The Brexit negotiations are starting in Brussels today (Monday, 19 June). In an interview with Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel talks about the British, their departure from the EU, and his very first trip abroad. Published in the Märkische Allgemeine newspaper on 19 June 2017.
Mr Gabriel, do you actually like the British?
Yes, of course. In fact, I’ve been fond of that special country and its people for quite a long time. In 1974 I did an exchange trip to England, to Rotherham, staying with the family of my exchange partner, Jane Isabel Handley. We met this year again, for the first time in over 40 years, while I was in London as Foreign Minister. Back in 1974, it was a tremendous experience for me: it was my first ever trip abroad. We lived modestly in Goslar; my mother worked as a nurse. For me, Britain was the gateway to the world. Whether it was music or culture, everything that was cool came from London.
Now something else is coming from London – the desire for distance from the rest of Europe. Who’s to blame for this new division?
The British Conservatives took a gamble and toyed again and again with the British people’s feelings. Some folks believed that making the EU the scapegoat for problems in the UK would gain them a quick power-political advantage. Something happened which neither my party, the SPD, nor the Union, FDP or Greens would ever allow to happen in Germany: Europe became a pawn in a domestic-policy game. Never have I experienced such an irresponsible policy in a mature democracy.
But didn’t the Labour Party, the sister party of your SPD, play along with this game? Often the Labour people nodded or hid away and kept quiet when the EU was being lambasted.
That’s true, unfortunately. The Labour Party didn’t voice a clear commitment to the EU; nobody had the courage to do so – maybe because of the opposing noises from the nationalistic British press – unlike, it’s worth noting, Emmanuel Macron, who won the elections in France on an amazingly clear pro-EU ticket, even in the midst of the crisis of mood in Europe.
Might the British correct their course one day?
We are living in times in which opinions sometimes change very quickly. Who can say what the situation will be in two years’ time? After all, the British people are now seeing the false promises made by the Brexit movement burst like bubbles. For instance: prior to the referendum in June 2016, the people were told that money that was unfortunately currently being paid to Brussels would in future be poured into the National Health Service. This pledge has officially been busted; it was merely an empty promise, designed to manipulate the masses. In truth, the Conservatives are now planning – in parallel to Brexit, you’ll note – a kind of “dementia tax”, to make older people pay more towards their care costs. Brexit will not make anything better, it will just create new difficulties for the British.
The British people are consoling themselves with their “special relationship” with the United States, the result of their shared history.
But this foundation is crumbling as never before. Look at the demographic development in the US. Today about 60 percent of US citizens still have European ancestors. In 30 years’ time, they will be in the minority, compared to Americans with African, Asian or Latin American roots. That will also change political orientations. Already, Barack Obama has referred to America in a major speech as a “Pacific nation”. The British will have to learn that there are fewer and fewer “special” ties to the US – and that, in the end, Britain needs Europe more than Europe needs Britain.
What is the likelihood of such a change of view?
Gradually word is spreading that the British people are paying a high price for leaving the EU. There are indications that reason is gradually returning, even among the Conservatives. Despite all the recent heated debates, I have the general impression that time is again working in Europe’s favour. You can see that from the elections in France. But it is also noteworthy that the vast majority of young people in Britain are pro-European and do not want Brexit. This factor had an impact on the recent parliamentary elections, and this movement could at some point spawn a new majority in elections and referendums.
And then we’ll politely let Britain back in?
Of course. I am firmly convinced that the doors must remain open for the long term. The United Kingdom is and will remain a European country.
A very hard fight threatens at the upcoming negotiations in Brussels. If things get really ugly, the result will be a hard Brexit, a chaotic departure with no new agreement.
That can be in no-one’s interest. In my view, Prime Minister May, having lost her absolute majority, no longer has a mandate for a hard Brexit. Unfortunately, however, you have to expect every eventuality, not matter how unreasonable. I think the EU side, too, should conduct these negotiations in such a way that we don’t jam things up completely. After all, the United Kingdom will remain a very important European partner in the military sphere, for instance. When our children born today are 30, Europe’s share of the global population will be a mere five percent. Given this real global trend, it is completely irrational to want to split the European Union in the first place. We must do whatever we can to stick together, even more closely than before, in fact. And in general we should all think more about the future, about the decades ahead, and less about some domestic gain in the next seven days.
Interview conducted by Redaktionsnetzwerk Deutschland