I have to admit: I am always struggling when my British friends start talking about Europe and refer to it by “the continent”, or, even worse, “Continental Europe”. Yes, I know that the UK sits on an island and that Europe is “the continent”, from an island point of view. But this is not just a geographic distinction that´s being made between an island and the vast landmass sitting across the Channel. Those one or two words – continent or Continental Europe – also embody the small but distinctive emotional distance that exists between the UK and Europe.
Thanks to those 34 to 248 kilometres that the Channel spans, Brits do feel distinctly different when it comes to Europe – a simple but nevertheless quite important insight for somebody like me who comes from Germany, a country at the heart of Europe who could never really imagine her country outside the European Union, be it as complicated and dysfunctional as it often is. Add to that the fact that the UK prides itself of not having been invaded since 1066 when William the Conqueror won the Battle of Hastings and you get an even better understanding of why Europe has never meant quite the same for the British. Unlike their counterparts on the continent, the British have – except maybe during the Second World War, when Hitler´s bombs rained down on London – never felt quite the same vulnerability, such an urgent need for collaboration, unification and exchange that Continental Europeans have felt. Thus, the relationship is much more transactional, less emotional.
There are additional reasons for that. Once one of the largest empires on earth, the small island in the Atlantic which Google measures at only 243.610 square metres, still proudly remembers those days when it was governing the world. Trading with the remotest places that you might think of, the British have had an international outlook for several centuries in a row, a fact that leads to London still being one of the most international cities in the world. Consequently, the UK does not look just towards its European neighbours for trade and collaboration but thinks of the Commonwealth, the association of former colonies, and increasingly of Asia and its emerging markets.
From a German point of view, I understand some of that. Having been based in Shanghai, China before, I am quite aware that the world is changing, that economic and political power is shifting East and that Europe needs to adjust in order to sustain wealth and economic growth. With China as one of our most important trading partners in the world, Germany is actively engaging with emerging markets in Asia and other parts of the world. However, the US, France, the Netherlands and Great Britain are still more important to Germany´s exports than China. This is true for the UK as well – four out of its five most important export markets are based in Continental Europe.
And that´s where my understanding ends. The Leave campaign argues that Britain should be leaving because it could trade more with the world outside of Europe, that being in the EU is restraining the UK and prevents it from trading with emerging countries in the Far East and Africa. Peter Hargreaves, founder and largest shareholder of Hargreaves Lansdown, an investment service provider, explained along similar lines why the UK would be better off outside the EU. Hargreaves is one of the most prominent advocates of Brexit. “We could have free trade with India, Australia, former Indochina”, he said to me on Friday, “those parts of the world are growing much more quickly than the EU. The EU is a fortress – it is not open enough to goods from outside of the EU”, Hargreaves argued.
Given that I come from a country that is trading quite successfully with emerging countries whilst being a member of the EU, this argument does not make much sense to me. And that´s where one of the challenges reporting the referendum lies: You get a lot of truths, half-truths and opinions, presented as facts, many of which you just cannot refute because they refer to a potential future outside the European Union and rely on a lot of “if”, “would be” and “could be”. As a facts-oriented business journalist, statements like these make me very sceptical.
But Hargreaves was not yet finished when he described the EU as a “fortress” that was not willing to trade with countries outside the European Union. He went on to lambast the “Franco-German axis” that is, according to him, running the European Union, a statement that I have heard before. Yes, I do agree that the European Union was initially a French, Belgian and German project, but that´s nearly sixty years ago. The UK has been a member for over four decades now, so why all these references to the past? As a German, I am quite conscious of the past but still, references to what happened in the initial years of the European Union come as a surprise to me, given that the UK has had more than enough time to make its voice heard and become involved in the EU.
Maybe I am underestimating the importance of history – although it is precisely the weight of the past why Germany is such an ardent supporter of the European Union. The idea that this will lead to long-lasting peace and prevent wars is still shared by many of my countrymen, even if there are British nay-sayers reminding us of of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina that did happen in the early 90ties right on the EU´s doorstep. Last week, a Scottish businessman (originally from Northern Ireland) told me why the initial beginning of the relationship to the EU is still important for many Brits today, especially to members of the Tory Party.
Tam O’Braan, the Scottish entrepreneur, explained that the initial rejection of the British EU-membership by De Gaulle in 1963 caused a wound that still hasn´t healed. De Gaulle said at the time that the UK was “insular”, “maritime” and had very unique views and traditions and would therefore not match the other six founding members of the European Community. “Nina, that´s one of the reasons why the Tories – once a party with strong European ties – got split”, he said, over steak and fries in a pub near Wigtown in Dumfries and Galloway. “This is something you should not underestimate.”
He is right. After all, the fact that there is a British EU-referendum in a month from now is mostly because of the internal divisions inside the Tory Party – a fact that is not well-known in Germany. It leads to a lot of surprising exclamations like “Wirklich?” (Really?) when you tell them that back in the days, David Cameron had to promise an EU-Referendum to his party in order to become leader of the Conservatives. Thanks to the LibDems which with the Conservatives governed from 2010-2015, this did not happen. Only after the election in May 2015 did people realise that a Tory majority also meant an upcoming EU-Referendum. “So it´s purely for internal reasons that the Brits might be voting to leave?”, a fellow German recently asked me. Yes, that´s true. The German shook his head, in disbelief. “You got a great job”, he joked, “explaining all this to your readers.” Good point. That´s the challenge.