Posted by: Chris Brew | March 29, 2017

Brexit reflections

A Facebook post by Yorick Wilks on the occasion of Brexit (which he supports and I don’t) got me thinking about where my allegiances and emotions on this come from.
I spent the first four years of my working life in a multinational organization (the European Patent Office) that, while technically not EU, because Sweden and Switzerland were members, was very EU-ish. I was in the Berlin office, which shared a building with some of the continuing German Patent Office, and was staffed predominantly by German transfers from the national office, who were a couple of decades older than me. The Berlin branch was in the process of internationalizing. I joined along with three other recently graduated Brits, the first of a steady stream of non-Germans who came along.
I REALLY liked my colleagues, and Berlin, and Schmidt/Kohl’s West Germany, which contrasted with my negative feelings about Thatcher’s Britain. Actually, since we are talking deep emotions, perhaps I should say negative feelings about Thatcherite Southern England, since I suspect some of the drivers come from a sense that my parents and grandparents were slight outsiders, in but not really of Southern England. We’re talking nuances of privilege here, not deep resentments. So I find myself emotionally more attuned to Scotland and the North, and Cameron and May really grate culturally.
The Berlin office necessarily paid attention to “national tendencies” in our leadership. We expected that French bureaucrats would be primarily oriented towards status and career in the organization, and in the larger world of national and euro bureaucracy. Same for Belgians, Italians and Luxemburgers. They were thought to care about who is in, who is out much more than about actually running the organization. Likely an unfair view, and affected by Berlin being mostly German. We thought that Dutch, British and German administrators were likely to be straight shooters who might do creepy politics, but would be doing it for the sake of worthwhile goals rather than out of pure personal ambition.
I saw replicas of the same tendencies in the relatively limited later interactions I had with actual EU science administrators. The French and Italians always reliably delivered behaviour that confirmed my German-inflected prejudices. I am pretty sure that the core cultures of the EU central institutions are still shaped by the bureaucratic styles present within the six, and having seen how the sausages are made, I can readily buy into the objections to having things run by the Commission.
And yet, in my heart of hearts I still want Britain and the rest of Europe to become more like my young person’s romanticized view of Schmidt and Kohl’s West Germany, and see the EU as a means for doing that, so I am sad. Maybe this is a ridiculous view, because the EU is not fit for purpose to do that, or maybe it is a ridiculous view, because the conditions that created the social and political culture of 1980s West Germany no longer obtain, so the goal is unattainable. But it is a view.
Maybe there is a less grandiose story. That would be: I disliked Thatcherism. Thatcher used nationalism and anti-EU rhetoric to drive her ideas through, therefore I liked the EU. If that’s all there is, I apologize for making you read the above.


  1. This is not the Yorick post that I was reacting to, but a comment he left elsewhere. But his reasons for supporting leave are cogent. I strongly dispute the claim (implicit here in leaving them out of the list containing Holland and Scandinavia) that Germans have little experience of democracy. I think their experience of democracy and its modes of failure is simply priceless. The CDU is a model for right-of-centre parties anywhere: absolutely not committed to the exercise of power at any price, but articulating a vision (which I disagree with, but respect) of how society should be.

    Yorick’s comment on why he supports leave:

    “Personally, I have whole cluster of reasons that center on the nature of EC rule and the cultures it represents : I have no great respect for European peoples from a political (as opposed to cultural) point of view—- most of them outside Scandinavia and Holland have little experience of democracy or a legal system worth the name—- look at the Italian legal system and the conduct of the Kerchner case or Portugal and the Madeline one. I just cannot accept a court with their judges judging us or writing European Warrants for our plane spotters in Greece. I extend all this to the dirigiste- French style of the Commission itself and its civil servants who are neither civil nor servants. We are a historic fount of liberty and democracy in Europe , in part transplanted to the US and across the world, and need no lessons from these local mafiosi. It breaks my heart when my daughters, bless them, seem to imagine their rights “come from Europe” . Sancta simplicitas—– in my own lifetime, not that long, we were the only democracy in Europe outside Switzerland and Sweden, and I have to hear this…….I could go on!!!”

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