In the early hours of December 13, I called my newspaper in Berlin and suggested we run a piece about what might happen on Brexit day, January 31, 2020. For a second the line went strangely quiet. ‘Hello? Last night’s result means Brexit,’ I said to my colleague. ‘It’s really happening.’ I imagined the news slowly penetrating her mind. It took a while to sink in and no wonder. Throughout the years of obstruction and stagnation in Britain, many of us in Germany allowed ourselves to think Brexit wouldn’t ever happen.
More than any other European nation, we Germans have been in denial about Brexit. There’s a widespread idea here that Brits and Germans belong together. Yes, the Brits are a bit eccentric, but they’re part of the family — the kind of cousin who visits for granny’s birthday, drinks too much beer and tells jokes. We imagine you appreciate our jokes, too. Because we all speak good English, we think that we understand the English way of thinking, and many of us have secretly just assumed that our ‘cousin’ wouldn’t quit the family. I was convinced that the British had the best EU membership deal and that Brexit was a bad idea. We never thought that Britain would actually leave us stranded, alone with those other dubious European relations.
The pain of Brexit, for us, is a bit like the pain of divorce. It has made us introspective and quiet. The Greek crisis caused a deep weariness of European integration and exasperation at the limitations of a joint currency. Germans know very well that the flaws of the euro are far from being solved. At the same time, countries such as Poland and Hungary continued almost undeterred with their corrosion of the very core of European values by undermining the independence of their media and judiciary.
No wonder that many Germans at times were full of schadenfreude over Brexit. We enjoyed mocking Theresa May and her Brexit troubles. It felt like a kind of release valve. When May got stuck in her limousine in front of the Berlin Chancellery back in December 2018, the primetime comedy Heute Show mocked her mercilessly. ‘May just cannot get out — neither of her car nor of the EU!’ There was a sigh of satisfaction every time May lost a meaningful vote in the House of Commons. Former EU Council president Donald Tusk won himself many German fans when he repeatedly stated that there was ‘still time to turn back’. The German commentariat for the most part came to the same conclusion: the Brits will eventually see sense, go for a second referendum and revoke that crazy Brexit decision. John Bercow’s ‘Order! Order’ calls, meanwhile, became a bestselling ringtone for German smartphones.
The referendum was an anomaly; it shouldn’t have ever taken place — this was a German conviction that only grew when Boris Johnson won the Conservative leadership race and moved into No. 10. One former German foreign secretary allegedly refused to be in the same room with Johnson while he was his counterpart. For the dull and rule-abiding German officials, Johnson’s relaxed and at times flippant demeanor was literally unbearable. The coverage of the showdown between the Supreme Court and the prime minister over the prorogation in September confirmed what had become a popular German assumption: this is not a serious leader. Johnson misled the country in 2016, he is now ripping up what is left of the most admirable and honorable institutions. Sooner rather than later the electorate will punish the ruthlessness of this selfish populist.
For many Germans — as for many Remain-voting Londoners, I assume — the whopping majority Johnson won in December felt like a slap in the face. But at the same time as we absorbed that shock another anxiety grew, one so uncomfortable very few people ever express it, and if they do, only in private: what if in the end the Brits prove right to have left the European Union? What if Johnson really has the guts and the energy to make a success of Brexit? What if his strong conviction that the point of leaving was to do things differently is the right recipe for the many challenges the whole of Europe is facing? After 15 years of Angela Merkel, German politics feel ‘absolutely paralyzed’, a German MP recently confirmed to me. The yearning for a fresh start and even a bit of bravado is palpable.
Many Bundesbürger worry that after the British exit, Germany will be stuck in a union surrounded by freeloaders — those members for whom integration means a joint pot of money with no strings attached. Germans are proud of Europe’s open internal borders; they think of them as a historic achievement and of enormous economic benefit — but they also know it means the continued arrival of migrants, and that this migrant stream has fueled a racist party, the Alternative für Deutschland, now the biggest opposition party in Bundestag. The promise to ‘Take back control’ is an illusion, but it reverberates also in Germany.
Before Brexit diehards in the UK get too excited, though, there’s no prospect of any serious ‘Gerexit’ movement taking off in the Bundesrepublik. European membership is embedded in our national DNA. Two-thirds of Germans are convinced that the country is better off inside the EU, and according to a recent poll, 84 percent — myself among them — think that Brexit will harm the UK. Only 8 percent believe in its benefit. But undoubtedly Brexit has unsettled us.