The German MEP fighting to keep Britain in the EU

BY Maggie Pagano   /  22 November 2017

Hans Olaf Henkel is the Brexiteers’ new best friend. The German MEP says Brussels is punishing Britain for the EU’s own failures, and that negotiators are insulting the UK by demanding a big upfront payment before agreeing a trade deal.

But all is not as it seems. For Henkel, former chief executive of IBM and ex president of the Federation of German Industry, the BDI, Germany’s CBI, is a Remainer. He’s such a big Remainer that he wants Brussels to come up with a deal that keeps Britain on side, and in the EU.

Speaking to Mr Henkel in Brussels last night, he told me that the blame for the UK deciding to quit the EU rests squarely with the EU. “David Cameron was right to ask for controls on immigration. The problem is that he was ahead of his time… Now the entire mood has changed. Its not just Poland and Hungary that want controls on immigration, but nearly every other EU country.”

In fact, Henkel is so incensed with the way Brexit negotiations are developing that he has launched a new lobbying group to persuade Brussels to give Britain a deal so that it stays in the European Union.

Together with two other former BDI presidents, Heinrich Weiss and Michael Rogowski, he has launched a campaign – a New Deal for Britain – to persuade Brussels and Berlin that the EU should offer more to the UK.

“Concessions should be offered on immigration allowing the UK control over its own immigration policy,” he says. “That way we can persuade Brussels and London to find a deal that allows the UK to decide not to leave the EU. That is what we hope to achieve; its a battle for Britain.”

Henkel had been in London earlier in the day attending the Deal or No Deal conference organised by David Campbell Bannerman, a Conservative MEP, and attended by the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, the Minister for International Trade, Greg Hands, and former Brexit Minister, David Jones, as well as Norway’s Helle Hagenau, the head of the ‘Nei Til EU’ Norwegian group.

Henkel’s presence at the conference will have been a doubled-edged sword for the more Brexit of the Brexiteers: they will have liked listening to a leading German businessmen agree with them in their criticism of Brussels, but not perhaps his long-term prognosis, which is to find a deal that keeps Britain on side.

And the reason he is such a Remainer? He says that if the EU loses Britain as a member, the trading bloc will be losing its most important ally in the fight for competitiveness and reform. “There is not a single German I know who wants the UK to leave. Leaving is crazy: bad for Britain and bad for Europe. We want a deal that allows the UK government – and the public – to call off Brexit.”

Henkel is also a huge critic of the road map for negotiations laid down by Brussels. “I don’t understand why the UK accepted this road map. “You never start negotiations with the price before you know what it is going to be involved. Britain should never have accepted these terms from Brussels. Why did you?”

“Britain is not Uganda, the EU knows that the UK would honour any obligations and commitments made during talks. Nor has an agreement over a border, such as that between Northern Ireland and Ireland, ever been made without knowing what the trade deal would be first. This is stupid.”

Even if Brexit does go ahead, he hopes that Brussels and London will be able to stay close to EU institutions such as Euratom, the nuclear regulator.

More pertinently, Henkel says Michel Barnier, lead negotiator in the current talks between the UK and Brussels, is being so intransigent because it’s the only way the bureaucrats know how to save the euro project. “Michel Barnier is typical of the French bureaucrat turned politician. Don’t get me wrong, I love France and the French, and have second residence there. But the French elite has never accepted the UK being a member of the EU, and I tell you they are happy that the UK is going. The French politicians and officials are the ones who are most determined that the UK has to be punished to stop other countries from leaving.”

Guy Verhofstadt also gets it in the gullet. Henkel says he is also responsible in “no small part for the disaster of Brexit” and wants to punish the British, full stop,” The reason is simple. They would seek to make sure that Brexit is such a catastrophe that no country dares to take the step of leaving the EU again.

After a lifetime in business and then as head of the German BDI, Henkel has only been a politician for three years: “It’s not something I would recommend if you have an alternative, certainly not at my age [77]”.  He was one of the founders of Germany’s Afd, the right-wing populist and anti-immigration party which came third place in the recent elections , but left the party “because it became too racist.”

On the centre-right, Henkel is a member of the Liberal Conservative Reformers, and is deputy chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists – the same grouping as Conservative MEPs and deputy head of the European parliament’s industry, research and energy committee.

He is opposed to further integration – fiscal and political – of the EU, and went into politics because he was so worried about the pace of change.

Indeed, Brexit and the EU’s current troubles are all blamed on the euro, for three reasons. First, he says the European Commission had to give up competition between countries to achieve harmonisation, which was not the original idea behind the EU. Second, to save the euro the EU laid down new rules to protect taxpayers from banking failures in 2014, after member states used almost two trillion euros to prop up lenders during the crisis. Third, another ruling, forbidding taxpayers’ money being used to rescue lenders without investors also taking a hit, means that the losses are being socialised.

“I’m afraid they will continue to do everything to save the euro because they either stick to the rules and the euro is dead, and that it’s obvious they made a mistake, or they continue to violate all of the rules so nobody will find out they’ve made a mistake.” Quite. After the euro, he blames the free movement of people and immigration. “After Farage and others were raising this issue, the public had the final proof when they saw Angela Merkel open the floodgates. It was the final proof – not just for the UK but all of the EU – that they had no control.”

Which takes us to Angela Merkel’s own precarious position. How does he see Germany’s current political turbulence panning out? “There are only three options: Merkel leads a minority coalition, there is a grand coalition or new elections. The decision is up to the president.”

But what would he like to see ?

“New elections.”