Dr. Gerhard Dannemann (Director, Centre for British Studies)

29.04.2011 - Interview conducted by Merida Mathen & Orla Colclough

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Q1. As the Director of the Centre of British Studies, you play a significant role in promoting understanding of the UK in Germany. Do you feel there is a fundamental misunderstanding between Germany and the UK, perhaps fostered by historical animosity?

The situation is actually not so bad; the relationship has been pretty easy-going by comparison. There are a few things I suppose like imagery and views which the mass media offer, but I think that is mainly on the harmless side. If you look at the relationship between Germany and Poland, for example, this is totally different, where much more understanding and action is required. The British-German relationship has been pretty good, even over the last few decades in my opinion.

Q2. How much do you think that the political integration of the EU has affected the political and cultural atmosphere within the UK and Germany, and which country do you feel has undergone more cultural change because of the EU?

The British public has been much more conscious and much more reluctant to become Europeans in this sense, and until this day if you asked ten British people if they were European, the answer would be uncertain and probably split down the middle. If you asked them within the context of a football match I think it would be much more certain – all ten would say yes, since for sports Britain has always been part of Europe; if you asked in the context of negotiations of a new European Union treaty the answer would probably be three saying yes and seven saying no. There is this very ambivalent relationship with Europe for the UK, and that's very different in Germany, which sees itself as much more European. There is a geographical reason for that – Germany has borders with nine other European countries, and historically also. For Germans after the World War Two, open patriotism was frowned upon, but being a good European was a wonderful thing, having at least regional identity and that was a different starting point. But over the past few decades we have seen gradual changes. There are more Germans who are becoming skeptical about Europe, but there have always been Brits who have been positive about Europe - Nick Clegg for example has always been Europhile - and there are MPs within the Labor and conservative parties too who support Europe, so the situation is not so black and white in the United Kingdom.

Q3. Do you think the media also plays a strong role in that?

Certainly, in particular the headline media who try to sell papers through an explosive headline. We know sex sells, we know celebrity gossip sells and we know being anti-European sells. If 'Das Bild' here in Germany were to run an anti-European headline, yes it would gain some interest, but it wouldn't sell thousands of additional copies.

Q4. Looking again at the EU, the UK and Germany play major roles in its make-up, as well as being global players. Do you believe that the two countries' interests are converging with each other?

There are some converging interests and there are some conflicting interests. Britain has always had an interest to dilute the French-German power axis, so Britain has been positive about the entry of new states into the European Union, as is generally shown in the case of Turkey's accession, in contrast to the German government's division over the issue, with the German public seemingly against it too. Traditionally the United Kingdom has been on the pro-market and less state-intervention side, whereas the hallmark of German economic policy between Conservatives and Social Democrats has always been to have that social element emphasized, and European Union competences on labor market regulations is something which fits the German landscape more than the British. Agricultural policies were in the past a stumbling, but we have seen some convergence there; foreign policy can also cause disagreements but you will see time and again policy areas where there is agreement between German and the UK.

Q5. Do you think it might suit Germany to have the UK more on the periphery of the political Europe, especially given your view that the British Prime Minister in fact has more power than the German Chancellor?

The interesting thing is that every time a Conservative Prime Minister is elected (after Margaret Thatcher in any case), one of the first things he will say is that "we are the centre of Europe", so in spite of being more skeptical about the benefits of Europe, the United Kingdom certainly wants to be part of it and an important player within it. And of course, if you were to ask if it would be much easier for Germany if the UK were to take a step back and allow the German government to do what it wants then the short answer is yes. But it's also in the German government's interest to have the UK fully involved, as otherwise you don't get things moving at all. The UK is a major political and economic partner, and there are cultural ties too. So if you look at the medium-range view in Germany then I think the answer would in fact be no.

Q6. Do you see the AV system realistically working in the UK and how do you think it would change the political make-up of the country?

This is of course up to the public to decide and the outcome is as yet quite unclear, with a large proportion of the population still undecided. A straight move to proportional representation, which exists in Scottish Parliament elections and in elections to the European Parliament from the UK, would have been unthinkable to gain a majority for the General Election for the House of Commons, so the AV system offers an in-between stage. You still have people elected in constituencies who are not on a party ticket, which is I think important to British people, and you have this built-in modification, that is, that you have second and third votes. The winner will still be the person who gets the most votes, only that you will need 50% of the vote to gain your constituency. I think it would work in the UK and be a clever move – you don't have to change much, the only real change would be that counting would take a bit longer, with results being announced at 3 in the morning rather than 11 at night! The majorities will change, whether exactly as predicted it is hard to say, but it makes coalition governments more likely.

Q7. Do you think that's a good thing to have coalition governments?

Well it's a good thing in the sense that more voters will see themselves represented in the government, and you will have a majority of British voters who have voted for the present government. That has not been the case for a very long time; the last Labor majority was very slippery, elected on only 34% of the vote. So if the new voting system was adopted coalition will probably be a very likely thing, and that would remain the exception if you have first-past-the-post, although we might see it more often than every 80 years, as has been the case so far. But very small changes can have huge effects, for example, a small increase in Labor popularity could lead to them holding a majority if an election was held next week, so the first coalition government does not mean there will always be a coalition government. It would only be if the voting system was change to AV where we might see coalition governments occurring fairly frequently, which would be a significant change in the British political landscape.

Q8. The Centre for British Studies, along with DAAD and Erasmus programs, are all examples of academic and cultural exchange. Do you think Britain and Germany need to do more to promote and foster this sort of exchange?

I would have to say yes wouldn't I! But I've said before it is going rather well, and we have a lot of interest the United Kingdom from German students. I would like to see a bit more interest the other way round. We do have every year British students at the Centre for British Studies who wish to learn something about Britain in Germany, because there is no place in Britain where you can learn something like this in quite the same way, which I think is a good sing. One problem on the English side is the use of foreign languages being less presented on the curriculum. When Labor came to power education was one of their priorities, and they focused particularly on the "Three R's" at the expense of foreign languages. So that means that when British students think of going to university, they do not even consider Germany or other foreign countries as they have no experience of these languages.

Q9. How do you think we can remedy this situation?

Become a foreign language teacher! Unfortunately I don't see this happening; there is no political pressure to do so. The current government will not do that and David Cameron will not gain anything with his electorate in doing so; the Liberal Democrats would be in favor of that, but there is the power of local schools to consider too, and at best we'll see a graduate change. The universality of the English language is of course a hindrance too. You go abroad and are able to speak English to people and think why bother learning another language.

Q10. A recent newspaper article suggested Germany is actually more popular for foreign students who want to study in England than the UK itself. Do you think there is a danger of academic competition between the two countries, and could that be detrimental to their relationship?

Well I think competition is not necessarily a bad thing. - if universities are competing over the best students then why not? They are doing this with very different profiles. The British intake of foreign students might suffer from the recent change in the fee structure – they are paying more anyway, and non-EU students usually have to pay twice the fees of British or EU students. Still, because of English as the language and the name of some of the UK institutions, the pulling power of the UK has been greater and Germany has been lagging behind. The greater spread of English-language taught master programs and the change in fee structure may mean a slight change. I think it's a good thing if British and German universities will have to think about how they attract students and explain the advantages of their programs clearly and be transparent and explicit, and I think that helps.

Thank you very much for your time and insight.