Even at events where the Champagne flows freely, the mood in the German capital is subdued these days.
On Tuesday I attended one of these glamorous Berlin functions, at which our Chancellor Angela Merkel was awarded the American Academy’s Henry Kissinger Prize for her contribution to transatlantic relations.
Merkel was lauded for her ‘steadfast’ leadership, which had provided ‘thoughtful, decent and long government’.
But all that praise could not disguise the profound sense of apprehension that hung in the air.
Angela Merkel was awarded the American Academy’s Henry Kissinger Prize for her contribution to transatlantic relations on Tuesday
In Germany, fears are growing that the ship of Europe is sailing troubled waters. Soon it could be dashed on the rocks.
Why the anxiety? The looming impact of Brexit, as politicians and policy-makers across the continent begin to recognise that Britain’s departure represents a daunting challenge to the European project.
At times it feels like cocktail hour aboard the Titanic, with the iceberg looming on the horizon.
It wasn’t meant to be like this.
For years, EU leaders have insisted that Brexit would be a disaster for Britain, leaving your country hopelessly isolated.
According to the relentless propaganda of the pro-EU cause, Europe would forge ahead on the global stage, ever more united, while the UK would slide into insularity and decline.
But that narrative is starting to look like a delusion.
Headed by a strong government and sustained by a dynamic economy, it is Britain that can look forward to the future with confidence, while the EU and its member states remain trapped in bureaucratic sclerosis, obsessed with regulation and welfare when much of the rest of the world is embracing commercial freedom.
The Government’s Brexit Bill has finally completed its passage through Westminster, despite some last-ditch and futile skirmishing by Remainers in the House of Lords
This week, your Government’s Brexit Bill finally completed its passage through Westminster, despite some last-ditch and futile skirmishing by Remainers in the House of Lords.
After all the long years of Parliamentary stalemate, Britain’s withdrawal from the EU will become a reality next week.
The alarmists of Project Fear predicted that this moment would be the cue for economic meltdown, yet just the opposite is happening. Britain seems ready to prosper.
Only on Thursday, an authoritative study by the Confederation of British Industry reported the biggest surge in confidence on record among manufacturers, with companies planning to ramp- up investment.
The CBI’s report followed news earlier in the week of yet another fall in unemployment as the British jobs miracle continues.
The jobless rate in the UK is at its lowest since 1974, while employment, at 33 million, is at its highest-ever level.
Particularly striking is the dramatic growth in self-employment to more than five million, a sure indicator of an enterprising economy.
The welcome jobs news comes against a backdrop of a rising pound, widely available affordable credit, a resurgence in the property market and a significant fall in Government borrowing.
Britain looks like it can manage well without the EU. But can the EU manage without Britain?
Your economy is bigger than the 18 smallest EU countries combined. This means in economic terms that the EU will lose not just one member state — but shrink from 28 members to ten.
On a purely fiscal level, the loss of Britain’s contribution will have huge implications for the EU’s budget.
And, on much a deeper level, Europe will also badly feel the loss of the Anglo-Saxon, pro-market business model, when so many EU governments are addicted to a quasi-socialist, big-state, heavily interventionist approach.
In Boris Johnson, you have a charismatic, election-winning Prime Minister who has forced through Brexit partly thanks to the sheer force of his personality and his ability to outmanoeuvre his opponents
It is telling that, in this age of online technology, Europe’s most significant achievement has not been to create a new web giant to rival Amazon or Google, but to use its clout to introduce tougher controls on email traffic through more regulation.
Similarly, it is remarkable that EU member states account for only seven per cent of the world’s population — but 50 per cent of all welfare spending.
The truth is that Brexit — so often sneered at by the federalists — has shone a harsh spotlight on Europe’s deep-seated structural problems.
Here in Germany, our economy has long hovered on the brink of recession, with growth at its most anaemic for a decade.
Manufacturing is looking increasingly outdated as exports and capital investments suffer.
Our car industry — the backbone of our economy — now faces perhaps its biggest crisis since Gottlieb Daimler and Karl Benz invented the automobile in the 1880s.
Yet in the face of this darkening picture, Merkel — now in the last full year of her tenure — seems astonishingly complacent and impotent.
At that Champagne reception in Berlin, she boasted of her achievements, then went on to do something most unusual for a Western politician: she quoted the Russian revolutionary Lenin, who referred to the political principle of ‘one step forward, two steps back’.
No one seemed surprised that Merkel uttered the name of this mass-murdering communist in front of an august group of U.S. academics.
Meanwhile, the difficulties of other European countries are even worse.
Next door in France, President Emmanuel Macron is fighting a losing war in his attempt to reform the vast and creaking French state, especially its array of unaffordable pension schemes.
A glimpse into the rotten nature of France’s sprawling civic bureaucracy was provided a few years ago by Aurelie Boullet, who wrote a book about her experiences as an employee at Aquitaine Regional Council.
‘I was getting destroyed by my job because I had nothing to do,’ she said, explaining that her actual work as a mid-ranking administrator amounted to between five and 12 hours a month.
In this culture of institutionalised idleness, she was once told that she had produced a report in the wrong typeface. She was given an entire week to change the font, though the task took her only 25 seconds.
Spain is no better and has no chance of economic renewal now that, after eight months of bickering and paralysis, the country has a socialist government propped up by the radical Left.
It is a similar story in Italy, which is stuck in perma-recession and where the state machine is hopelessly inefficient. There, as in France, attempts at reform have floundered.
Only this week, in an extraordinary judgment about a case that symbolises the mess Italy is in, an Italian court sided with a portly policeman who had been caught on film in 2015, clocking on for work in his underwear.
The case was brought as part of a crackdown on skiving officialdom, but the policeman, who lived in a flat above the station, successfully argued that actually putting on his uniform was part of his working day.
That kind of nonsense is typical of Europe, where too much of the state machinery is a self-serving racket.
A glance across the Channel to Britain is enough to make me sufficiently envious to reach for an aspirin — invented a long time ago in Germany — to quaff with the Champagne.
I see a government with a solid, one-party majority, compared to all the fragile coalitions of Europe. I see a nation with a strong sense of purpose, built on trust in its own capabilities, and a powerful economy. Indeed, according to the International Monetary Fund, Britain will be the fastest-growing G7 economy in Europe over the next two years.
I see a vibrant, open place that can attract huge amounts of foreign investment, has an unrivalled record on business start-ups, is a global pioneer of scientific and genetic research.
I see a country that has an unrivalled financial services sector, enjoys a vast cultural reach through language, music and the arts and contains several of the world’s great universities.
At times, when I consider Britain, I am reminded of the bullish atmosphere that prevails in the fast-growing Asian economies.
It is all a graphic contrast to the sluggishness of Europe. When it comes to football, all the best talent is rushing to England, where the Premier League is the most attractive in the world.
While Britain is going through an astonishing cultural renaissance, reflected in the huge popularity of your entertainment industry and the expansion of major art galleries like London’s Tate Modern, in Germany a new socialist law on national heritage is so heavy-handed on transactions of valuable art and antiques it is effectively killing the market.
The most interesting person I spoke to at the award ceremony in Berlin was Andrew Gundlach, scion of one of Germany’s most famous banking families, the Arnholds, and now President and co-CEO of Bleichroeder LLC. He is a shrewd man with a deep understanding of the geopolitical scene.
Did he think the outlook is grim for post-Brexit Britain? He laughed at the question.
‘The whole point of Brexit was to align with the high growth of America and China and not low-growth Europe,’ he said.
What sends cold sweat running down the spine of European policy makers, he added, is a vibrant, talent-attracting economy right on Europe’s doorstep, with rule-books more liberal than the EU’s.
The last time I visited Britain to gauge the spirit of your country for my newspaper BILD, I travelled north, to Teesside.
To my surprise, I found local politicians and businessmen talking of low-tax ‘freeports’ and new opportunities, and people in pubs ridiculing the doomsayers in the south. Decades of EU membership had seemingly done little for prosperity there.
More than one person told me that things might well get better, ‘once we’re out’.
They could well be right. Europe fears a truly global Britain.
Diehard Remainers still cling to the belief that Britain will stumble, that the forthcoming negotiations on a trade deal will prove tortuous.
I am not so sure. With only ten months of talks left, Britain is in a far better position than most here on the continent dare to admit.
In Boris Johnson, you have a charismatic, election-winning Prime Minister who has forced through Brexit partly thanks to the sheer force of his personality and his ability to outmanoeuvre his opponents.
In the process, he has repeatedly defied his critics. They said he would never persuade the EU to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement, drop the Irish backstop or reach a new deal.
He achieved all three — and I believe he can do so again with a trade accord.
European politicians used to push around Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.
Now they are confronted with a leader who really is too ‘strong and stable’ to be bullied.
The eminent historian Niall Ferguson recently said: ‘I think Brussels has not really adjusted to the new situation, but they will adjust when they realise that Britain isn’t about to be rolled over the way it was because of the way May was negotiating.
‘We will see a very different tone to these negotiations.’
The Champagne at these self-congratulatory diplomatic receptions is starting to leave a sour taste.
Your future looks bright. I’m not so sure about mine.
n Alexander von Schoenburg is editor-at-large at BILD, Germany’s biggest-selling paper