Brexit: For whom the bell tolls

Brexit: For whom the bell tolls

Note from Berlin


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This article is part of our Britain in Europe series.


When it comes to the building of Europe, Britain is out. In fact, London had checked out years ago, but there is no denying it any longer.

The aftershock from the British referendum has been felt around Europe, though it seems in many different ways. In Germany’s capital city – Berlin - actors are still trying to make sense of the absurd. Some, like the President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, must have heard EU founding father Robert Schuman calling, because a week after the Brexit vote he claimed, in a major piece for Frankfurter Allgemeine, that he would work to transform the European Commission into a genuine government, elected and scrutinised by a two chamber system made up of the European Parliament and a state chamber. This is an old idea from the reform debates of the 1990s, and one which bears a very slim chance of implementation today. Schulz did not mention that this step would imply a more thorough reconstruction of EU governance, with the Commission losing its monopoly on new initiatives, and the need to spell out more specifically the powers of the Union versus those of the member states. His party chairman, Sigmar Gabriel, must have heard an echo of what Schulz did because he suggested that the EU should reduce the number of commissioners and streamline the bureaucracy. Both Schulz and Gabriel have authored a discussion paper on re-founding Europe – a German response to the Keynesian calls many have heard in southern Europe. The authors propose a “union for growth” with increased spending to counter economic stagnation and credit financed investment schemes.

Germany's Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, appears to have reacted to the Brexit result rather differently. A long-time proponent of deeper integration, he now believes the response to the British referendum must be pragmatism. In a major interview with Welt am Sonntag, he called for more effective output from the EU. This is not the time for visions, the visionary told the paper, rather, Europe needs to quickly deliver results on key issues such as immigration, the digital single market and energy, security and defence. To be fair, these same issues can also to be found on the priority list of the German Social Democrats. Schäuble added a specific twist to his agenda, openly advocating initiative and agreement between (a group of) member states to move quickly in case of non-agreement among 27. The Brussels bureaucracy is too slow, Schäuble believes, so intergovernmental initiatives should be driving the agenda.

Though the focus on growth and employment responds to demands mostly raised in the southern debate - the German debate never fails to square the circle by referring to fiscal sustainability and structural reforms.

Interestingly, the issues on which the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in Germany seek to differ from each other underlines the special role of Germany in the current intellectual turmoil of Europe. Though the focus on growth and employment responds to demands mostly raised in the southern debate – last documented in the joint statement of Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Francois Hollande and Prime Minister Matteo Renzi – the German debate never fails to square the circle by referring to fiscal sustainability and structural reforms; and that goes for all German parties between Die Linke on the left and Alternative für Deutschland on the right, which both have their specific problems with extending financial solidarity internationally.

The same applies to the challenge of immigration and asylum. In this arena, German policymakers not only act as demandeurs, but they also want to shape a common European policy over the longer term – an ambition that is not shared by many among the EU’s leaders. The third issue raised from both sides of the grand coalition has to do with security and defence. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has underlined this topic in the joint paper drafted with his French colleague Jean-Marc Ayrault. Schulz and Gabriel have emphasised the need for stronger cooperation on defence, and Schäuble has it on his list as well as a possible area of intergovernmental cooperation. The significance of this is not only the actual implications it will have on the organisation of military security, but the way in which more integration among a coalition group within the EU would impact European foreign policy. As my colleague Almut Möller observed in her recent Note from Berlin, political initiatives on security and defence are to be expected over the next year.

The Brexit dimension in all of this is that neither one of these plans would resonate with British politics or the public. What the German policy elite think might close the gap between politics and the public - to regain trust among voters - all sounds far too federalist to British ears. And what scares the flock of federalists in the UK? Namely Schäuble’s mentioning of intergovernmental coalitions, which would hardly win the enthusiasm of the British government. There is no interest in “more Europe”, neither spelled in federal terms nor as an intergovernmental core group agenda. If the gap separating London from Berlin has not become wider since 24 June, it certainly has become more apparent. Though quite in line with German fiscal thinking and certainly no less ambitious about foreign policy, security and defence, Britain would not consider to opt into any of the schemes laid out in the above. The current limbo over the consequences of the Brexit vote make it all the more apparent to German and continental actors that the UK has had only one foot in the door over the past years.

In fact, Berlin is writing off Britain as a partner within the EU. German disillusionment, like that in other northern EU members, has come in stages. First, the referendum plan signaled to everyone on the continent that the UK was not to become another large member state of the EU, a “normal” country committed to integration in the sense that the Germans had worked hard to arrive at. Whether the vote was to remain or leave, it seemed clear that this United Kingdom would never be a true partner in leading the EU.

Whether the vote was to remain or leave, it seemed clear that this United Kingdom would never be a true partner in leading the EU.

In the second stage, the deep divisions which emerged in Britain after the referendum deeply irritated observers on the continent. After all, many thought the British to be essentially pragmatic about their role in the EU. Now, Europeans have discovered a fundamental controversy on the one aspect of integration that they believed to be of supreme importance for the country - the single market. Many voters were ready to follow the claim to get out. And many of those voting to remain did so for the wrong reasons, at least from the German perspective, where integration is almost an end in and of itself. Likely, a fair share of the 48 percent were not voting for the EU but against the uncertainties triggered by leaving it.

The third and final stage was reached with the political turmoil following the vote - a sudden departure of leading figures and the ensuing leadership crisis. The week of chaos conveyed the message to stunned Europeans in Berlin and elsewhere that Britain’s political class not only was willing to reject the EU as a “community of destiny” but that it paid no mind as to where that rejection would lead the country. Possibly, the degree of cynicism displayed over the days since the referendum could deter voters in other countries to fall for the slogans of the populists, but just as easily it may also deepen political alienation there. In this light, talk about reversing the decision, having a second referendum, or the option of delaying action on Article 50 sounds deeply cynical, too, as there is no political figure or group in sight that seems capable of leading such a process.

When it comes to the building of Europe, Britain is out. In fact, London had checked out years ago, but there is no denying it any longer. Germany will have to shoulder the burden of leadership without the British and must work hard to revitalise the political centre of the EU. The British voice will be absent in completing the single market; in the EU-3 on foreign policy crises Italy will take the chair given up by the UK; and even in NATO the British role will likely divert towards the Canadian model - somehow relevant, but distant.

Read more on: Note from Berlin,European Power,Politics & Cohesion,Britain in Europe,BiE Monitor

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