A leading figure in Germany’s ruling Social Democratic party (SPD) has called for far closer links between the UK and the European Union, amid rising concerns the Brexit divide is harming efforts to solve international crises, including mass migration.
Martin Schulz, a former SPD leader and candidate to be chancellor of Germany, said it was vital that regular meetings, known in EU jargon as “structured dialogue”, be set up to bind the UK closer to the EU – and Germany – once again.
These could involve regular contacts between government figures and citizens to discuss policy issues of common concern, though outside the EU’s ambit. “The distance between the member states of the EU and the institutions of the union, and the UK, has increased during the last three or four years. Every day, it is a little bit more,” Schulz said in an interview with the Observer.
A grandee of German and EU politics, who was president of the European parliament from 2012 to 2017, Schulz said the main conclusion he had drawn from a two-day visit to London was that it was now “very important” for the UK and the EU “to find a way to get closer, not just on an economic and institutional level, but on a cultural and youth level”.
The prospect of a Labour government, he said, was one that offered the chance of a more “sustainable” UK-EU relationship.
On immigration, he said it was essential that the EU and the UK worked to somehow establish a “fair distribution” of those people arriving, but this required understanding and close cooperation.
The failure to deal with immigration issues, he suggested, was one factor feeding the success of the rightwing anti-migrant Alternative für Deutschland party, which is now registering support of more than 20% in the opinion polls.
Last week, Ursula von de Leyen, the German president of the European Commission, suggested that she believed the UK may one day be readmitted to the EU, as thoughts in Brussels increasingly turn to the end of the Conservatives’ time in governmentin the UK. Asked if the UK could ever rejoin, she said: “I must say, I keep telling my children: ‘You have to fix it. We [European leaders] goofed it up. You have to fix it.’ So I think here too, the direction of travel – my personal opinion – is clear.”
While prime minister Rishi Sunak, through his spokesperson, immediately dismissed Von der Leyen’s remarks, saying Brexit had given the UK many new freedoms from which it was now benefitting, there are signs that even some senior Tories want to restore better relations with the EU, against an unstable international and economic backdrop. A number of senior UK and EU politicians and diplomats now recognise that with Donald Trump seeking a return to the White House, the UK’s and Europe’s best interests may lie in rebuilding relations rather than both sides becoming more distant. Last week David Cameron, who as prime minister called the 2016 referendum that took the UK out of the EU, returned to Brussels for the first time since Brexit and met the commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič.
Since the UK left the EU, interest in Britain had waned in Germany, Schulz suggested, though its role in Nato and its support for Ukraine had reminded many how important an ally the UK still was.
Schulz said the German embassy in London had told him it was concerned about a sharp reduction in activities in recent years between towns and cities in the two countries that were linked through twinning arrangements. “We now have 450 twin town partnerships between the UK and Germany.” But, he added, “there is around a 75% reduction in the activities”.”
This was part of a wider problem. “The exchange you need among people such as journalists, scientists and young people through programmes such as Erasmus, leading to a better understand of each other, is shrinking,” he said.
Schulz added that there were a lot of people in the UK, particularly on the Tory side, “who think you can do it alone”. His view was fundamentally different. “Alone you are weak. Together we are strong.”