Your Excellency, Herr von Massenbach, Ladies & Gentlemen.
It is always a pleasure to address the British – German Chamber of Commerce, and it was a pleasure also to have addressed your centenary event in Berlin in September.
It is good to be back in Germany House too – I first came here in 1984, when it was the East German Embassy. Maybe those bumps we heard earlier are the ghosts of GDR Ambassadors from the past.
I have decided to take the topic today very widely.
My central thesis is this: that Britain and Germany are moving apart. I don’t mean this in the context of Brexit – although it is impossible to look at this question without addressing Brexit – I mean, more fundamentally, our peoples are ceasing to know each other as well..
Not only this, the problem is rather asymmetric. Germans are still quite familiar with Britain (although maybe becoming less so); the British are moving away. This will have profound consequences for all of our cultural, political and economic relations in the coming decades, unless something is done about it.
First my own background. I studied German to A – Level and then through the (now abolished) Central Bureau for Educational Visits and Exchanges and the Deutsch-Britische Jugendaustausch, I was placed for a 6-month work experience programme in West Belin at the age of 18. By the way, I am convinced that this kind of programme should be maintained – indeed encouraged – after Brexit. I lived for around 18 months in West Berlin. Through my Berlin connections, I eventually met my wife, and we now have two bilingual, dual national children together. I travel to Germany around 10 times a year, to a great variety of locations. I speak at conferences, I do media interviews, live TV, all in German.
For someone doing the reverse - a German coming to the UK, that wouldn’t be surprising. My guess is that more than half of the members of the Bundestag would be comfortable doing English-language media in the UK. Many do.
The other way round, though, and this isn’t to blow my own trumpet, I am one of only around 4 British MPs who could do the same. Indeed, figures from German online magazine Meedia showed I was the 21stmost frequent politician of any nationality on German TV shows last year. Much as I would love to think of it that my views were popular, it was because of my absolute rarity value: a Brit who could speak German!
Anyway, enough about me: I use myself to illustrate a wider phenomenon. I am an exceptional case, as in general, we Brits are losing touch with Germany.
This can be expressed in all kinds of ways:
1. Nobody learns German any more. Language learning as a whole collapsed under the last Labour government, which made it no longer compulsory to learn a foreign language. From 600,000 GCSEs in 2000 to be 380,000 just a decade later. German suffered more than any – down an astonishing 2/3 in that time, in just ten years. Overall numbers have stabilised since we came to power in 2010, the proportion of children taking a language at GCSE has actually risen from 40% to 46% in 2018, but German has declined further within that overall number. Three entire English local authority areas, and 5 in Scotland, produced no candidate at all for German GCSE last year. When I did German O-Level, in 1982, some 20% of UK children sat the exam. When it comes to our A-Level, or Abitur, last year, just 2,800 students sat German A-Level: you could even have held the exam in just one room, Westminster Hall, in one room in the UK Parliament. And this is all despite excellent career opportunities: jobs website Indeed says that German overtook French last year as the language most sought by employers, and was up 10% year-on-year. Another jobs website, Adzuna, which based in my constituency also showed that German gives you the best paid job: an average salary of £34,534 on their ads.
2. Second, too few Brits are going to Germany. True, some two million did in 2017, but this compares with 17m to France and 11m to Spain. More Brits visit Portugal each year than Germany. Of the four largest EU countries, Germany is visited the least, despite being the largest. Only 116,000 Brits live in Germany, compared with 322,000 Germans in the UK, almost three times as many.
But despite all this, the Brits love the Germans. Germany is regularly rated the most admired country in the world in public opinion surveys, ahead of the United States, France and others.
In the forty years I have been personally immersed in this issue, I had thought we had made great progress. In the 1970s, 1980s, and even the 1990s, the relationship had been often seen through the prism of the Second World War. This has thankfully mainly gone. Fawlty Towers is now history. The last time I can remember seeing a German being abused in the UK was when I was in the away end for Fulham against Hertha Berlin in 2002 – a group of kids gave the away fans a Hitlergruss. In the decades before, this was only too common. The Sun and the Daily Mirror used to vie for the most outrageous headline before each England v Germany football game: “Achtung Surrender!” as recently as 1996. I think even the Bild Zeitung joined in. This is, I think, almost all behind us. For the first time in 8 years of schooling, my half-German son was called “Hitler” at school last week – but this was by a Russian boy, no Brit had ever done it.
Nevertheless, I am shocked at how little we understand each other or even know each other. Moving out of the post World War Two obsession hasn’t meant we have moved into a period of mutual understanding.
And this has shown itself with Brexit. And here I am going to reverse the tables a little bit, and criticise the way the German media has approached Brexit. Stefanie is an exception. Most German media in my experience has signed up to this lazy narrative that Brexit is some kind of xenophobic and badly-educated revolt against a beloved “Friedensprojekt” or peace project. It happened due to lies and Russian Facebook ads, and was propagated by Boris Johnson, in the eyes of most of the German media, a foolish, clown-like figure, driving a bus around poorly educated parts of the country.
My mission today is not to have a row over the 2016 Referendum, nor is it to excuse poor British media coverage of Germany, but I have genuinely been surprised by the uniformity of this opinion. Even four years later. Die Zeit last week ran an OpEd on how “Brexit is the consequence of a feudal society, where everyone at the top has two of these things: Eton, Oxbridge and ancient Greek.” The correspondent in London for ARD, the leading German public broadcaster, even tweeted that it was “a very nice text”. Virtually every interview I do in German starts with me having to rebut the premise of the question. And I say this as someone who helped lead the Remain campaign in 2016. More than half the interviews I have done in the last 4 years has included the question “When (not if) is the second referendum going to happen?”
This has caused damage to our bilateral political and cultural relations, even beyond Brexit itself. And it has been personally a bit depressing to see such little attempt to understand what is happening in Britain.
This hasn’t served Germany well. Frankly, Brussels has made a hash of the negotiations in the last three years. It is a given that London has too. It was actually Yanis Varoufakis who said that Brussels was behaving as if Britain had a lost a war, seeking to impose a punishment treaty on the UK. As I said many times in Germany this time a year ago, “Brussel hat zu hoch gepokert” and that the May-Barnier Withdrawal Agreement was simply too unfavourable to the UK, and that Theresa May would fall as a result, which wasn’t in the interests of either Brussels or Berlin. So it has proved. We are now heading for a more distant trading relationship, with a Prime Minister more committed to going separate ways. German media opinion has also been slow to wake up to this change.
All I say here is that the same mistakes from last year should not be repeated.
Nevertheless, the bigger and more permanent problem has little to do with Brexit, and everything to do with our two peoples drifting apart, particularly from the British side. The British military presence in Germany is ending, which was one of the major forms of contact for the last 75 years. School exchanges have almost ended. Partnerstaedte are moribund. My first visit to Germany was in 1981, to my Partnerstadt, Bensheim. Fulham is twinned with Berlin-Neukoelln. The only event in the last 10 years or more there has been a dinner between members of the two town councils. As far as I am aware, none of the wider public were invited. St Helen’s near Liverpool used to be twinned with Stuttgart, but that ended when St Helen’s college stopped teaching German.
So that is the background to our more immediate political problems today. But it is an essential part – “Voelkerfreundschaft” is a huge part of being friends and allies.
And this is a great pity, because our two countries have incredibly strong common interests: a common interest in free trade, a common interest in fighting terrorism, in standing up to the world’s bullies, in fighting climate change, in ending poverty in the developing world, and in projecting our common values. Of course, our two countries are not unique in these values, but we are probably the two largest and most powerful countries that share all of them.
So we need a new and ambitious framework for our two countries. I am going to propose something radical and fundamental. A new Elysee-style Treaty between Britain and Germany to take in all of these cultural, political and strategic areas. For those in Britain not familiar with the Elysee Treaty, this was a bilateral treaty between Germany and France in 1963 which had political and economic ambitions, but its most profound impact has been in cultural and people exchanges, particularly with young people and the Deutsch-Franzoesisches Jugendwerk, the German – French Youth Partnership..
I saw a similar suggestion in yesterday’s Times from Norbert Roettgen and Tom Tugendhat, the two chairs of the Foreign Affairs Committees, for a treaty. A lot of prominent people are thinking in this direction: but it needs to be a bottom up engagement, not just between those with power and influence.
Our Treaty would need to be different to the Elysee Treaty, of course. The tone wouldn’t be integrationist. But we could copy the semi-annual joint Cabinet meetings, we could take on the youth and cultural exchanges. And we could build aspects which aren’t in the Elysee Treaty, like a commitment to free trade and free markets, like institutionalised joint working on counter-terrorism and the sharing of intelligence.
It needs to be bold. Some might say that this is absurd, at a time when we are leaving the European Union, but I say we need this more than ever. Now is exactly the time to suggest this, here, just 5 days after we leave the European Union.
The onus will be on both governments to lead the way. For example, why is the Goethe Institut only in London and Glasgow? It has offices in 8 French cities. Why does the UK government only have a presence in Berlin, Duesseldorf and Munich, whereas there are 7 French consulates in Germany? Despite it being the Beatles favourite city, Hamburg has a French consulate, but the British one closed in 2003, another poor decision of the Blair government. Indeed, the UK in the last 4 years has opened 1-person consulates in US cities like Minneapolis, Raleigh/Durham, Denver and Seattle. I visited two of them as a Government Trade Minister, they are very effective and excellent value for money. Why not do the same in Germany? If Raleigh/Durham is important for Global Britain, surely so are Frankfurt and Hamburg!
This uses the example of people and offices, but we should also re-think the online presence we have in each other’s countries.
These are just a few ideas. Most importantly, we need to engage in schools, colleges and with employers like yourselves. Maybe the new National Citizens Service should do an element of its programme overseas, for example?
Rather than spending the next few years uselessly regretting Brexit, why don’t we take advantage of this new situation to build something new: not something built from the top down like the European Union, but something new and bilateral, with genuine appeal for the peoples of our two countries, built from person-to-person contacts.
Businesses will play a leading role, but Governments have to lead. I look forward to playing a part: and I hope everyone in this room does so too!