Image: Anneliese Dodds and Jakob von Weizsäcker (right) with staff writer Adam Rhaiti
On Friday 10 March, Anneliese Dodds, Labour MEP for South East England, hosted a panel at the East Oxford Community Centre with fellow MEP Jakob von Weizsäcker to discuss European politics following Brexit.
Weizsäcker, MEP for the social democrats in Germany, kicked off the panel with an introductory speech on Brexit. At almost two metres in height, Weizsäcker cut a stern figure, but did not lack a sense of humour. He told his audience with a wry smile that the abundance of refreshments on offer (including chocolate cake) were in fact a ploy to make them sit through an hour-long lecture on economics, in which he has a Masters degree from the Paris School of Economics.
Weizsäcker began his article with a lament of Brexit, labelling it a “great shame” and an “historic mistake”. He then outlined several potential reasons for the majority of UK voters in the EU referendum choosing to leave the institution, acknowledging that the EU was seen as a “losers’ club”. “Countries come together with good intentions, but don’t make the most of it,” Weizsäcker said.
“Countries come together with good intentions, but don’t make the most of it,” Weizsäcker said
Terrorism was also a mentioned factor in the referendum result. He believed that core voters were worried about security, and how Europe could be made safer. Ultimately, this was described as one of the “areas where we have some homework to do”, and where British voters felt that the EU was not doing enough to protect its members.
Weizsäcker made the controversial contention that Franco-German politics were crucial to the EU’s performance. He stated that Gerhard Schröder and Jacques Chirac, former leaders of Germany and France respectively, formed a strong union through their rejection of intervention in Iraq. By contrast, subsequent leaders Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy did not get on so well together, and hence were not able to rise to the challenge of the Eurozone crisis.
The mention of Merkel served as a platform to discuss the rapid rise of the SPD (Social Democratic Party in translation) in the opinion polls since Martin Schulz was elected as their candidate for the general elections, taking place in September.
A member of the audience interrupted with a quotation from Harold Wilson: “A week is a long time in politics.” There was a high level of enthusiasm and engagement from the audience, with many attendants taking notes – there was a long queue when it came to asking questions.
One of the main bones of contention was Theresa May’s tactics in the Brexit negotiations. She has so far failed to guarantee rights for EU nationals living in the UK, under the pretext that she first wants EU nations to do the same for UK citizens living abroad. Thus the EU migrants in the audience were quick to voice their concerns about the issues of pension payments, social security, and freedom of movement.
Both Dodds and Weizsäcker bemoaned the Prime Minister’s approach and argued that such a tit-for-tat attitude was not the route to a successful outcome. The Labour MEP shared anecdotes of people who voted Leave before realising that their nurse could then have to leave the country. Weizsäcker also opined that the damage had been done to EU-UK relations.
“We should listen to economists, but not necessarily believe everything they say”
I asked why the UK voted to leave when the vast majority of economists are in favour of the increased trade, immigration, and integration that the EU facilitates. In an age of populism, fake news, and widespread distrust of the establishment, should we listen to economists?
Having chuckled at the fact that I had impudently called his former profession into question, Weizsäcker provided a measured response. On the one hand, he felt consternation at the rise of populism. Such movements are a “fundamental mistake”, ousting the tradition of enlightenment that underlies democracy.
However, the German MEP did acknowledge that “economics is not an exact science”, adding that “economists don’t always get it right. We should listen to economists, but not necessarily believe everything they say.”
The more questions were asked, the clearer it became that the members of the audience were Europhiles who leaned towards the left of the political spectrum. Dodds’ criticism of the gap between what the Leavers were promised (such as access to the free market, guarantees for UK nationals in EU countries, and the safeguarding of intra-European scientific research projects) and the reality of negotiation was met with murmurs of agreement.
The event was successful in its objective of discussing European politics post-Brexit, and there was indeed a stream of political opinions expressed throughout, even if the current was strongly surging towards the Remain vote.
Although it is difficult, if not impossible, to provide answers to questions over the UK’s future, it was reassuring to see such zealous participation in political debate among the audience. Many stayed behind to ask Ms. Dodds and Mr. Weizsäcker questions, and the pair deserve respect for the time, knowledge, and enthusiasm they devoted to the panel.