Photgraph of German Reichstag with Norman Foster dome
Auf wiedersehen to Anglo-German cooperation? German Reichstag with Norman Foster dome. Photo ©

Creative Commons, adapted from the original.

February 2018

The ties between Britain and Germany have been close for many years. The two nations are linked by strong bonds of culture and friendship. But what will these connections look like after Brexit? Rachel Launay, British Council Country Director, Germany, looks at the future of the Anglo-German relationship.

Crossing Points

The new British Council collection of essays, ‘Crossing Points’, has been written by eight authors for the ‘UK/Germany 2018’ season: a year-long programme exploring and celebrating cultural connections between the two countries. The book highlights a range of connections between the UK and Germany that weave us together in multiple ways including literature, science, language, study, politics, and simple, old-fashioned friendships. However, they only represent a fraction of the vast sweep of crossing points that characterise the histories and developments of our two countries. 

The timing of this publication is of huge importance, as the two countries launch a joint season of art and culture, ‘UK/Germany 2018’, at a moment that they face the loss of one of the most significant crossing points: the European Union. The EU has provided a means of exchange and interaction between the UK and Europe for the last 44 years. What impact is Brexit likely to have on the vital Anglo-German bi-lateral relationship? From trade and business to arts and science and education and research, the existing connections between the two countries are rich and manifold. The British Council commissioned Ipsos MORI to conduct a major comparative survey of the attitudes of young people across the G20 before and after the 2016 EU referendum. The results from Germany and the UK provide a rich and fascinating picture of the state and likely future of the Anglo-German rapport, including plenty of reasons to be cheerful.

Bound by culture, values, and mutual attraction 

First the bad news. The result of the EU referendum has undoubtedly had an impact in Germany, where it has formed a major topic of debate. There has been a sharp fall of 10 percentage points in the trust young Germans feel toward the UK government (from 49% - 39%), compared, for example, to 62% levels of trust in the Canadian government. The proportion of those asked saying that the UK Government does not work constructively with other governments rose from 23% - 35%. There was also a worrying decline in the proportion of Germans agreeing that the UK values diversity or tolerance or that British people are open and welcoming. 

The UK was the most attractive G20 European country to young Germans, who particularly cited British people’s politeness, friendliness and cultural quirkiness (although for some reason also felt that we drink too much…)

However, there has not been a similar effect on attitudes towards British institutions or - most importantly - towards the UK or the British people themselves. The UK was the most attractive G20 European country to young Germans, who particularly cited British people’s politeness, friendliness and cultural quirkiness (although for some reason also felt that we drink too much…) and Germany remains attractive to young British people, with the German people, institutions and government trusted more than those of any other G20 European country. 

Indeed, it is striking the degree to which young people in both countries continue to find each other attractive. The figures are similar, with roughly two thirds of young Germans continuing to find the UK attractive overall and a third of them choosing the UK as one of the three most attractive G20 countries for people who can be trusted and for making personal contacts and friendships. Similar proportions of young British people said the same about trusting people from Germany. Such trust and attraction has important implications for tourism and trade. As such it is perhaps then less surprising that, after the referendum result, there was a rise in the number of young Germans finding the UK an attractive tourism destination, and no statistically significant decline in intention to do business or trade with the UK. 

Image of football shirt with Germany and UK flags
On the same team: Britain & Germany. Photo ©

Rob Durkin & adapted from the original.

The UK and Germany regularly top international polls of attractiveness, with people drawn to their rich and influential cultures and the many things each country has to offer. In the case of the UK, its education, arts and culture are attractive to Germans. 

For example, the UK was the second most popular potential study destination for German young people (after the US), with 69% agreeing that the UK has world leading universities and academic research. Indeed, this is borne out in practice: students from Germany make up the 4th highest number of international students after the US, China and India. There are also 32,000 non-British EU academics in the UK universities sector and of these 5,200 are Germans. Perhaps because of the language barrier, this attraction was not fully reciprocated by the UK, with Germany coming joint fourth as a potential study destination for British students. It is unfortunate that, at a time when our survey revealed that 98% of young Germans claim to speak at least some English, only 8% of young Brits can speak conversational German – and this year there was a further decline in the number studying German at school. 

In terms of culture, the attraction between the two countries is mutual and has not been effected by Brexit. Indeed, the proportion of Germans reporting that they intended to experience more British culture in the future rose from 15% - 19% after the referendum

In terms of culture, however, the attraction between the two countries is mutual and has not been effected by Brexit. Indeed, the proportion of Germans reporting that they intended to experience more British culture in the future rose from 15% - 19% after the referendum. Fully two thirds of them said that the UK has world leading arts and cultural attractions. In 2018, the British Council is organising, with its partners, a major UK-Germany Season. Such initiatives will hopefully play an important role in continuing to celebrate and strengthen the cultural and personal ties between the two countries.

A final important point of close contact between Germany and the UK, which is further borne out by the survey results, is the degree to which the values and interests of the two countries are shared. Brexit will do little to change this. Terrorism and migration were the top two concerns in Germany (with 60% worried about migration – likely a reaction to the large influx of migrants from Syria and elsewhere welcomed to Germany in 2016 and reflected in the results of 2017’s German national elections). In the UK terrorism was also top, followed by poverty and then migration third, with 45% worried about it. The values that those surveyed professed were also strikingly similar. In both countries, equality and diversity were cited as the most important values by those surveyed. All this suggests that, at the level of ordinary people as well as in areas of politics, international relations, business and trade, the two countries remain closely aligned.

It is therefore both in the interests of and in accordance with the wishes of the peoples of both countries that we continue to work closely together and to find ways to engage with each other and help each other to prosper. As these results have reminded us – regardless of Brexit - we are bound together by culture, values, and mutual attraction. We should be sure to remember this as we face the future together in what is hoped will continue to be a spirit of close friendship. Despite the political wrangling and uncertainty, long may the deep connections through art, culture and education continue; and long may the crossing points be busy with conversation, exchange, dialogue and debate that lead to learning, understanding and friendship. 

Rachel Launay, British Council Country Director Germany 

Alasdair Donaldson, Insight Editor, British Council

See also