ALEX WILLIAMSON FOR NEW STATESMAN
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From antipasto to zoo, the A to Z of Brexit

We run through the Brexit alphabet.

As for anti-pasto


Is there any greater sign that austerity is not yet over than Boris Johnson getting the maximum value out of each of his jokes? In an interview with the Sun in September 2016, the Foreign Secretary suggested that Britain could control immigration as well as continue to trade freely with the EU in the following terms: “Our policy is having our cake and eating it. We are Pro-secco but by no means anti-pasto.” Very droll. Just as droll as the first time he rolled out the gag, in a July 2008 Telegraph column where he defended his decision to go on holiday abroad by noting that Tony Blair once spent a break “in the Tuscan palazzo of Count Girolamo Strozzi where he forged one of New Labour’s few hard-edged ideological positions: he was pro-sciutto and anti-pasto”. Stop it, Boris! This recycling is pasta joke. If you carry on, Liam Fox will want a pizza the action. Or you’ll be moved to the Minestrone of Defence. [Please, please stop – Ed.]

B is for big blue passports


Last year’s vote to leave the EU was a long time coming for the Tory awkward squad. Now that they’ve won, what exactly do they want? Turns out it’s much simpler than trade deals and migration quotas: just give us back our blue passports! As with most of the Brexit debate, it’s a cause that will be lost on most people under 50 – but, for the Sun and nostalgic headbangers such as the backbencher Andrew Rosindell, replacing the burgundy booklets used since 1988 is the only cause in town. “It’s a matter of identity. Having the pink European passports has been a humiliation,” Rosindell, the MP for Romford and a Proper Bloke who’d never otherwise touch anything “pink” unless he could help it, told the Sun in August. Ministers have since pledged to review the post-Brexit passport design – proof, if any more were needed, that this government serves only the whims of our weirdest MPs.


C is for civil servants


Those poor souls in Whitehall must be missing the days when all they had to fear was the press being nasty about how many biscuits they were eating on the taxpayer’s purse. Now it looks like there won’t be any time for biscuit breaks. The former civil service head and kindly veteran mandarin Bob Kerslake warned Theresa May at the end of last year that Whitehall does not have the capacity to deal with Brexit. “It’s not possible to do that at a point when the civil service is at its lowest numbers since the Second World War and continuing to fall,” he said in November. The Prime Minister shrugged off his concerns. Now disillusioned senior civil servants are planning to go the same way as Ivan Rogers, the EU ambassador who resigned in fury in January. Still, the money’s good: the top trade negotiator will earn £160,000 – more than the Prime Minister.

 

D is for David Davis


It’s little surprise that the Brexit Secretary, David Davis – having run for the Conservative Party leadership twice, represented two constituencies, and been politically active since he was a student in the 1970s – approaches politics with maturity and nuance. Nowhere was his great experience displayed with more finesse than when he reportedly swooped in for an unwanted embrace with Diane Abbott in the Commons bar after the shadow home secretary voted through Article 50 (out of loyalty to her party leader and against her conscience). “I am not blind,” he texted a friend, when asked if this was true. He eventually apologised, and went back to antagonising European politicians instead.

 

E is for Eighth, Henry the

 

Brexit wouldn’t mean Brexit without the resurgence of archaic English legislation and an unelected autocrat inflicting havoc on a divided nation. So Theresa May’s attempt to use 500-year-old powers known as “Henry VIII clauses” to convert EU directives into UK law is pretty unsurprising. As the government website explains, these are provisions added to a bill which enable “primary legislation to be amended or repealed by subordinate legislation with or without further parliamentary scrutiny”. The mechanism, established by the testy Tudor in 1539 to make law by proclamation, could help the PM repeal individual bits of EU legislation without full scrutiny by MPs – to parliament’s outrage. But perhaps it’s for the best. Henry VIII was an expert in divorce, after all.

 

F is for FIFTY (50), article


Oh, Article 50. Who thought that such a small clause could cause such a big fuss? It’s the little bit of the Lisbon Treaty no one thought would ever be relevant – the part that tells member states how to leave the European Union. Not to be spoken of without first using the verb “to trigger”, and not to be confused with its hipster younger sibling Article 49 (the part of the treaty which explains how to join, rather than leave, clung on to by wistful Remainers), Article 50 simply lays out how difficult it will be for any member state that uses it, allowing only two years of negotiating time after notification.

In the end, Article 50 was invoked on 29 March by handing over a letter in public to the European Council president, Donald Tusk, despite dire warnings by the Telegraph, which claimed it would be “hand-delivered at [a] secret time and location amid fears of sabotage by Remainers”. So Peter Mandelson forbore to rugby-tackle the British ambassador on his way to submit the letter, and Tusk decided it wouldn’t be funny, after all, to turn off the lights and pretend he was out.

 

G is for Goldman Sachs


Suddenly, progressives are sad to see the notorious investment bank Goldman Sachs taking its custom elsewhere – or some of it, anyway. It has confirmed that “hundreds” of its employees will be moved out of London and it will base its decision on its future dealings with the UK on the nature of the Brexit deal reached.

 

H is for horses


The Commons Northern Ireland select committee is at the sharp end of the complexities of leaving the EU. In February, Michael Lux, the former head of the European Commission’s customs procedures unit, stunned the committee by casually mentioning that with the UK leaving the customs union, a dog or a horse wandering across the land border with Ireland would need a customs form. After gasps from the committee, the independent unionist MP Sylvia Hermon replied: “I cannot imagine a form has to be filled out when a dog runs from the Republic of Ireland to Northern Ireland. This is just unenforceable.” Let’s hope not.

 

I is for Iraq

 

As promised, Kenneth Clarke was the only Conservative MP to vote against triggering Article 50. He told the Times the atmosphere reminded him of the Iraq War: “That was the last time I stuck my neck out in supporting a really unpopular cause – 70 per cent of the British public were in favour of the invasion and most of the Conservative Party was in a patriotic fury. Within 12 months, you couldn’t meet a member of the public who had ever known anybody who was in favour of it.”

 

J is for Juncker

 

“Arch-federalist” is just about as villainous as one can be made to sound in the context of EU bureaucracy, and Jean-Claude Juncker is the man most often described as such by his Eurosceptic enemies. (He also once said that power was erotic, although he now finds it less so: “Why are you in love with a person? The day you know means that you have stopped being in love,” he mused to the FT in March.)

The European Commission president described Brexit as “a failure and a tragedy” and is riling Brexiteers by insisting that the UK settle its bill with Brussels before embarking on trade negotiations. Although the Luxembourger is reassuring Britain that this “isn’t a punishment”, the “very salty” fee could be as high as €60bn. Somebody pass Bill Cash the smelling salts.

 

K is for Keir (Starmer)


Oh, Keir. Things could have been so different. Running for parliament in 2015, the former director of public prosecutions might have hoped for a safe seat and plum job in Ed Miliband’s cabinet. Now, however, he’s one of the few adults left around the shadow cabinet table and an unhappy poster boy for Labour’s hopeless Brexit bind. With all the verve of a man rehearsing his own eulogy, he told the Commons of the Article 50 bill in January: “It is a very difficult bill for the Labour Party.” And so, despite Sir Keir’s lawyerly turns at the despatch box, it was. Although his competent performances and forensic scrutiny have given Labour hope, his stated ambition – for Labour to “speak not for the 52 Per Cent or 48 Per Cent but the 100 Per Cent” – is looking less achievable by the day.

 

L is for lords getting feisty


Perhaps there is something in the idea that Britain has a fundamentally different culture from its European counterparts. It must be the only country where progressive values are most vehemently defended by an unelected chamber, including hereditary chieftains. Yes, those freedom fighters in mink are the only ones to have provided any meaningful opposition to hard Brexit in parliament, sending the Article 50 bill back to the Commons to urge protection of EU migrant rights and a “meaningful” parliamentary vote on the final deal. They capitulated in the end and the bill passed – but let’s hope they make some more mischief with the Great Repeal Bill.

 

M for “My Maggie”

 

As Britain prepares to sever ties with a trading bloc of 500 million people just 21 miles from its shores, our government understandably needs to look around for new opportunities. And so Theresa May was on a plane to Washington to meet the new US president faster than you could say, “Grab them by the what?” May declined to raise Donald Trump’s history of sexist comments at their meeting, but she did wring a (sort of) guarantee out of him to remain committed to Nato. In any case, she charmed him more than Angela Merkel, who visited in March – not only did Trump not hold the German chancellor’s hand, he even refused to shake it for a photo-op in the Oval Office. To the delight of Tory Brexiteers, May and Trump appeared to get on well, with the president recalling the relationship between Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Prime Minister May, he is said to have told his aides, is “my Maggie”. (Let’s be honest, she probably doesn’t call him “my Ronnie”.) Trump also returned a bust of Winston Churchill to the Oval Office, an act that brought a couple of right-wing lobby journalists close to shedding tears of patriotic joy.

 

N is for Nazis

 

It wouldn’t be a proper political event without someone making an inappropriate reference to Nazis, and our politicians haven’t disappointed this year. Ever the diplomat, Boris Johnson accused the French president, François Hollande, of wishing to “administer punishment beatings to anybody who seeks to escape [the EU], in the manner of some World War Two movie”. If he wishes to make comparisons to a propaganda-driven insurgency based on scapegoating minority groups, Johnson needn’t look back so far in the past . . .

 

O is for Osborne


The former chancellor George Osborne is enjoying winding up his old cabinet rival Theresa May from the back benches, warning that Brexit will be a “bitter” divorce and accusing the government of choosing “not to make the economy
the priority”. However, this is just another part-time occupation in an increasingly cluttered CV. George “Six Jobs” Osborne is advising the investment firm BlackRock, fulfilling private speaking engagements, working as a McCain Institute fellow, chairing the Northern Powerhouse Partnership, representing the constituents of Tatton (sometimes), and now the editor of the London Evening Standard.

Good for him! Finally, he is delivering on the promise he made at the Treasury of “full employment”.

 

P is for the press

 

The Brexit-supporting press has responded to recent events with the calmness and classiness for which it is famed. The Sun beamed “Dover and out” on to the White Cliffs to celebrate Article 50 being invoked. The Mail wrote “FREEDOM!” in 9,000-point capital letters on its front page (under a headline about Nicola Sturgeon’s and Theresa May’s “Legs-it”). And the Telegraph celebrated a bonfire of red tape that will lead to Britain getting back the ability to use energy-inefficient light bulbs and slaughter insufficiently endangered newts. Suddenly, all the pain seems worthwhile.

 

Q is for queen


“QUEEN BACKS BREXIT” shouted the front page of the Sun three months before the EU referendum. Inevitably. Buckingham Palace swiftly complained about it to the press watchdog. The Sun stood by its story, which consisted of a source relaying Eurosceptic remarks made by the Queen during a lunch at Windsor Castle in 2011. Nick Clegg, said to have attended this lunch, called the story “nonsense”. But the tabloid – ever tenacious in pursuit of dubious news values – ran a similar front page on the eve of the vote: “What Queen asked dinner guests: GIVE ME THREE GOOD REASONS TO STAY IN EUROPE”. The next day, the country gave her its answer.

 

R is for red, white and blue Brexit

 

Suggesting Brexit is nothing more than government by tea towel, Theresa May sent a shudder through the nation in December by describing her chief goal as a “red, white and blue Brexit”. This was in response to commentators characterising the middle ground between a hard and a soft departure as “grey Brexit”. Presumably, given the racial overtones of some of the Leave campaigning, she didn’t want the idea of a “white Brexit” to gain currency.

 

S is for Scotland

 

“Now is not the time” was Theresa May’s response to the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum, in the light of Scotland voting Remain. The Prime Minister believes Scottish voters should have full knowledge of the Brexit deal before going to the polls again. Which is kind of an argument for a second EU referendum on the final terms, but shhhh. During the campaign, top Brexiteers queued up to dismiss the prospect of Scottish independence returning to the table. Nigel Farage called the idea “moonshine”; David Davis said it would happen “under no circumstances”; the Labour Leaver Kate Hoey described it as a “wonderful red herring”; and the failed Tory leadership candidate Michael Gove said there was “no prospect” of it.

 

T is for Singapore model, the


The idea of copying Singapore’s low-tax, low-regulation economic model has long been popular with the kind of Brexiteer who would willingly read Ayn Rand. But has that country provided the blueprint for Brexit Britain? Jeremy Corbyn seems to think so, as he has been trying to get the rest of us to call it “Bargain-Basement Brexit”. And in her Lancaster House speech in January, Theresa May warned the EU27 that the UK would impose “the competitive tax rates and the policies that would attract the world’s best companies and biggest investors” if they offered the UK a bad deal. Is there a catch? Er, yes: the UK’s corporation tax rate is already low in European terms. And in truth, Singapore’s dirigiste technocratic government would give Douglas Carswell nightmares. Oh, and a quarter of its population are immigrants.

 

U is for Unexpectedly welcome

 

Over the past few months, left-wing Remainers have started to experience an unusual, creeping sensation. Is it . . . are they . . . could it be that they are happy to see Tony Blair? This disconcerting feeling has been helped by the Blessed Toblerone’s decision to give up some of his more whiffy lucrative side hustles (he is also doing up most of his shirt buttons again). In the absence of other strong pro-European voices, Blair has returned to the fray, making the case for liberal internationalism and arguing that the public should have the chance to change its mind on Brexit once it knows the final deal. Stop sounding so reasonable, Tony. It’s unnerving.

 

V is for Verhofstadt


“Get thee behind me, Satan,” was David Davis’s message to Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s gap-toothed chief negotiator, in evidence to the Commons foreign affairs select committee in September. The former Belgian prime minister was all too happy not to oblige – and became a leading player in the pre-divorce phoney war. His contributions to the debate, such as suggesting “associate citizenship” of the EU for disenfranchised Britons post-Brexit, have been catnip for the 48 Per Cent. Equally unhelpful has been his suggestion that an independent Scotland would have no problem retaining EU membership. No wonder Nigel Farage called his appointment a “declaration of war”.

 

W is for WTO terms

 

Hardly anyone knows what it means, but nevertheless “WTO terms” is a magical phrase suddenly being used by everybody on all sides of the Brexit debate to shut opponents up. Basically, if the UK doesn’t strike a trade deal with the EU, then it will trade according to World Trade Organisation rules, which would bring in tariffs or other trade barriers for some of our exports of products and services to EU countries, and vice versa.

 

X is for x-iting the EU


The Department for Exiting the EU, set up by Theresa May after the 23 June referendum, is not Whitehall’s most popular hangout. Civil servants in other departments are frustrated by its existence, as Brexit has repercussions for every policy brief. Some of the ministry’s officials have been characterised as “school bullies”, barging in to take control of everything. Perhaps, like No 10, the Foreign Office and Treasury, it could enhance its reputation with a cat, which could be called DExMew.

 

Y is for yacht

Leavers are ever keen to talk up Britain’s future as a buccaneering trading nation – and some are taking it nauseatingly literally. Up to 100 Conservative MPs are backing a Daily Telegraph campaign to spend £120m on a shiny new replacement for the Royal Yacht Britannia, decommissioned by Tony Blair in a fit of Europhile pique in 1997. They believe a new yacht – but not, say, a decent trade deal – is the key to the renewed success of Global Britain’s export sector. And as if this weren’t the perfect imperial nostalgia trip, the MPs Gerald Howarth and Jake Berry have suggested slashing the international aid budget to pay for it. The international trade minister Mark Garnier has warned them off that idea but encouraged them to formulate a business plan. “No one is trying to stop you bringing one forward,” he said. Can somebody please try?

 

Z is for Zoos


No, we didn’t just need a Z entry. About 80 per cent of our animal welfare law originates from the EU, which is praised as an animal-friendly area – compared to, say, the US and China, which have far less regulation. On Britain leaving the EU, our legislation on animal welfare will be up in the air. The only certainty will be mandatory pet British bulldogs for every household. What could be more patriotic? 

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue

Photo: STEFAN BONESS/PANOS
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What Britain needs to understand about the profound and ancient divisions in Germany

As Angela Merkel campaigns for re-election, the balance of power in Europe is changing.

On 24 September, Angela Merkel will be re-elected chancellor of Germany and that, we might think, will be that. With Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron in control of the European project, populism will surely be vanquished and the old Franco-German core of the EU restored. Yet things are changing, and if western Europe wants Germany to keep singing “Ode to Joy” as enthusiastically as “Deutschlandlied”, it will have some work to do. Our Brexit negotiators need to see how important this is to Macron, to other European leaders and, above all, to thinking Germans.

For we may all soon miss the old, self-effacing Germany. Despite having such economic power, it always seemed to have no greater wish than to exist as part of a larger whole. Konrad Adenauer, its first postwar chancellor and founding father, made Westbindung (“binding to the West”) the heart of West German politics. Adenauer came from the deeply Catholic Rhineland, “amid the vineyards” as he put it, “where Germany’s windows are open to the West”. His instinctive cultural sympathy was with France, but he knew that West Germany’s existence depended on keeping America in Europe. France he courted out of profound conviction, the US out of clear-eyed necessity, and he was worried that after him this twin course might be abandoned. His demands for reassurance during his final year in office led to John F Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech of 1963. Every West German knew about that, and about the Berlin Airlift: these became locations of national memory from which West Germany triangulated its sense of self.

There were some Germans for whom this was too much. Anti-Americanism was ingrained among West Germany’s hard left, the early Green Party and the tiny hard right. But even Germans who were suspicious of America had no fear of tying themselves closer to Europe. On the contrary, that was exactly what they wanted. The standard explanation of this is guilt. West Germans, in this argument, felt so remorseful about the horrors of the Second World War that they wanted to make amends. This idea fitted with others’ belief that Germany did indeed have much to feel guilty about.

A nuanced version of this held that the western Germans thought they had somehow “got away with it”, compared with their brethren in the east, who had felt the weight of Soviet vengeance: rape, pillage, occupation. Accordingly, Germany’s willingness to subsume itself so thoroughly, even as it footed the bills for the European Economic Community and later the European Union, was accepted with little gratitude, almost as an ongoing war debt repayment.

This guilt thesis is based on a misunderstanding of German history, especially of the experience of western Germans. The most graphic illustration of this comes from Adenauer. In 1955, he privately informed the British that while he was obliged to act in public as though he wished for reunification, he intended to devote his remaining years to blocking it. In 1961, he secretly proposed to the Americans that they offer the Russians a swap: they and he should, he said, give up West Berlin in return for Thuringia (the region containing Leipzig and Weimar). He wanted, in effect, to make the River Elbe the eastern border of Germany.

Why did Adenauer dislike the eastern Germans, think Berlin was expendable and consider the River Elbe to be the natural frontier? Simple: he knew that the Elbe was Germany’s Mason-Dixon line. Beyond it lay the flat, grim Prussian heartlands, which until 1945 stretched into present-day Russia. This vast region was known to Germans as “Ostelbien” – East Elbia. Adenauer viewed the “unification” of Germany in 1871 as East Elbia’s annexation of the west. That’s why in 1919, as mayor of Cologne, and again in 1923, he tried to get Britain and France to back a breakaway western German state. Having failed, he is said to have muttered, “Here we go, Asia again,” and closed the blinds every time his train crossed east over the Elbe.

Prussia was a different country. The victorious Allies agreed. On 25 February 1947, they declared: “The Prussian state, which from early days has been a bearer of militarism and reaction in Germany… together with its central government and all its agencies are abolished.” The name Prussia was eradicated. The Prussian hegemony of 1871-1945, an anomaly in the two millennia of German history, was over.

If we understand this, we understand what West Germany really was and why it acted as it did; why the “reunification” of 1990 – or, at least, the way it was handled – was such a mistake; why we may all have to stop taking Germany quite so much for granted now that East Elbia is back; and why our Brexit negotiators are on a hiding to nothing if they believe that the Germans have no more urgent business to consider than their car exports to us. Far more important to liberal Germans is keeping safe the western soul of Germany.

***

West Germany was anything but an artificial construct. It was the historical Germany, being almost geographically identical to what was, for almost 1,200 years, the only Germany. Julius Caesar named the land, together with its people, in 58 BC; 49 years later, Drusus, the greatest commander of the infant Roman empire, is said to have been supernaturally advised that after defeating every tribe he met in Germania, he should halt at the River Elbe. By 100 AD, Roman rule was shown by a fortified border, the Limes Germanicus. You can still walk large stretches of it; it encompasses most of the richest land in modern Germany and all of the great cities except Hamburg, Berlin and the 19th-century industrial monocultures of the Ruhr. Even these last were born as trading posts or forward bases within what archaeologists call the “market region” of Germania – the lands beyond the limes where commerce with the Roman empire defined the whole culture. Southern and western Germany’s cultural roots are almost as Roman as France’s.

But what about 9 AD and the destruction of three Roman legions by the German tribes under Arminius? There is a popular myth that this kept all Germany free and different. We owe this idea to Martin Luther and his supporters: Luther claimed from 1520 onwards to be a German, anti-Roman hero and identified himself with the newly rediscovered tale of Arminius. More decisively, the events of 9 AD were an obsession of later Prussian historians, who had an interest in claiming that the real Germany was one that was pure and un-Romanised. Yet the reverse is true. Under the Romans, then the Merovingians, then the Franks, the Rhine/Danube super-region of Germany remained politically and culturally a part of western Europe. After Charlemagne, a Rhineland German, “restored the Roman empire” (as his seals put it) in 800 AD, western Germany was the very centre of things. It was never a nation state, but always the key part of a greater whole, the Holy Roman empire.

Along the Elbe, things were different. Charlemagne extracted tribute from the pagan Slavs across the river, and his successors tried to build on this, but the German conquest and settlement of East Elbia only really began with the Wendish Crusade of 1147, the northern arm of the Second Crusade. Three centuries later, the entire region was still hotly disputed by Balts and Slavs, with German supremacy threatened by major defeats at Tannenberg (1410) and in the Hussite Wars (1419-34).

Long-contested frontier lands breed a special kind of society. The German incomers cowed the natives, such as the pagan Pruscie from whom they ultimately borrowed their name, through brute force. Where they couldn’t, they had to make armed deals with local elites. In this new sort-of-Germany, the Junkers, an aggressive landowning caste, lorded it over the Slavs and Balts – as well as poorer Germans, who knew that the locals would cut their throats if the Junker castles fell, so were loyal and subservient to their masters. East Prussia remained like this within living memory.

In 1525, Prussia named itself and declared itself the first Protestant state. From then on, it had absolute rulers, the Hohenzollern dynasty, backed by a quiescent Lutheran state church. The Junkers swore loyalty in return for exclusive access to all officer-level jobs in the army and the administration. By the mid-18th century, Voltaire quipped that while other states had armies, the Prussian army had a state. The overriding strategic concern of Prussia was always with the east. In his 1758-59 campaigns, Frederick the Great was shocked to find the Russians extremely hard to beat. He bequeathed to his successors a policy of keeping the tsars onside. Partitioning Poland between them was the sticking plaster that masked this Russian-Prussian rivalry, right until 1941.

This thoroughly east-facing power was, by the normal standards of European statehood – history, social structures, religion, geography – a different country from the Rhineland, Swabia or Bavaria. It defeated them all in 1866, laying the ground for the “unification” of 1871. The Prussian empire (for that is what it was) could now enlist the wealth, industry and manpower of Germany in pursuit of its ancient goal: hegemony over north-eastern Europe. By 1887, the future imperial chancellor Bernhard von Bülow was already musing on how to destroy Russia “for a generation”, cleanse Prussia of its Poles, set up a puppet Ukrainian state and take the Prussian armies to the banks of the Volga. This is the bloody Prussian – not German – thread that leads directly to the Nazi onslaught of 1941. In 1945, that centuries-long struggle was settled, in almost inconceivable violence. Half of East Elbia was ruthlessly stripped of Germans and handed over to Poles or Russians; the rump became the German Democratic Republic (GDR), a mere satrap of the Red Army.

So while it is easy and comfortable to say that the otherness of eastern Germany today is the result of that 40-year Soviet occupation, history says otherwise. East Elbia has always been different. Take the voting patterns: from 1871 to 1933, East Elbia outside Berlin (always a left-liberal political island) was the main electoral reservoir for the authoritarian right. The Prussian Conservative Party under the empire, the Deutschnationale Volkspartei until 1928 and the Nazis from 1930 depended on rural and small-town East Elbian voters. It was they who (just) swung things in 1933, by going 50-60 per cent for the “Hitler coalition”. Had all Germany voted like the Rhineland or Bavaria, Hitler and his Junker allies would have got nowhere close to a majority. Small wonder that Adenauer didn’t want East Elbia back and was secretly delighted to have it safely fenced off behind the Iron Curtain.

***

West Germany (1949-90) – Germany shorn of Prussia – was, then, no historical fluke, and nor was the supra­national way it acted. This was the real Germany. But the hasty reunification of 1990 (there was no referendum or election on the issue) changed things. Why should the inhabitants of the former GDR, rather than Poles and Czechs, get immediate access to the wealth and benefits of the West? Because they were Germans. With that, the chancellor Helmut Kohl embraced the notion that being German overrode all considerations of social, economic or historical difference. He also subliminally revived the idea, common to the Second Empire and the Third Reich, that East Elbia was special and needed subsidising by the rich west of Germany. The director of the Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, resigned in 1991 over this abandoning of economic sanity for political nationalism.

Since 1990, the former East Germany has received more than €2trn from the old West Germany, for a fast-ageing, shrinking and disproportionately male population of only 16 million, including Berlin. That’s the equivalent of a Greek bailout every year since 1990, and as a straight gift, not a loan. This represents a huge shift in financial priorities, overshadowing Germany’s annual net EU budget contribution (currently €15.5bn). In 1990, Kohl promised that western German aid would soon turn the new states into “blooming” areas, but they have become, instead, proof that age-old differences resist even the most gigantic subsidies.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of voters in East Elbia have declared over the past two years that at the general election, they intend to support either Alternative für Deutschland (Germany’s Ukip), Die Linke (heirs to the old East German Communist Party) or the all but openly neo-Nazi National Democratic Party (the NPD, currently represented in the Mecklenburg-Vorpommern state parliament). Though theoretical enemies, these three parties are united by cultural affinities: all despise economic liberalism, oppose Nato and the EU and want closer relations with Russia.

East Elbia no longer has the population to swing the entire German electorate of more than 61 million but many liberal western Germans are nervous. They recoil at the sight of anti-asylum-seeker attacks, which are proportionally far more common in East Elbia than in the west, or when they see Merkel heckled by right-wingers. They call East Elbia Dunkeldeutschland (“Dark Germany”) and joke bitterly that if Britain can have a Brexit, why can’t the old East Germans, whom they lump together under the name of Saxons, have a “Säxit”? But it’s no laughing matter. They know there are those only too aware of any anti-western drift in Germany and eager to give succour to it.

Alexander Saldostanov, the rabid leader of Russia’s “Night Wolves” bikers and a public friend of Vladimir Putin, recently told Germany’s bestselling daily, Bild, that he dreams of a grand union between Germany and Russia: “We have so much in common. You simply have to free yourself at last from America, that scourge of humanity. Together, we can, should and must take power.”

There’s no danger of that, but there is a sense in which eastern Europe is, to Germans, no longer “the other”. It’s the place whence natural gas flows from Russia, where labour is cheap but skilled and where the people are keen to work with Germany on setting up new sites of joint national memory. From Kaliningrad to Prague, museums and projects are springing up in which the horrors of the past are neither denied nor used as ammunition in today’s negotiations. In eastern Europe, perhaps because Russia is so close, the Germans are rarely made to feel guilty for their grandfathers’ sins. Meanwhile in the west, from Greece to Britain, people can’t resist mentioning the war whenever the Germans don’t act as desired.

***

Germany’s resources are not infinite. Nor is the patience of the 40 per cent of Germans who “have net worths of essentially zero”, as Die Welt reported last year – largely because German home ownership rates are the lowest in the EU. They are disproportionately concentrated in the old east, the region that never had supranational, western European connections. From them come ever-louder voices saying that Germany’s EU contribution is too high. And with Britain out, the maths will look even worse to such voters. If south-western Germany’s taxes have to keep bailing out the country’s east, while also helping out the old and new EU lands, what is left for, say, the post-industrial Ruhr, which has financial and social problems of its own? There are tough choices ahead, and it’s not hard to imagine a day when Germany decides to aim its subsidies and investments where they seem most welcome. The old idea of Mitteleuropa – a multi-ethnic, German-centred Middle Europe, neither of the West nor of the East – no longer seems so antiquarian. Nothing would gladden Putin’s heart more.

So, yes, Merkel will win the election and will have a chance to revive the EU’s Franco-­German core. Yet the relative strengths of France and Germany are different now. As for their leaders, while Adenauer was a devoted Catholic Rhinelander, Merkel is a Lutheran vicar’s daughter from the east. Bonn was physically close to Paris, Brussels, The Hague, even London; Berlin is closer to Prague and Warsaw.

With Donald Trump’s wavering on Nato and his noisy anti-German protectionism, along with Brexit, the West may no longer seem vital to Germany’s future. During Merkel’s election debate with her main challenger, Martin Schulz, on 3 September, Brexit was not even mentioned. The old EU core will have to work to keep Germany anchored, resisting any new call from the east. Macron and German liberals know that; that’s why there will be no Franco-German split over Brexit just to sell us a few more Audis. The sooner David Davis and Liam Fox realise that the Germans have far bigger issues to deal with, the better.

James Hawes is the author of “The Shortest History of Germany” (Old Street Publishing)

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Spring Double Issue