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A Postcard From Schleswig-Holstein

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 5.23.28 PMKiel, Germany — The Kieler Woche is a huge weeklong festival of art, music, culture, theater, and maritime recreational events, held on the western shore of a fjord, in the state of Schleswig-Holstein, that opens to the Baltic. (One tends to think of Germany as being mostly surrounded by land boundaries, but up here it has both an east coast and a west coast, from sea to shining sea.)

My room on the waterfront has a panoramic view of yacht races, processions of tall-masted “windjammer” sailing ships, a constant scattering of kayaks, skiffs, and speedboats, and the daily arrivals and departures of cruise liners and Scandinavian car ferries. (I saved a fellow American from linguistic puzzlement. He was asking hotel staff: “How can I get to the … umm … I don’t know how to say it: F, J, O, R, D?” They were baffled. “It’s fjord,” I interjected, pronouncing for him the most famous Norwegian loanword in English, “and you don’t need directions. All of the blue expanse down there is the fjord.” He was delighted; his quest was over.)

I’m here in Kiel to give an invited public lecture about the English language as part of Kieler Woche, and as usual I am enjoying Germany a lot. I come here often, and the smooth integration of the European Union makes it very easy in many ways. So it worries me that as this post is put up on The Chronicle’s site, the electorate in Britain, after a campaign of mendacity and reptile analogies, will be voting on a proposition that could see the United Kingdom quitting the EU.

The island of Great Britain was settled from Europe multiple times over the past 800,000 years, though the settlers repeatedly failed to make a go of it and died out. Even the Romans gave up on Britain. The Celts were the first settlers tough enough to establish themselves in the islands’ recorded history, and then from the fifth century AD the ultimately dominant population, from this very region of northwest Europe, began to pour in. Viking invaders from Denmark subsequently conquered the northern part of Great Britain in the ninth century but were eventually defeated. Then the Normans (Viking descendants living in northern France) conquered the country in 1066. Since that time there have been hundreds of much smaller and less significant waves of immigrants. Today half the country seems terrified that it is getting out of hand.

My postal vote (and I won’t be shy about it: I voted in favor of remaining) was submitted weeks ago. None of the arguments for leaving make any sense at all. A chance to leave the shackles of Brussels and free up trade with the world? Bunk. The EU is way ahead in negotiating trade deals, and leaving will kick Britain to (as Barack Obama put it) the back of the queue. Money? Britain contributes to the EU budget in accord with its size, deducts a fat discount called the “rebate,” and receives plenty of EU subsidies and grants in return. If Britain left the EU, it would save some money; but even a very small detrimental effect on the economy would wipe out the savings — and all economic experts think there will be such a negative effect.

Immigration is supposed to be the biggest issue for those who favor exiting the EU. The Brexiteers cry that Britain needs to be able to control its borders. But it already does: Britain is not in the Schengen Area: You need to show your passport to get in, and you can be turned away. Immigration from the EU countries has in any case been mostly beneficial (the immigrants are younger and healthier on average than the vastly larger British population on average). And mere cessation of paying dues to the EU will not stop boatloads of Albanians crossing the English Channel in inflatable launches, or desperate Eritrean migrants clinging to the underside of trucks trying to get to Dover, or Syrian refugees begging for asylum, because Albania, Eritrea, and Syria are not in the EU. The desperate struggles of people from such countries to get to Britain certainly constitute a crisis, but not a reason for quitting the EU. Yet the leave campaigners constantly muddy that distinction.

There are other arguments, just as fatuous. Nothing with any credibility favors pulling out of the EU.

And I don’t want to find in a few years that I need a visa or a work permit to accept lecture invitations from Germany or Spain or France or any of the other EU countries in which I work, just because a few right-wing Conservatives see political advantages obtainable through encouraging the fears of millions of embittered, suspicious opponents of immigration.

Brexit fans laugh at such talk, but I think the EU, a voluntary assemblage of 28 independent countries trying to establish peace and eliminate borders and harmonize regulations, is a brave and noble experiment in morals, politics, and economics. I’m not going to cast my vote to abandon it, and I’ll be very sad if I wake up on Friday morning to find that the people of Britain have voted thus.

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