial crisis another crisis hit: Almost one million refugees came to Germany in 2015. This was a great humanitarian act, but it also caused problems for German society. Especially socially deprived people and low-skilled workers fear that migrants could take their jobs and cause higher housing-prices. Other Germans, being confronted with a multi-religious society, develop aversions – for example against a political and authoritarian Islam.

But the rise of populism is also caused by the fear of globalization and digitalization and the perceived lack of a strong state that is capable of protecting people from crime, violence or terrorism.

Populists systematically instrumentalize fear and insecurity.

For no problem they have a solution. But for every problem they have a scapegoat.

Every political statement can be traced back to the same pattern of bias. It is either Anti-EU, Anti-Establishment or Anti-Migration.

What is the answer? I am convinced, that we need a strong and active state.

A state that is not only creating law but also capable of enforcing law,

  • no matter if we deal with human traffickers who want to determine the right of migration
  • or multinational companies that try to evade taxes by shifting profits in low tax countries.
  • In that sense: “Take back control” is not completely wrong. It should not mean closing the door to any kind of migration – but legal migration in a controlled way.

Germany desperately needs young and talented people. Experts predict that without migration until the mid 30s 6 million people will retire who cannot be replaced by young people entering the labor market. Therefore we have to find a consensus on how to handle immigration from non-EU-Countries.

So, there is a lot to do to solve domestic problems.

But, Liberal democracies are also under pressure from the outside:

  • Leaders like Erdogan and Putin try to split the EU and polarize our world. They are full of contempt for our way of life and our democratic values.
  • China as a global power is a one party dictatorship.
  • In Brazil, the fifth largest country in the world, a right-wing extremist was recently elected President.
  • Donald Trump, the supposed leader of the western world, is hardly any better. He welcomed Brexit enthusiastically and he believes, his mission is to destroy multilateralism.
  • He revoked the Paris agreement to combat climate change and he terminated the Iran nuclear Deal (JCPOA).
  • His unilateral course has weakened the western alliance.

I am convinced that unilateralism does not advance Germans or Britons in a globalized world.

Economic cooperation, free trade, fighting terrorism or climate change: All these problems cannot be solved on the national level. It’s only possible if nations cooperate.

Cooperation has been important for the past, but it is even more important for the future.

No single country in Europe is strong enough to successfully defend its model of economy and welfare state on its own. Europe is small and it keeps getting smaller. The proportion of Europeans in the world population already declined from 20 percent in the 1950s to 10 percent today and will further decline to 6 percent by the end of the century.

And European countries are projected to fall behind in the coming years economically. Experts predict, due to demographic reasons, a decline of Germany’s economic position in the world from being the world’s 5th largest economy, which it is now, to becoming the world’s number 10 in the next 30 years. Great Britain will fall back from 10 to 11.

If we fall back we must concentrate our power. We must always be strong enough to prevent countries like China or Russia from forcing upon us their model, their rules, their way of life. That is why we need an “Alliance of Multilateralism” meaning strengthening the UN, OSCE and NATO and if we don´t want to be shifted around we have to make sure to keep our economic strength and competiveness.

Let me conclude: Germany regrets that the UK wants to leave the EU.

But I am convinced: The relationship between Germany and Britain goes beyond the EU.

Britain has always emphasized its „special relationship“ with the United States. Now the UK needs to work on a special relationship with Germany and with the EU.

America first, Great Britain first, Germany first, whoever first…This type of national egoism cannot be a role model for nations to live peacefully together in the 21st century. Nationalism has never worked for the well-being of the people.

However, there is nothing wrong with healthy patriotism.

French President Emmanuel Macron made a clear and precise statement in Paris last weekend: „Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. “

Our former Federal President Johannes Rau put it this way: “I never want to be a nationalist, but a patriot. A patriot is someone who loves his country, a nationalist is someone who is full of contempt for other countries.”

I prefer to follow Willy Brandt who once said: “We want to be a people of good neighbors, at home and in the world”.

These quotes also reflect the legacy of Adam von Trott, the patron of this memorial lecture.

He always stood up for the peaceful coexistence of peoples, for cosmopolitan dialogue with foreign cultures, for a just and stable world order.

He was both: a cosmopolitan and a patriot.

He defended these values uncompromisingly and paid for it with his life.

He was a role model back then and he still is one today.