Prof. Nick Tolhurst (Professor of Corporate Social Responsibility, Steinbeis University Berlin; Germany)

29.04.2011 - Interview conducted by Freja Thies & Orla Colclough

Q1. Having led and engaged in discussions at the conference, where do you currently think the British-German relationship stands?

Well, it's hard to tell during Royal Wedding week, but it's very positive. I was actually a bit concerned with the recession and the dominance of German economically, but I think there's a respect in Britain about Germany's role in ensuring the Euro and the European monetary system and economy continues on an even keel.  If anything the problem from a British perspective, and especially the British media, is that we've transferred our scepticism to the peripheries of Europe and the Mediterranean countries. I would say British-German relations have never been stronger and hopefully this reflects well on Britain in that we're finally getting over the Second World War, but I think maybe it's more to do with Germany and perceptions of Germans.

Q2. As an expert in Corporate Social Responsibility, where do you think the European Union ranks in terms of its commitment to the spirit of law, ethical standards, and international laws?

Where do you start? There are serious problems internally regarding transparency as well as bureaucratic problems, as with any big organisation. The level of corruption is also something that is not acceptable. If you're looking at the EU in CSR terms, it has the highest level of regulation of any international trade area, and is driving it forward. In fact, it's driving forward the American regulation too, and American companies are following the EU standards of CSR and sustainability. In trade terms, product terms and economic terms, the EU has a very strong reputation, but internally it has a lot of work to do.

Q3. The EU is often cited as having a democratic deficit. Does it also have a responsibility deficit, in terms of failing to acknowledge its role in issues such as the Euro Crisis? And if so, has this contributed to poor opinion polls and the rise of the far-right in some member states?

Well that's a many-faceted question! The problem with the EU is it depends what we mean – the EU Commission and technical bodies are constrained by the inter-governmental nature of the Union, so they can only really behave in a way prescribed to them; having said that, as a body it's not that transparent, so this could be improved. Regarding the rise of right-wing parties, when there's social dislocation and an economic recession, there is always a rise in the popularity of the far right. People often forget that the levels of immigration in the EU are very high, comparable with the US even, which is held up as the big immigrations country. In fact on some levels, there are even more foreign-born people in Germany than in many states in America, something which is often forgotten. I think the question you implied is, can the EU do more to combat the rise of these right-wing parties? Implicitly, it could do more to improve the performance of the EU economy. In explicit terms, I think it has to be tougher with political parties form the centre in certain EU countries. For example in Austria it was a very mixed response when Heyder was in power, with tut-tutting from some countries and others deciding on sanctions. But if the EU has a common trade policy, why doesn't it have a common political culture policy, where it states that some policies and political displays are simply not acceptable and not European. Maybe we need a stronger European political culture where we say, up to a certain point and no more, this is not European. I would like to see that expression coming out. For example in Britain, we had a problem with  racist football hooligans following England, and the Football Association came up with this campaign of racism being non-English, which I think was very successful. I think what we need on a European level is to say that Europe is a collection of cultures and countries, and it's not just about paying lip-service to tolerance, it's about actively saying that racism and immigrant-bashing and certain political parties' actions are non-European.

Q4. Do you think individual member states of the EU, specifically the UK and Germany, are doing enough to encourage citizens to participate in the new European project?

Britain definitely isn't, that's easy to say. One clear example is that internships at the Commission and European bodies are over-subscribed massively by every country except for Britain, and many Brits don't even realise they're taking place which is a failure of universities and even schools. The massive decline in foreign language students too shows a lack of curiosity and a lack of interest in people who are in the same confederation as we are and live within a few hundred miles of us. It's more difficult to say with Germany – there's been a long tradition since World War Two to back European initiatives, so it's difficult to complain about Germany. I would like to see the whole of Europe move forward with initiatives like every child doing a semester in a European country before they leave school. A lot of German parents send their child to an American school for a year – why not within Europe? Or e-learning courses with students from other European countries. Even if it's not a semester you can do things organising school holidays or projects with different schools from other European countries. I think the most important thing is that we start at a young age.

Q5. To what extent do you believe that national pride might stop German and British civil society form reaching greater cultural understanding of one another?

That's a very difficult question to answer. I guess it depends on your understanding of national pride; I don't see there being any issue with having a sense of national pride and a European identity at the same time. For me, they're not mutually exclusive. If you mean maybe that national pride can be so strong that it crowds out everything else, I think that's a shame, and rather than trying to push down national pride we should be able to have different levels. So for example, if you can support Bayern München and support Germany, there's no reason why you can't be a really proud Brit and a really proud European at the same time.

Thank you very much for your time.