Yesterday evening (30th March 2016) was the long-awaited Brexit event in Hamburg and – wow – what an evening!
It all started with the Berlin event, which Jon Worth organised. Brian Melican was on the panel during that event too, and the two of them thought it would be good to get something similar sorted in Hamburg. So I agreed to help, and booked the room and started asking around for people to speak. Louise Brown agreed straight away, which was a great relief – I'd already booked a BIG location and we needed a good moderator to help fill it! I asked Tina Stadlmayer (a journalist I know from the Kultwerk West team) if she had any ideas whom I could ask to tell us about UK-Germany relations – and she suggested Annette Dittert. I was pleasantly surprised when she agreed to take part as luckily she had time on just that evening.
So all of a sudden, we had the former UK foreign correspondent for ARD (who had also previously headed up the New York studio amongst others), a couple of authors with several books to their name (Louise and Brian) and Jon – a sensation in himself. I set up the Facebook event, put a note on this blog, and we all started spreading the word.
A good turnout
I was expecting 40 people to turn up at a push (my calculation was that half of the people who had signed up would show, and including Facebook and email signups that was 80). In the end we had exactly 70 people in attendance (including a journalist and photographer from Die Zeit.
I think the turnout reflects the interest that there is in the issue amongst expats and Germans, so it didn't take that much persuasion to get people to turn up – it was just a matter of making sure they found out about it. The collective network of the participants (especially Jon who initiated the concept, starting in Berlin) and the usual British institutions (e.g. the Honorary Consulate) seemed to have done the trick.
A great panel and fun atmosphere
The feedback I've had so far has all been positive, and I think a lot of this was to do with the great panel we managed to get together as well as the atmosphere.
We really wanted to have a nice informal atmosphere like the Berlin event. I think it was spot on, due to the combination of a trendy location (the Saal above Haus 73 in the Schanze), an audience that played along, and a great moderator in Louise Brown, who broke the ice immediately with a risqué joke.
Jon streamed the event on his phone, which you can see on his website.
In a show of hands at the end, 6 people were in favour of Brexit (i.e. the UK leaving the EU), there was a good number of abstentions, and the majority were in favour of remaining in the EU.
The jist of what was said
A lot was said (I think Jon had the most air time!) and to get it all, you'll have to look at the live stream on Jon's blog. But here are a couple of things the panellists said:
Jon Worth said that the “Remain” campaign unfortunately aren't campaigning in a very positive way but are rather half-hearted and at pains to stress that being in the EU is a way of securing the UK's national interest – preferably at the expense of the others. Even they see co-operation within the EU as a zero-sum game. He went as far as to say that he is in favour of Brexit because it would be better for the EU as a whole (!).
Annette Dittert said that the British people are deluding themselves about Brexit. She's definitely an Anglophile, living in her canal boat in central London half the week and as long as working for ARD in Hamburg allows. So I was almost surprised that she was very direct about how silly she thinks Brits are being by flirting with Brexit.
Brian Melican advised anyone who can to apply for German citizenship. Asked about whether it was an emotional wrench, he said that the way the UK is treating expats and – in the case of Brexit – very unemotional in cutting them loose doesn't warrant putting one's own personal interests on the line in pursuit of some loyalty to Queen and country.
People hung around afterwards to grab a drink. We were able to answer a few questions about applying for citizenship and speculate on what might happen if the UK does leave the EU – many people were deep in conversation.
I'm an optimist, at least as far as expats are concerned. My hope is that the UK won't leave at all, and if we do, that the UK will sign up to freedom of movement within the EU in return for free trade. I really hope it doesn't come to that though.
Doing this event has made me think about doing similar events more often (a couple of times per year maybe). I'd still have to work out a concept that is of interest to British people in Hamburg whilst radiating outwards so that they are of interest to non-Brits too. And I'd want to make sure I always have topics that are of equal interest and panels of a similar calibre so that enough people show up. I've done loads of events in the past and there's nothing more soul destroying than putting a whole lot of work into an event and only having 10 people turn up.