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19 October 2021

Why Germany has less to teach the UK than most think

Germany is afflicted by endemic corruption, antiquated infrastructure and geopolitical weakness.

By Andreas Fulda

Martin Fletcher’s recent New Statesman op-ed paints a rather idealised picture of mainland Europe’s economic powerhouse. In his view, the Germans seem to pretty much get everything right: they vote for centrist politicians, enjoy affordable childcare and support the country’s liberal immigration policies. Fletcher’s view of post-Brexit UK is less charitable. He describes British society as deeply polarised, with the economy teetering on the brink of collapse. Much of his chagrin is aimed at the Conservative government under Boris Johnson.

But isn’t the grass always greener on the other side? As someone who has lived in Germany and in the UK for 15 years each, I am not convinced by Fletcher’s juxtaposition. The two countries are less different than he makes them out to be.

Fletcher makes many good observations, but they seldom tell the full story. While it is true that centrist parties won the biggest share in Germany’s last federal election, the far-right AfD still managed to garner 10.3 per cent of the vote. And Fletcher would only need to travel from Berlin to nearby Cottbus to see with his own eyes that there is a serious, ongoing problem with militant neo-Nazis. In 2021, Germany recorded the highest level of right-wing extremism in 20 years.

And while Fletcher is impressed with Germany’s technocratic style, he may overlook some of the downsides of its political economy. Take Wirecard, for example. The payments firm collapsed after auditors found a €1.9bn (£1.6bn) hole in its accounts. Founder and CEO Markus Braun was arrested. Commentator Adrian Daub has described how an “omertà… between [German] politicians and managers, union bosses and financiers… disperses graft within the system, with no one having an interest in pointing out corruption until it has attained truly outlandish proportions”.

Fletcher is right to criticise the sky-high childcare costs in the UK. But his comment that German “ministers still plan ahead and invest in the future” misses how investment in public services has declined. A recent study by the Bertelsmann Foundation revealed that Germany’s education system is chronically underfinanced. School buildings are decaying. There is a lack of specialised staff. Owing to the slow pace of digitalisation, many German teachers struggled to teach children remotely during the Covid-19 lockdowns.

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[See also: From Germany, the UK appears ever more dysfunctional and absurd]

Germany’s export-oriented economy is not insulated from future shocks. Many German conglomerates are now heavily invested in China. They run the risk of being marginalised in unfair competition. The decline of the German solar industry is an example of this misguided development. The sector first grew quickly with the help of generous subsidies, but shed thousands of jobs after 2011 because of a combination of government policy changes and cheap imports from China. “Made in China 2025” poses a direct threat to the goal of Germany’s “Industry 4.0”. German industry needs to be careful not to be coopted first and later replaced.

It is rather worrisome that during the two main televised election debates last month, the three leading candidates for chancellor were not asked a single question about Germany’s future foreign and security policy. During her 16 years in office, outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel has failed to prepare German citizens mentally for the geopolitical storms of the future. Post-Merkel Germany remains dependent on the US for security, on Russia for gas, and on China for market access.

But doesn’t Fletcher make many sensible points about the vulnerabilities of post-Brexit Britain? While I supported Remain and have joined numerous People’s Vote marches in London, I think that his comments about “Little Britain” – demonising refugees, leaving the EU in order to curb freedom of movement – were unnecessarily dismissive. While he develops a valid critique of the current Johnson administration, he does not address the question of why UK citizens supported Brexit in the first place.

His op-ed reminded me of a conversation with a British academic prior to the referendum in 2016. I asked her what she thought the outcome would be. “Don’t you worry, Andreas,” she told me. “We will not leave the EU.” I remember nodding politely, but I wasn’t convinced. We had just refurbished parts of our house. Whenever I chatted with builders and tradespeople, I asked about their voting intentions. Nine out of ten told me they would vote Leave. Their reasons varied, but none of them struck me as particularly xenophobic.

The University of Nottingham, where I am associate professor, went to great lengths to ensure that international staff post-Brexit felt valued and appreciated. In early 2019, I was granted indefinite leave to remain in the UK under the EU settlement scheme. It created peace of mind for our young family after three turbulent years. And having now lived and worked in the UK since 2007, I increasingly identify with the place I call home.

While the British establishment is sometimes portrayed as impenetrable to outsiders, my experiences to date have been largely positive. Due to my specific China expertise, I have been repeatedly invited to participate in events hosted by the Foreign Office. I have given written and oral evidence to parliamentary select committees. I was also invited to brief the Cabinet Office on China-related matters.

Anyone perceiving the UK primarily through the lens of social media could be forgiven for considering it a hotbed of xenophobes. And while racism remains a problem in the UK – as in Germany – such views do not necessarily correspond with the lived realities.

Living in Wollaton, a suburb of Nottingham, has been an eyeopener. Our family is connected with more than 70 neighbours through a WhatsApp group. When our local community came together for a street party in 2019, it looked like a meeting of the UN General Assembly in miniature. This highly inclusive community event restored my faith in British society, which has remained culturally diverse and cosmopolitan.

Andreas Fulda is associate professor at the school of politics and international relations at the University of Nottingham, and the author of “The Struggle for Democracy in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong: Sharp Power and its Discontents” (Routledge).

[See also: Will Germany have a new government by Christmas?]

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