Around 40 alumni from gathered in Clare College, Cambridge, for this year’s Young Königswinter alumni conference focused on the theme of “Brexit”. You can find the programme and participants list here.
The conference kicked off with welcome drinks and dinner with Peter Ammon, Germany’s Ambassador to the UK, as the guest of honour. In his after dinner speech, the Ambassador opened with a question: was there a lesson we Young Königswinter alumni could learn from an old Königswinter hand like him? It turned out there was – the unpredictability of world events. Expectations after the fall of the Berlin wall that the “End of History” would lead to a flourishing of democracy and the spread of the market economy across the globe had not been met. Neither had fears about “peak oil” or a global population explosion come true. Tectonic shifts meant that the EU, “this great visionary project” was now in “dire straits”. The rise of populism could be seen across the EU, especially in Britain with a referendum on membership planned for the following year. The Ambassador pointed out that people were losing trust in the “fundamental bargain” that was at the core of the EU: “the exchange of national sovereignty against trusted solidarity across borders”.
The implications of this British referendum for the EU and for foreign policy more broadly were immense. What was particularly worrying was that the Brexit debate was far down the list of crises in Europe behind the influx of refugees, problems in the eurozone as well as conflicts in Ukraine and Syria. There needed to be a focussing of minds on the British question as a Brexit would be a “mortal blow” to the whole project of a “stable, prosperous and democratic Europe”. The Ambassador ended with the sincere hope that the Young Königswinter alumni would be a force in rekindling the European spirit in both the UK and Germany.
The following day was structured around three panel discussions. The first was on “Brexit and the Finance sector”. Many participants were surprised to hear that the City of London was not solidly in favour of EU membership. The dividing line could be seen between the big banks, who were resolutely in favour of remaining, and the hedge funds and private equity tycoons, who were using their considerable personal wealth to push for Brexit and free themselves from regulation. The City was also one of the “four baskets” where the UK government was seeking assurances from its European partners, so that the eurozone members could not caucus and collectively impose decisions on the UK. A recent example of that was an old bailout fund that had been resurrected without the knowledge of the euro-outs, to provide emergency bridge financing for Greece.
The second panel discussed “Grexit to Brexit: Europe at its crossroads – ever closer union or the beginning of the end?” Participants were able to benefit from the wealth of experience from the panellists who pointed out that British disengagement from Europe was a post-war phenomenon. For hundreds of years before that, Britain had been heavily involved in the creation of European states and as the diplomatic force behind multiple treaties and conventions. The more recent story of Britain’s accession to the European Economic Community was laid out and participants heard from one panellist who was able to bring alive their personal experience of campaigning and voting in the previous British referendum on membership of the EU in 1975.
The final panel looked at “Brexit and its impact on business”. Here the emphasis on trade between the UK and Germany was emphasised. The car industry in the UK had experienced a renaissance on the back of significant investment from German and non-European car manufacturers. The UK now played a vital role in supplying engines built in the UK for export to Germany for final assembly, and was the second largest exporter of cars in the EU. Would these investments survive a Brexit? That would depend on the post-exit trade arrangement, but it was clear that access to the single market had driven a substantial amount of foreign direct investment (FDI) in the UK. That was also true for investment in financial services with companies like Deutsche Bank publicly stating that they might have to move some operations out of the UK in the event of an exit. Brexit would cause huge uncertainties for business and big business may simply vote with their feet. Stimulated by the day’s wide-reaching panel discussions conversations between British and German participants continued over dinner, held in the hall at Clare College and late into the evening after retiring to a local pub.
On Saturday the Alumni worked on both future perspectives of the Alumni association and ideas to avoid Brexit. The state of play of the current working load and ongoing activities was given by the board. Further Discussions were led in two working groups: one developed ideas and an outline for a campaign against Brexit. The Working group was chaired by Hendrik Hagemann. The second working group discussed how to improve the working flow and streams within the Alumni network in due course with the centralised association in Berlin its satellites in Brussels, London and elsewhere. The results were documented and are dealt with in 2016.
Most important Alumni agreed on the following:
- YKWA will contribute to the debate and foster decentralised activities and campaigns to avoid Brexit
- Alumni conferences should take place every year, maybe split in one bigger conference (up to 50 participants and three days) every two years and one smaller in between (up to 30 participants and only two days)
- YKWA will set up a Get-Together on a regular basis (every three month)
- Communication among alumni will be made more efficient and simplified by using newsletters, mailings and social media (Facebook, Twitter, What App etc.)
- Alumni agreed on supporting the board in organizing the Alumni conferences
- YKWA will charge no member fees but is considering higher and flexible charges for attending conferences due to private of professional compensation options
- For 2016 an Alumni conference will be scheduled hosted and organized by Alumni in Frankfurt