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Drawbridges Down! A German Plea For A More British Europe

Essay: The euro crisis has exposed something deeper than debt: a reminder that Europe must be outward, not inward, looking. Conventional wisdom says the British are not committed to Europe. The smart money says they're the right model for the who

The new Shard building and the Tower Bridge in London (George Rex)
The new Shard building and the Tower Bridge in London (George Rex)
Alan Posener

BERLIN - On the Continent, we often hear claims that the British are bad Europeans. And some Brits believe it too. Echoing such dissatisfaction is David Cameron"s recent mention of a possible referendum to gauge the pulse of the nation's relation to the European Union – the British aren't happy with what they have now, he said, and neither was he.

But seeing the British as bad Europeans is a stubborn misjudgment. It probably stems from the fact that the British reject the idea of an ever closer Union – closer as in a shared currency, for example. However, now that this idea of a deeper union has led to the ongoing crisis in the euro zone, it's time to remind ourselves of what exactly Great Britain means for the EU.

A look back at the EU summit held in December 2011 is helpful in this regard. France's then-President Nicolas Sarkozy summed things up this way: "There are now clearly two Europes. One of them wants more solidarity between its members and regulation. The other is attached solely to the logic of the single market."

Editorialists had a field day with this, of course. If the euro zone goes on like this, they said, it would become an "alternative system" to Anglo-Saxon capitalism. And here the cynics say: have fun creating your "alternative system," your "regulation" and "solidarity," without Britain and with Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Co. – not to mention the same France now run by Socialist François Hollande!

But it would be equally cynical not to recognize that Europe actually needs Great Britain, just so that this nightmare doesn't come to pass. The Anglo-Saxon tradition of economic liberalism and social liberality paired with significant economic, cultural, diplomatic and military power – in short, a unique blend of "hard" and "soft" power – means that Great Britain is not only essential to the EU but that it's an essential partner for its biggest partner, Germany.

Of course, this all assumes that Germany wants to be more than the Continent's cash cow, and that Europe aspires to being more than a mere transfer union.

British journalist David Rennie recently wrote that in Europe the decisive political poles were no longer right and left, but rather "drawbridge up" and "drawbridge down." Those who were for raising the drawbridge cried the battle cry of Old Europe in their wish for protectionism, for closing off from international markets - particularly financial markets - , for "solidarity" instead of competition, "regulation" instead of freedom. The xenophobic "drawbridge up" folks also favored limiting migration.

"Drawbridge down" - New Europe - meant being open to the world, markets, the familiar and the unfamiliar. And nowhere is such an attitude more in evidence than in multicultural, cosmopolitan London.

Liberalism and eccentricities

It is not an accident that the British capital is the hub of the financial industry in Europe. According to Eurostat, 35% of all financial services in the EU-27 are provided in London: 90,000 bankers work there, 8,000 of them for Deutsche Bank, which conducts most of its business out of London, and all told, 251 foreign banks have London offices.

In the eyes of many Germans, this does not reflect well on the British. Proper economies build cars and refrigerators, or at least so goes the fairy tale, even as 74% of jobs in Germany are now in the service sector. And while it may currently be the thing to badmouth Wall Street, it shouldn't be forgotten that the EU-27's financial services sector is the second largest in the world after the US.

Europe tops the US as the world's greatest exporter of financial services, largely thanks to London, the most important link between the markets in the States, Asia and Europe, and also home to the world's foremost shipping agents without whom Volkswagon couldn't export and supermarket chains like Lidl couldn't import. Anybody who wants a Europe that doesn't include London's City wants a Europe cut off from the world.

In his remarkable essay "On Europe's Constitution," Jürgen Habermas (Germany's most renowned philosopher) points out that "peoples of a continent with shrinking political and economic weight" cannot limit themselves to using the EU "defensively, to maintain their cultural biotope." On the contrary, they need to use political leeway "offensively as well by arduously building further global steering capacities."

Without Britain's global experience and political weight as an atomic power, and member of the UN Security Council, the Commonwealth and the "Anglosphere" that spans the planet, Habermas's call would be illusory.

And finally: let us not forget the British contribution to European culture. This isn't just culture in the narrow sense, from Amy Winehouse to Julian Barnes via Ken Loach and Jamie Oliver. This is culture in the sense of a disposition – the relaxed liberalism of a geographically and societally eccentric nation. And even more important: a nation that naturally shares the values of the United States of America.

Some Europeans, who secretly dream of a continental mini-empire under German leadership, or a Gaullist alliance led by the French, fear that Great Britain could hinder an ever closer Union.

But if the euro crisis has one lesson to teach, it's this: that the unthinkable "deepening" of the Union harbors infinitely more explosive power than a broadening of it. And that's what the British always said – not as "bad" Europeans but as the best of the best. Now that the dream of the euro is turning into a never-ending nightmare, Britain is more important for Germany - and Europe - than ever before.

Read the original article in German.

Photo - George Rex

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