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Are We Going To Miss Those Hilariously Outrageous Brits? Yes, We Will! A Personal Note On The Imminent Brexit

27/02/2017 12:02 GMT | Updated 27/02/2017 12:02 GMT
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When pulling up at the Port of Hamburg in a banged-up Ferrari-red Subaru hatchback overloaded with books and household items only a German student would bother carrying across European borders, a distinguished-looking Hanseatic customs official had just three words for me: "yet another refugee?". What was I to say? I nodded in silence and carried on.

It was the Indian summer of 1995. I was headed toward Oxford or rather St Antony's College, the reputed 'spy college', where I was about to start post-graduate studies in Latin American politics.

Just one more guy among the many young Germans who were leaving the country - and likely have continued to leave since - in search of opportunities and better conditions to further their professional development. Perhaps also in search of a more interesting international environment, an English-speaking liberal environment, a weird environment packed with a mix of Radiohead, utilitarianism, Jude the Obscure and Sainsbury's on the ring road.

I never regretted taking that ferry that day to Harwich and setting up shop in Oxford, despite the huge issues the place has. The power and beauty - and hypocrisy, tipsiness and arrogance - of British elite education is both marvellous and awesome.

I don't think this type of higher education outfit can be found anywhere else in Europe or, indeed, anywhere else in the world (less so among the American Ivy League universities, however hard they are trying ...).

I am not sure whether it's good or bad, but it certainly is alive and kicking. And it's attractive, up to a point.

Oxford is the perfect combination of the powerful, artful and scientific, as well as the banal, classist and unbearable. It is the representation - for the most part cut in age-old Cotswold sandstone - of an exclusive (international) club that denies being just that. It is populated by proud 'dons', where elsewhere a 'don' is considered a mafia boss.

In my time, the rites of college life were still outright atavistic and thoroughly hierarchical. Where else would you find a 'high table' in what would be a simple cafeteria in most other universities and a 'senior common room' sitting just next to a 'junior' one?

This notwithstanding, the place is overall jovial, though tough - particularly when it comes to the distribution of the spoils, be they research funding or access to the many 'inner circles' and ('secret') societies that exist across Oxford's vibrant thirty-plus colleges.

Third World patronage and clientelistic systems pale in comparison. If there is one 'informal' higher education institution, it is Oxford.

Yet why not acknowledge that with Oxford and the likes, which today include a number of other 'unusual suspects' beyond Oxbridge, Britain has institutionalized the art of running university education in a peculiar, rather informal way. And that this system might not be entirely detrimental to furthering the productive exchange between cultures and peoples from across the globe.

I may be biased, after all I hold an Oxon D.Phil. in politics, but I actually do think that this is not an altogether bad thing.

Brexit means that young Europeans will lose preferential access to this mythical and strange world across the English Channel. And intelligent pro-European British youngsters will not be able to take advantage as much as they - and we - would like of studying and working across continental Europe.

Among the former is my daughter Sophia, who's three years old now and who was born in in the Princess Royal in Haywards Heath. She holds a German passport. It's hard to imagine that we, the erstwhile continental 'refugees', will be replaced by new waves of adventurers, at least not in the same numbers. And that is a loss, nothing but a loss, for both the European Union and the United Kingdom.

We are going to miss those extravagant Brits and their eccentric customs and educational setups. They have given Europe and the West a lot. Now a scant majority of them - not the young ones - seem to be bent on seeking isolation. But it's not going to be a 'splendid isolation'.

What to do? Well, grab the devil by the tail and negotiate the hell out of London in the Brexit talks, but keep them engaged. After a while, nobody will know where anyone is standing anyway. It's just too complex. The European Union was not made to be left.

This is not the time to let Britain off the hook entirely. Actually, it never would be. We are too close and there are too many bushfires raging in this world, be it across the pond in America or in so many other places - think Russia, Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Kenya etc. etc.

Europe needs Britain and Britain needs Europe - in all sorts of hilariously outrageous ways, by the looks of it.