Britain and Brexit : Common sense and fairness are here to stay

Even if they reject the European Union, Markus Hesselmann explains why he still likes the British and will keep doing so.

March for Europe in London, against Brexit, Great Britain leaving the European Union.
British humour: People hold banners and flags during a 'March for Europe' demonstration against Britain's decision to leave the...Foto: REUTERS

You have to laugh, really. A British friend warned me when I told him that I was planning a long-overdue trip to the island in late July, traveling by train from Berlin to London that I may have to apply for a visa.

I am taking the train not out of fear of flying but because I have romantic notions of borderless and yet grounded travel, the sort of journey the German band Kraftwerk described in the title song of its 1970s album Trans Europe Express, a melody dedicated to Europe as a homeland, for them still limited to Paris, Vienna and Düsseldorf at the time.

London and Berlin are now also part of the trans-European rail network, thanks to tunnel work and the demolition of the Berlin Wall. The Trans Europe Express no longer exists, but now we have the Eurostar instead. This miracle of train travel was due to expand, linking London to Amsterdam, Cologne, Frankfurt and… Berlin! Everything seemed to be moving in the direction of "Europe Endless", the name of another song on the Kraftwerk album.

The British like Kraftwerk, but apparently they no longer like Europe. The Continent is isolated. I know this is presumptuous, dear Britons, my dear friends, but I take this Brexit business personally, because I imagine that I have demonstrated my love in miles, with planes, trains and automobiles, by ship and hovercraft, from Calais to Dover, from Hoek van Holland to Harwich, even once from Hamburg, down the Elbe River and across the stormy North Sea. Britannia rules the waves. I haven't swum through the Channel yet, though.

Competition, communication, balance

My enthusiasm for all things British began with a Town Twinning trip when I was 13. I later returned as a visiting student and later ended up living in London for two years, as a correspondent for Der Tagesspiegel. That was eight years ago. But I have had British friends and colleagues for much longer than that. I cheer for British teams at football tournaments, and I feel homesick when I haven't been on the island for a few months.

I don't want to revisit all that motherland folklore of football, humour and pop here. What I find commendable and worth emulating with the British is their fundamentally pragmatic approach, one that is oriented toward competition, communication and balance at the same time. This combines with common sense and fairness, and softer, more flexible virtues for which we Germans, with our striving for consistency and justice, unfortunately have little use.

Great Britain is a country in which the referees do not demonstrate their authority by shouting and waving their arms, but instead talk to the players and do everything possible to ensure that the game can continue. The beautiful game that, for them, is more than its rules and adhering to them. It is a country in which politicians sit across from each other in the parliament and actually say interesting things to each other, speaking directly but clearly and with humor. It is a country in which police officers, though prepared to take action at any time, are initially approachable and friendly and, in their civil presence, are much more strongly perceived as part of the community as in Germany. And finally, it is a country in which digitization is more strongly viewed as an opportunity for community and participation – even with government agencies. Compare that with the debate in Germany, which focuses on the risks and dangers.

Hardened and polarized

Are we in the process of losing a role model because of the Brexit vote and the debates around it? Reduced to a vote of In or Out, Great Britain seems to have become hardened and polarized. Beyond the usual exaggerations, often meant playfully and not to be taken at face value, the public discourse has become serious. So serious, in fact, that it led to deadly violence, claiming the life of English European Jo Cox.

Ultimately, I hope that the Brexit vote does not threaten the composure of civil society in a country with such a long democratic tradition. The citizens of the United Kingdom, who once refused to allow fascists to gain a foothold in their own country, and who successfully fought off Nazis approaching from abroad, have every right to independently shape their future. Stemming from this history, and on the basis of their centuries-old institutions, their skepticism toward Europe is understandable. But please, dear British citizens, don't jeopardize what distinguishes you and is so exemplary: common sense and fairness, which are incompatible with demagoguery, hateful discourse and extremism.

For my part, I will continue to like everything British and to travel to Britain, even if I have to get a visa to do so.

Thanks to Handelsblatt Global Edition for the translation of this piece. You can find the German version here.