24 January 2019 | OPINION
Last Friday, The Times published a letter signed by 31 well-known German figures mourning the UK’s departure from the European Union and urging us to come back into the fold. It is a warmly-written missive that laments the “loss” of what the signatories regard as quintessential facets of British lifestyle, and how much they will “miss” these. I see no reason to detract from the sentiment behind it.
I would say to our German friends, however: allow me to provide some reassurance.
Britain is leaving the European Union, because we no longer feel that such a deep political union with Europe is in our interest, but we have no desire to walk away from the close friendships and ties that have strengthened us both in the past few decades. Perhaps, however, we take a different view of what constitutes our identity.
For plenty of European countries and their citizens, particularly in the east where so many still remember living under the yoke of Soviet control, the EU has represented a wonderful opportunity to reclaim their identity as Europeans. To be part of something bigger than themselves, with the aim of cementing the status of this beloved continent throughout the world, seemed a natural way to come together.
For us, however, identity is something that comes from within, not without. Our identity as Britons is based upon our history and our culture, and the European identity that some of us do feel is founded upon our long relationship with this continent – through all its ups and downs, twists and turns. We see no reason why the membership or otherwise of a political union – itself an external factor to our identity – should change anything fundamental about our relationship with Europe.
We will trade with you. We will work with you. Many of us will live alongside one another. Both our comedians and yours will make jokes about the stereotypical British (or German) customs, and we will continue to laugh together with a twinkle in our eye. We will celebrate Europe’s triumphs together, such as the ESA’s upcoming Cheops project. We will shed tears together, when those who do not share our values bring terror to our citizens. If Europe is attacked, Britain will help defend it – be in no doubt of this.
We will seek your counsel when we need it, just as our door remains open to you. We will send our young adults to learn from your universities and enrich their lives, as yours in turn will be welcomed here. We are willing, and stand ready, to be your staunchest allies in business, security, science and academia. But we see no need to conflate our identity with any of these affairs. Indeed, this conflation is what had caused some of us such concern.
Since the result of our referendum, we have observed with sadness how so many people on the continent felt we had rejected them. Our vote was seen as a snub, when in fact the debate in our country was one of choice, accountability and hope. We believe that our enduring friendship goes beyond any political institution, and so does not require one. We regret that some in Europe have come to regard the EU as the very manifestation of unity and brotherhood. I would invite you, respectfully, to consider that there can – and must – be no such thing.
For that would make a caricature of the progress that all of humanity has made since Europe was last at war. Britain believes that the best path towards collaboration and unity is human choice, so we can no longer continue to be a part of ‘ever closer union’.
But as we take this first step on a new journey in the world, we will do it alongside you. You need not miss us, for we will not be gone.