LONDON – The chancellor of Germany no longer trusts the United States or the United Kingdom. In a May 28 campaign speech in Bavaria, Angela Merkel signaled distance from the two “Anglo Saxon” states, telling her audience “we Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.”
German commentators were quick to point out that the radicalism of the address has been over-emphasized: “Europe has a vital interest in keeping the U.S. engaged,” wrote Europe expert Ulrich Speck in the Financial Times. “(Merkel) has no ambition to replace the current trans-Atlantic arrangement with something else.”
Merkel did in fact qualify her remarks, saying she couldn’t “fully” rely on the U.S. and the U.K., and the times in which she could were “somewhat” over. The chancellor faces a general election in September, and though her conservative Christian Democrats not only won an upset victory in a significant May state election but is also several points ahead of the center-left Social Democrats in the national polls, she cannot take victory for granted.
She won’t ditch NATO, nor is she about to, but she can’t look as if she likes U.S. President Donald Trump, a man who has tweeted out his criticism of Germany for paying “FAR LESS than they should on NATO & military.”
Merkel, if untypically incautious, is right to signal that Trump is a threat to the Western alliance, but wrong to do it in words which could worsen a developing rift. She was also quite wrong to put Britain’s Brexit decision in the same basket. Buoyed by her party’s favorable polls and the prospect of a reinvigorated Franco-German motor at the heart of the union following centrist Emmanuel Macron’s victory in the French presidential race, she must see Britain’s decision — which weakens the EU — as near treachery. But U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s response to Merkel — “we’re leaving the EU but we’re not leaving Europe” — seemed heartfelt.
All over Europe, politicians and commentators are rolling up Brexit and Trump into one ball of populist horror, and (figuratively, of course) spitting on it. A popular stereotype of the British as arrogant plays into the present general disapproval.
But Brexit is not Trumpism. Leaving the EU is likely an economic mistake, perhaps of large proportions, but it is not an undemocratic one. It is fueled by citizens feeling somewhat disenfranchised in their political as well as in their economic lives, insisting that their politics must be transparent, their representatives (liked or disliked) known to them and the inputs and outcomes of the political process clear — none of which is true of the EU. They don’t want to make war on Westminster, as many Trump supporters wish to on Washington, but instead to reclaim the House of Commons as the nation’s central political chamber
Further, to represent Britain as a country of uniquely foul community relations made worse by Brexit neither rings true anecdotally nor chimes with the facts. The Conservative government, responding to the Brexit-voting fears, has promised to reduce immigration to tens of thousands but still sees it as a source of economic, even social, advantage.
The latest figures show that net immigration to the U.K. was nearly quarter of a million in the year ending December 2016. Among other European countries, Britain traditionally has had proportionately more foreign-born immigrants than three of the other four large European states — France, Italy and Spain — but fewer than the largest, Germany, and also fewer than Sweden, Austria and Ireland. Nearly all of these many thousands have passed into communities and workplaces with little backlash (if also sometimes little welcome) from native Brits.
London, whose popular mayor Sadiq Khan is the son of a working-class British-Pakistani family, is among the most ethnically mixed cities in the world. A quarter of the population of Birmingham, England’s second city, was born abroad and two-thirds of its schoolchildren are non-white. Reaction to these demographics has not been uniformly benign. In 2011, widespread riots roiled London, Birmingham and other cities, with massive damage. Most people, however, didn’t see the violence as racial. In some districts the rioters were mainly black; in others mainly white — reflecting the ethnic mix of the areas.
Priti Patel, the government’s secretary of state for international development and a passionate Brexiteer, was born to a Ugandan Asian family. There are 12 members of parliament of African origin, two of whom — Labour’s Chuka Umunna and the Conservatives’ Adam Afriyie — are seen as serious contenders for their parties’ leadership.
This isn’t to describe an immigrants’ paradise. Immigration has been tightened sharply, illegal immigrants warned — from loudspeaker vans touring cities — to go home or face arrest, and there has been a rise in attacks on ethnic and religious minorities with both Brexit and anti-Semitism in the Labour Party held responsible.
These trends are bad — but they are also bad across Europe: Britain is European in its racism — though milder in it than most. It is a diverse country and it will remain a diverse, relatively tolerant place — with lapses. And it will remain “in” Europe. It has no choice.
John Lloyd cofounded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is a senior research fellow. His books include “What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics” and “Journalism in an Age of Terror.” He is also a contributing editor at the Financial Times.