Get more young Brits to Germany: Ambassador
Tom Barfield · 1 Oct 2015, 17:39
Published: 01 Oct 2015 17:39 GMT+02:00
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"I hope that during my period in post, more and more young people from Great Britain will come here to Germany, so as to better understand Germany," Sir Sebastian told The Local and German journalists at his first press conference in the modernist British Embassy building near to the Brandenburg Gate.
He's particularly happy that his own four university-age children will be able to visit him in Berlin – "the coolest city in the world".
There's certainly room for improvement in this field, as Germany sent more than twice as many students to Britain as Britain did to Germany – 4,428 compared with 2,112 – under the EU's Erasmus exchange programme in 2012-13.
Although a stroll around Berlin's hip Neukölln district will convince just about anyone there are more Brits than that in the capital alone, there's definitely still room for improvement when it comes to understanding between the two countries.
Close cultural relations
"I had the strange feeling that I was, so to speak, coming home," Sir Sebastian said of his move to Berlin from his previous position as the British Ambassador to Beijing.
'"I think it's got something to do with the fact that the cultural relations between us are so close. I myself was named Sebastian after the composer Johann Sebastian Bach, who was my father's favourite composer."
But since the Ambassador's birth and the bequeathing of the great German musician's name – some 54 years ago – things have developed for the better, he believes.
The British Embassy in Berlin was opened by the Queen in 2000. Photo: DPA
"I have the impression that in the past five years, people in Great Britain have a more complete picture of Germany," he said.
Neil MacGregor, the man behind 2014's exhibition "Germany: Memories of a Nation" at the British Museum, is expected in Berlin soon to head up the Humboldt Forum – the reconstruction of an imperial Prussian palace. His place at the British Museum will be taken by Hartwig Fischer, a German and the first foreigner to run the institution in almost 150 years.
Sir Sebastian argues that connections like those, even more than trade and politics, are what really enable countries to understand one another.
Britain and the EU
Although there's plenty of work to be getting on with between the UK and Germany – from foreign-policy crises in the Middle East and Ukraine – Sir Sebastian's biggest job will be to bring Chancellor Angela Merkel and her government onside in the battle to keep Britain in the EU.
Having promised a referendum on UK membership of the Union by the end of 2017, Prime Minister David Cameron has committed to extracting promises of reform out of other EU members to address British people's gripes about Brussels – and he'll need to deliver something to give a "Yes" vote a fighting chance.
The Ambassador pointed to four areas he'll be focusing on: economic competitiveness, fairness between countries with and without the euro, the balance of power between national parliaments and Brussels, and migration within the EU.
"There is misunderstanding about the British position" in other EU countries, especially regarding internal migration, he said.
"We don't reject the important principle of freedom of movement for people. But it's important that it should be personal freedom to move so as to work," Wood continued.
"It's very important that we make it clear that this is not possible in the EU to immigrate into another country simply to gain social benefits. Otherwise this political problem will become bigger and bigger."
Immigration was already a much bigger political problem in Britain than Germany, Sir Sebastian said, because of the UK's growing population compared with Germany's shrinking one.
"In the last five years, the population of the UK grew by 2.3 million," he pointed out. "That's a lot."
Cameron has been assiduously wooing Merkel for many months, hoping that she will be a key ally in getting the reforms he needs out of other EU countries to sell continued membership to people at home.
But "we are not exclusively holding a dialogue with Germany," Sir Sebastian said.