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Turmoil. Prof. Dr. Jörg Philipp Terhechte on Brexit

2019-03-25 Previous explanations of the Brexit process are becoming more and more implausible when compared with the current situation. How should we interpret what is happening and how does it fit in with the UK mindset? Vice-President Prof. Dr. Jörg Philipp Terhechte offers explanations.

The media seem to imply that the British people have been taken by surprise by the Brexit chaos. Did they expect something entirely different beforehand?

The term ‘Leave’ implies that leaving the EU could be as easy as returning your key to the reception desk before leaving a hotel. Many voters in the UK thought: “We just leave and that’s it“. And you cannot blame them, because information management around Brexit was often characterized by exaggerations and deliberate untruths. Today many Britons realise how close-knit the bond between the EU and its member states really is and how difficult it is to disentangle integration.

In your opinion, what is Brexit really about?

The United Kingdom draws on traditions and a national memory, which are not directly linked to the EU. The conservative camp, in particular, upholds almost the entire range of traditions of the Empire and the Commonwealth. These can be directly linked to a shared past and collective memory which is unknown to us and which we have underestimated. To this you can add a political class that is obviously leaving much to be desired in terms of responsibility, consciously creating daydreams that have more to do with the past than the future.  

But Germans and Britons at least share the same attitude towards Europe?

No, they do not. This is a typical misconception. We consider Brexit from a very German perspective. We believe that it is our task to create the EU as a ‘Haus Europa’, a European home for all members. The British consider themselves the ones who persevered through WW II and who, in the end, brought peace and democracy to Europe, which is certainly true. They have a less emotional view on the EU than the Germans. And many have no longer been able to see the advantages of membership in the EU. These are completely different perspectives on the EU and its significance – the national interest from our point of view and a marriage of convenience with a bad prospect for the future from theirs.

What is the basis of these findings?

Just consider the “Global Britain” marketing campaign. It did not appear out of the blue. It builds on an existing basic feeling, from a people who have a deep maritime history and a great tradition of going to sea, positioned internationally all along. In Germany, we do not have such a background. The question is whether it can be a perspective for the United Kingdom today – a single country with a global performance. They have to realize that global indicators have completely changed. Another example of the differing perception of the EU is the British ‘special status’ – Sonderwege -: In the United Kingdom there was never a majority for adopting the Euro. The United Kingdom has always had its own seat on the United Nations Security Council and would never have thought of making it a European seat. So there have always been ‘Sonderwege’ - up to different ideas about how far the European Charter of Fundamental Rights should go.

In addition to this divide between the United Kingdom and the EU, there is also the divide within the United Kingdom. 

The United Kingdom does indeed present a strange picture to the outside world. First of all, England, the majority of which voted in favour of leaving. The same is true for Wales. Scotland, which sees itself as part of the EU. The same applies to Northern Ireland. There is a danger that Brexit will trigger forces that were previously considered impossible. The dissension in the United Kingdom can already be seen in the results of the votes, as the camps are of roughly equal strength. It is nevertheless remarkable that there has been no clear change of mood for three years to prevent Brexit. There is still no strong majority for Remain, as various surveys repeatedly show. That is why no influential political current has yet been formed that is willing to put Remain on the agenda with full conviction.

You are in charge of the Master's programme "International Economic Law" (LL.M.), which is offered in cooperation with the University of Glasgow. What are the prospects for this cooperation?

We still don't know exactly what the current situation is. Even for British universities it is very difficult to take a stand on this at the moment. If it were up to us and to the British universities, everything would continue as planned. Our programme with the University of Glasgow is going to continue, Brexit or not. For the time being, next years group is preparing to move to Glasgow. The only question is, what fees the students will have to pay in the future. The programme as such is not up for discussion.

EU students participating in the Erasmus programme do not have to pay anything when they study in the UK - will this change after Brexit?

Nobody can say at the moment. For the time being, there is a promise that all cooperation projects will continue. This also applies to the Erasmus programme. Beyond that, questions of tuition fees for such courses of study have not yet been clarified. But my feeling is that there will be good solutions, because the British do not want to permanently disconnect themselves from this European market.

What does Brexit mean for the research community?

That depends. There are a number of large British universities that are incredibly exciting for researchers independently of Brexit. Leaving aside research funding, Oxford remains Oxford, Cambridge remains Cambridge and Glasgow remains Glasgow. They are the oldest English-speaking universities in the world and have a global impact and global reach that is incredibly impressive. And they will keep it. But of course, there are also many universities that have rich, large-scale cooperations with partner universities in EU states, which will certainly suffer.


Are you concerned with the issues of Brexit in your own research?

I have been interested in European constitutional law and questions of the EU membership constitution for many years. This is the first time a member state will withdraw from the EU. Algeria and Greenland leaving the EU when they emancipated themselves from Denmark and France respectively cannot be compared to that. It is now clear that the EU may not (yet) be a community of destiny for an indefinite period of time. On the contrary, members may leave if they cannot see the advantages of the EU. The absurdity that is now apparent is that the right of withdrawal was not created for application, but as a means of exerting political pressure. This shows how risky it is to create new rules with veiled intentions.

Ultimately, however, the developments surrounding Brexit are not relevant for Lüneburg.

They are! At Leuphana University Lüneburg we have a special obligation to maintain excellent links between the United Kingdom, Germany and the EU even after Brexit. This university was founded in 1946 to provide training for democratic-minded teachers. We still have these roots today. Leuphana considers itself a place where democratic values play an important role. Let me warn you explicitly against considering the discussions taking place in the United Kingdom theatrical, as is often suggested by the media in Germany with regard to the House of Commons sessions. At university too, we have to ask ourselves "What are we actually dealing with here? Why did this happen? Given the great achievements of democracy and fundamental rights, why have we not been able to convince the British people that it is necessary to stay in the EU? That is why our task here in Lüneburg is above all to show our students the incredible advantages of European integration. Peace and prosperity are not to be taken for granted. We have to constantly commit ourselves to uphold these standards.

Thank you very much!


Jörg Philipp Terhechte is Professor of Public Law, European and International Law at Leuphana Law School. He has been head of the Professional School since 2013 and was elected Vice-President of Leuphana University Lüneburg in 2016. From 2018 he has also been Professor for European and International Economic Law at the University of Glasgow and Managing Director of the Institute for European Integration and Chairman of the Foundation EuropaKolleg, Hamburg. His most recent publication is "Elements and Changes in the EU Membership Constitution".


Author: Martin Gierczak.