Hans-Olaf Henkel, MEP, ECR:
We should try everything possible to avoid Brexit
Our opinion is that as soon as the EU offers more autonomy over its control of immigration to Britain, the mood in the UK on leaving could drastically change
Maria Koleva, Brussels
8 March, 2018
Close-up: Hans-Olaf Henkel is a German politician and professor, member of the European Parliament since 2014. He is a vice-chair of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group at the EP. Mr Henkel is also vice-chair of the EP Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, member of the Subcommittee on Human Rights and substitute in the Delegation for relations with the People's Republic of China. Until 2013, Henkel was a member of the Supervisory Board of Bayer AG, DaimlerChrysler Aerospace, Ringier AG, among others. Prior, he was president of the Federation of German Industries, president of the Leibniz Association, a board member of the German family association. Before that, 34 years he worked for IBM. Between 2001 and 2013, he lectured as professor of International Management at the University of Mannheim.- Mr Henkel, why did you name the draft withdrawal agreement proposed by the Commission “a declaration of war on European industry”?- To me it is very obvious that Mr Barnier, the European Commission's Chief Negotiator, wants the British to leave the EU. And he wants to punish Britain to make sure that no other country gets the same idea as Britain. What is totally ignored on the continent, both by the politicians and the media, is the fact that Brexit is very detrimental for the EU, not only for the UK, especially for the European industry. Because Britain is the second largest economy and when leaving the EU it will become the largest customer of the EU. I think it is in the interest of European industry to treat this potential customer in another way, not like Mr Barnier does.- A group of eminent business people and professors from Germany, including yourself, is somehow convinced that Brexit can be averted. For what new deal for Britain and better future for Europe does this group insist?- We are not convinced that Brexit can be averted, but we are convinced that we should try everything possible to avoid it. We are realists. Most of them are very successful business people and they are not really known for dreaming, but Brexit has such detrimental effect on the European industries that it's worth trying to elude it. And we are very worried because not only the British industry will suffer from Brexit, but also the European industry will suffer from Brexit. The growth of British industry has already been slowed down. Britain used to be at the top of the G7, now they are at the bottom, and losing the biggest customer is certainly a very huge disadvantage of Brexit. That's why we should try everything to avoid it, but at the moment the chances to avoid it are not very good. We would like to present something which the EU and especially Chancellor Merkel refused to give David Cameron before the referendum. We want the EU to offer Britain more autonomy over its control of immigration. Meanwhile, we have all discovered that after the referendum more countries want the same. It is certainly in the interest of Poland and Hungary, I believe also of Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, or Denmark and the Netherlands, that they do not necessarily have to take into their country everybody who is leaving for instance Germany. Our opinion is that as soon as the EU offers this autonomy to Britain, the mood in the UK on Brexit could drastically change. Because the British could say they finally got what they wanted without the disadvantages of Brexit. We want Britain to stay in the EU, in the common market, in the Customs Union. In order to achieve this, the EU has to make some concessions on Britain's ability to control its own immigration. It's as simple as that.- Britain leaving is the same as 19 countries of smaller and medium size leaving the EU, you said recently. Isn't such an assertion a bit of an exaggeration?- Not at all, because the economic weight of Britain is equal to the economic weight of 19 medium-sized and small countries in the EU. We use this expression to demonstrate how drastic the effect on the European industry will be if Britain leaves. The common market is the biggest achievement of the European Union and we should protect and complete it. But, by Britain's departure, the common market is not worth as much as it was before. So the people might think: “Only one country leaves, so what!” No, this is a big country, as big as 19 small and medium-sized countries in the EU. Brussels is always celebrating a new country entering the EU and demonstrating that it is a great success and a proof of the attractiveness of the EU, and when one big country leaves they don't make any attempt to have it remain in the EU. I think that is a big mistake.- But many politicians in Brussels stated that the door for the UK is open. Aren't some commentators right when claiming that Britain itself closed the door?- I've talked to President Juncker about our proposal, and he told me that he is regretting Britain is leaving, and that he believes that it is a catastrophe for Europe. I asked him whether he considered the fact that Britain leaves while he was a president as a personal defeat, he said “Yes!” On the next day after our conversation, he stated in Strasbourg that he wants to leave the door open to Britain. But I think it is not enough to say this, he must do something to push the door widely open. It is true that the British decided to leave, but let's not forget the reasons why Britain changed its mind. Britain joined a football club, and the management of the football club in Brussels decided to play golf. And I just wonder who has really left whom? Britain joined the EU under the assumption that this would be going towards a Europe of sovereign nations, and Brussels is now trying to make a “United States of Europe” out of it, and this is not in the interest of the European public. If the game was not changed by Brussels, Britain would still be in the EU. Let's forget the centralisation and abandon the idea of the “United States of Europe”, and let Brussels do only those things which we are sure it does better than each country.- Can you elaborate a little bit on your statement that with Brexit Europe loses the last country with common sense?- I am in the European Parliament since three and a half years, have never been in politics before, and I noticed that it is always the British who are advocating subsidiarity rather than centralisation, who focus on the competitiveness of the EU rather than on harmonisation, of freedom rather than of socialism. Britain believes more in a free society, with as little state intervention as possible, different to any other European nation. That's why I think the real strategic problem of Brexit has not really been fully understood by the remaining 27 countries. Without Britain, the EU will not be the same anymore. It will be a region where everybody is trying to equalise everything, harmonise everything, risks are being socialised. In other words, the EU is bound to lose over a strategic period its competitiveness as compared to Britain, to the US, to China or East Asia. Without Britain, the EU loses a very strong ally for competitiveness. And this is no good news for the industry of the rest of 27 countries.- A week ago, an ECR conference at the EP voiced concerns over the media manipulations and spreading of fake news. How exactly the fake news phenomenon affected your own political project?- Fake news is not a new phenomenon, however, new is that we are getting sensitive to it, which is a very good development. I think that the initiative of my colleague, Bulgarian MEP Nikolay Barekov, to organise the conference at the EP was very useful, indeed, because there is a clear relation between fake news, media freedom and corruption. I was one of those persons who supported and even financed the AfD in Germany in its early days. When we started the party we had only one subject - to fight the euro. The party was founded predominantly by intellectuals, by professors, business people. But very soon our political competitors realised that they have no real strategies against our arguments. Then they did one thing which is typical in Germany: if you want to destroy a political opponent, you just have to tell the public that it is a right-wing, extremist or racist organisation. Nothing of our party programme at that time had anything to do with that, but the media as well as the political opposition immediately labelled us as right-wing, racist and whatever. And we realised too late that then a lot of right-wing people started to believe what the media told them about us and started to join it. And once we found out, we reacted too late. Anyway, one of the major factors for the AfD to become racist, nationalistic and unacceptable, was the spread of fake news by our political opponents and the media. So the image we are given by the media and by the political opponents finally resulted in the party itself becoming what these media said we are, but we never were. This is one example how fake news can result in totally different reality, unfortunately not a good one. We were seven MEPs from this party, and in the middle of 2015 I left together with four colleagues. That time 6,000 other people left the party. In the meantime, a lot of people joined the party exactly because we, the liberal-conservatives left it.- You were president of the Federation of German Industries and other associations in Germany. What, according to you, are the consequences of the false information for the business world?- It goes in two ways. Sometimes, it is the business world itself which creates fake news. Like VW when they pretended that some of their cars would meet the emission standards, but they wouldn't. At the end, the business of course suffered by this fake news, which they themselves created. On the other hand, we also have incidents where NGOs, Greenpeace, or other groups which ride ideological hobby horses, people creating fake news on products, technologies or companies. I will give you an example with the diesel engine. If it is constructed correctly, it is still a wonderful technology to combat CO2 emissions. But because of wrong doing of few companies, especially VW, the diesel engine itself got a very bad image. This is totally unjustified, because it is clearly the best technology utilising a scarce resource better than any other technology. There are many cases of fake news that have destroyed different businesses. Years ago, there was an allegation that one German noodle company was using old eggs. It turned out to be totally wrong, but the consumers boycotted this company. Or take the idea that the chlorine chicken from the US should be forbidden in Europe because it creates health problems. This is rubbish, there is not a single person to have ever gotten sick in the US because of the way chicken are treated by chlorine in the US. In fact, getting into an average swimming pool exposes us to more chlorine than you can ever get eating US chicken. But the Greens have the ideology that they should ban it. Or the use of GMO technologies to develop new products or medicines. As a vice-chair of EP Industry Committee, I constantly face with this kind of ideological prejudices in the Parliament.- Bulgaria is preparing to apply for ERM-2 in the next months. How, in your view, adopting the euro in the years to come can affect the country's economy?- If I was Bulgarian I would never do this. The euro has been a disaster, it is much too strong for Greece and much too weak for Germany. If you look at the results in the last 15 years, and compare the economic growth of the non-euro countries in the EU with the Eurozone, you will have to come to a conclusion that you should not join the euro. That is why Denmark, the UK, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Poland have not joined it. I think it would be a big mistake for the Bulgarian politicians to join the euro. I wonder whether you are interested in subsidising the very high pensions of Greek government servants. I am sure that it is not in the interest of Bulgarian people.