LET us play a little thought experiment. Indulge in some magical thinking, if you will. Imagine a European Union shorn of its superstate-building mentality, one that didn’t want to punish us for leaving. Would a Brexit agreement be, as Nigel Farage notoriously claimed, ‘the easiest deal in history’?
No, not really. Although it would be naïve to suggest that bad faith and malevolence haven’t played a considerable part in the EU’s attitude, underlying it all is a profound cultural disconnect between our own cultural mindset and that of its predominant member, Germany.
Let’s put some prejudices to bed first: while it is true that the Germans can play very rough on occasion in protection of their interests, as Greece knows only too well, they are not, on the whole, bullying or aggressive people. Indeed, quite the reverse: the ‘Wessis’ who hail from what we of a certain age still sometimes think of as ‘West’ Germany are painfully aware of their image and super-sensitive to what others, perhaps particularly the British, think of them. (Ageing ‘Ossis’, their lives deformed by decades of communist rule, can be quite another matter.)
However, what Germans of all stripes still have in common is a belief in the absolute sanctity of meticulous, pre-planned order to govern every eventuality in their working lives. Alles in Ordnung, which Google will tell you means ‘Everything OK’ means literally ‘All is in order’. Note the ‘all’: not ordered to an acceptable level, not even mostly so. All.
This German trait is hardly news and is often mocked, but unless you have witnessed it first-hand it is difficult to appreciate how culturally deep it goes. Once upon a time I worked for an American institution in Germany, as part of a youngish bunch of British and German contractors under American management. There were some minor cultural frictions between the Brits and the Americans, but that is like comparing the Channel with the Atlantic in terms of the differences between Anglo-Saxon and Germanic attitudes. On more than one occasion, American managers would announce some sharp changes in direction. The Brits simply shrugged, judging it to be mildly irritating as these things are, but such is life. The Germans, on the other hand, were reduced to a state of considerable distress. Violation of the agreed plan wasn’t just regarded as unforgivably sloppy, it was downright rude and offensive. These were young German guys in the early years of their careers, and yet their deep discomfort at dealing with unpredictability was very clear. Alienated and demoralised, productivity quickly became a problem.
It is this same disconnect that is causing so much strife in the Brexit negotiations now. Leaving the antics of that posturing pint-pot Napoleon Macron aside, the British view the German-led negotiations with suspicion, sensing a plot to keep us rigidly bound to an existing, rules-based order – and so it is, because order is the German way. For their part, Germans find the idea of surrendering to British demands for flexibility unconscionable, because with flexibility comes unpredictability. Continentals often view the British as a rather piratical people, and suspect, again quite rightly, that we wish to use flexibility as a tool for lightning opportunism – at their expense. It’s Otto von Bismarck meets Captain Jack Sparrow.
In essence, even in an impossibly naïve world of sweetness and light where both countries have entirely benign intent towards the other, a trade deal that binds us in any way to a Germanic-led Europe would have not only profound legalistic issues but, far more importantly, psychological and cultural implications as well. It is highly likely that whatever wording is decided upon in the agreement, risk-averse Germany – and hence the EU – will take a maximalist interpretation of any clause that reduced unpredictability and therefore British freedom of manoeuvre. That can lead only to major rancour in the years ahead.
Is this cultural point really understood on the British side? Most hard Brexiteers argue that sovereignty is the most important aspect of Brexit, because they instinctively understand that with sovereignty comes freedom, and not just freedom of action but the freedom to think big. If, post agreement, we find ourselves constantly having to second-guess what the EU’s reaction to any Brexit-related initiative may be, pretty soon our ambitions will be dulled across the board.
Psychologically, we may have left the EU prison, but we will still be very much on parole.