Brexit is a “lose-lose situation” which will damage the EU and the UK, according to a German MEP and former top German business lobbyist who is trying to stop Britain leaving.
Hans-Olaf Henkel, a member of the pro-business Liberal Conservative Reformers (LKR) party in Germany, told City A.M. the EU should “make another offer” to the UK to try to stop Brexit.
Pointing to the recent move by the UK’s Confederation of British Industry (CBI) to call for the UK to remain in a customs union with the EU, Henkel said businesses want to minimise disruption.
“More and more British realise the complexities of Brexit have been totally underestimated,” Henkel said. “They realise now the colossal economical disadvantages” [of Brexit].
Opening the door to remaining in the EU
Henkel, who is also group vice-chair of the Eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists Group in the EU Parliament co-chaired by Conservative party MEP Syed Kamall, has banded together with other former heads of the Association of German Industry (BDI), the equivalent of the CBI to pressure Brussels into giving the UK control over immigration, a move which would “make it easier” for the UK to remain in the EU if the mood changes.
There is so far little evidence of a large turnaround in voters’ desire to leave the EU, although Henkel believes a further deterioration in the economic fortunes of the UK, including a renewed big fall in the pound, could prompt a rethink.
Businesses on both sides of the Channel say the scale of the challenge is becoming clearer, Henkel said, with European businesses uniform in their belief that Brexit will be bad for business.
He said: “To disentangle the relationship of thousands of companies in Britain and Europe that have developed a relationship over 40 years with complex logistical supply chains, with customer relationships and logistical relationships, that is a potentially a very big challenge, if not a disaster.”
Change in attitudes on immigration
The prospects of a new deal which gives control over immigration to the UK but allows membership of the Single Market currently look slim, with EU leaders repeatedly affirming that the free movement of people is a non-negotiable “pillar” of the free trade bloc.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron attempted to secure concessions on the issue in his now-infamous renegotiation ahead of the EU referendum, but did not achieve any meaningful change.
However, Henkel believes there is scope for dissent from individual member states.
“The front is not as lined as up as Mr Juncker pretends, Henkel said. “The entire attitude and sentiment on the continent on immigration has drastically changed.”
Damage to the EU
Part of Henkel’s desire to prevent the UK leaving the EU is his own Euroscepticism. Henkel was an early member of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party which is deeply sceptical of further European integration. He and his LKR colleagues left the AfD in 2015 when it turned towards its current, stridently Islamophobic and racist, incarnation.
Henkel believes the UK stood as a bulwark against closer ties between EU member states and the United States of Europe, a vision of a federal system between European countries espoused by some politicians, including Martin Schulz, the head of the second-largest party in Germany, the Social Democratic Party.
“Britain is in my view the last country with common sense in the European Union,” Henkel said. “They have always been an advocate for competitiveness, for subsidiarity, for less bureaucracy, for more self-responsibility of a country for its debt.”
The departure of the UK will tip the balance of European politics, removing the most powerful voice against closer ties, Henkel believes.
Either way, Henkel said it is politicians’ responsibility to prevent Brexit turning into a head-on-head political collision between the UK and the EU.
“If we can’t stop it we should derail it, because it’s still better than crashing into each other,” he said.