“What do you think Brits in Berlin think about the prospect of Brexit?” Matt Hanley asked me. So we set about trying to find out – by putting on an event on 24th February entitled #BERBritsBrexit (details of the event here, Facebook event page here, Twitter search for the tag here). We booked a room for 20 people in the Aufsturz pub on Oranienburger Strasse, put it out on Facebook, and… then things ended up taking on a life of their own! We needed Aufsturz’s bigger room, and in the end there were about 120 people present at various points in the evening! Photos of the evening can be found here, the recording of the live stream here, and Tom Barfield’s write up for The Local here. There is also now a mailing list to sign up for info about future events – signup form at the top of the page here. Big thanks to Matt Hanley for helping out with the organisation, to Victoria Elles for moderating, and to Philip Oltermann and Brian Melican for their speeches.
As anyone who’s encountered this blog before knows, I have pretty strong views about the EU, and the UK’s place within it. But #BERBritsBrexit was a personal sort of path of discovery – I know rather few British people in Berlin, and I was intrigued to find out what they were all thinking. Were they bullish or worried? Ready to campaign in the referendum? More tied to Berlin than to Albion?
Also – as I said at the event itself – I do not actually know which way I will vote in the referendum. I see a federalist case for Brexit – i.e. that the EU might be better off without the British in it, something that I will develop in further blog posts.
But for now, a few thoughts in light of the event.
For starters, this is just the start of exploring how a possible British exit from the EU would impact Brits in Berlin. We can each imagine what it would mean to us personally, but I met people on Wednesday who feared their professional qualifications might no longer be recognised, through to people who wondered whether UK same sex marriages would help them qualify for German nationality under the 3-year-citizenship-if-married route – I had never even begun to think about those issues. More events and discussions dedicated to those matters will be needed in the future. There were also differing views on what Germany’s attitude towards British passport holders would be in the event of Brexit – some noted how Olaf Scholz had echoed Cameron’s views on restrictions on benefits, while others thought that Germany would welcome economically productive Brits.
Secondly, I was struck by how conflicted and nuanced the majority of the positions expressed were – this was an audience composed of perhaps half Brits, a quarter with a British and some other passport, and a quarter or so non-Brits interested in the debate. There was an enormous warmth for Berlin among this group, a sort of feeling that Berlin, if not quite home for these people in all places, was something that nevertheless mattered to them a lot – for a variety of professional and personal reasons. I asked the bar manager of Aufsturz after the event what she had thought of the crowd. “They all made an effort to speak German!” she said to me “And they were very polite.”
Thirdly, voter registration is the issue that binds everyone together. According to the UK in Bahrain, only 106000 Brits abroad are registered to vote – among 5 million Brits living outside the United Kingdom! While we of course do not know how many of those 5 million have been away for less than 15 years (the cut-off point to be able to vote in the referendum), the most urgent priority is hence to do something about this issue. While three staff members from the British Embassy in Berlin attended the event, the feeling expressed to me was that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Embassies are not doing enough of a Register to Vote promotion drive. I agree, although I also think this has rather caught the FCO by surprise – it has never maintained the sort of connections with Brits abroad in the way that, for example, French Embassies keep in tough with the French diaspora.
Fourth, no-one seems to really know how or if there could be some sort of role for Brits living abroad in the referendum campaign. Brits living elsewhere of course demonstrate that the EU is a two-way street – EU citizens coming to the UK, but also UK citizens leaving to the rest of the EU. But the crowd at #BERBritsBrexit was not exactly typical – multilingual in most cases, younger than the average of the British electorate, and somehow risk-takers for having made the call to move to Berlin. Or – for UKIP voters – precisely the sort of people Britain might be happy to get rid of.
Fifth, why Britain is even having this referendum remains perplexing for most Germans. As one audience member put it, Germans would be scared by the prospect of holding such a vote. Why aren’t the British? Perhaps the dangers of leaving the EU have not been told, or even cannot be told to a country stuck with its colonial history?
Anyway this week’s event felt like the beginning of something interesting. But what exactly? Do comment below!
Photo: © Mirko Lux. Used with permission.