Taking stock of the Brexit vote

Taking stock of the Brexit vote

Note from Berlin



The Brexit vote has turned Berlin into a hive of activity.

The Brexit vote has turned Berlin into a hive of activity. The day after the result came out Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier convened his counterparts from the other five founding members in Berlin. After the meeting he went on to brief the Baltic States and then travelled to Prague on Monday 27 to discuss the new situation with his Visegrád colleagues. Angela Merkel then met with François Hollande and Matteo Renzi in Berlin ahead of the European Council in Brussels on Tuesday.

The German government made it quite clear over the past few months that it did not want to own the British EU agenda. But Berlin has inevitably been dragged into it over the past few months. With the Brexit vote Berlin no longer has a choice but to own and to steer the impact of the vote on the Union at large. The risk of contagion has been Berlin’s major concern over the past weeks, and both Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier worked hard to limit the damage to the EU this week.

The German government made it quite clear over the past few months that it did not want to own the British EU agenda.

Chancellor Merkel invited her French and Italian counterparts to Berlin ahead of the EU summit in Brussels on Tuesday 28 June, after which they issued a joint statement expressing their continued commitment to the integration project. The Franco-German coalition’s widening to include Italy after the Brexit result is noteworthy. Rome has been a more proactive partner for Germany in the Union lately, and will be hosting the 60th anniversary celebrations of the Treaty of Rome in March 2017. This date is seen as an opportunity to give direction to the Union after the shake-ups of the past few years (it was Angela Merkel who hosted the 50th anniversary celebrations in Berlin in 2007). Poland would have been a natural partner in the framework of the Weimar Triangle but has been a more challenging partner for Berlin lately. Having said that, the German and Polish governments held their regular government consultations led by Angela Merkel and Beata Szydło in Berlin the day before the UK referendum.

While the declaration of the three is quite generic (although an important sign of political unity), the joint declaration by Foreign Ministers Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Jean-Mac Ayrault is longer and more specific, entailing concrete proposals for Germany and France to take the lead in deepening cooperation and integration in the areas of security, asylum and migration, and economic governance. There had been a great deal of speculation about whether Berlin and Paris would come up with a joint response to a possible Brexit vote, and it seems that even fellow EU members were taken by surprise about the joint declaration of the Auswärtiges Amt and the Quai d’Orsay.

The most important message of the declaration – or “joint contribution”, as the authors called it – is the passage on European security. With the UK’s withdrawal from the Union, the EU’s “big three” in security and defence shrink to the duo of France and Germany. Both Paris and Berlin are concerned that this will further weaken efforts to develop an EU pillar of European security. Central and Eastern European countries are likely to further emphasise the role of NATO. The possibility of the nascent security identity of the Union being undermined is the reason why Berlin and Paris expressed their commitment to lead on a so-called “European Security Compact”. The list of action points includes a European defence semester and joint operations for stabilisation, development and reconstruction in Syria and Iraq “when the situation allows”. Both ministers are no doubt aware that the costs of yet another lofty Franco-German declaration failing to lead to results would be high, so one can expect attempts to push for implementation in the coming months.

It is noteworthy that the German initiative to convene only the six founding members’ foreign ministers in Berlin in response to the referendum result raised the usual reflex of criticism in other capitals. But Frank-Walter Steinmeier reached out to the Baltic states after the meeting, and also set off to Prague two days later for deliberations with the Visegrád countries. Steinmeier will have seized this opportunity to explain the security compact and to reassure the Baltic and Central European partners ahead of the NATO summit in Warsaw in July that the initiative was of a serious nature, and placed within the wider European security architecture of NATO, the EU and the OSCE.  

Angela Merkel understands that if the rest of the EU wants to remain in the driving seat in this precedent of European integration, then they also need to take charge of the process. A joint stance on Article 50 is vital if this is to happen.

Interestingly, over the past week Angela Merkel’s position has shifted. While it was Steinmeier along with his five founding colleagues who called for negotiations to commence swiftly to end the period of insecurity for both the UK and the EU as soon as possible, Angela Merkel in her first reaction to the vote had argued for a more cautious approach to get a better understanding of the situation (see my latest “View from the Capitals” commentary). This thinking was also reflected by the head of her chancellery, Peter Altmaier, in a debriefing at the general assembly of the European Movement Germany on Monday, after the vote. It was perhaps a mix of two things that made Merkel sound more like she was singing from the same hymn sheet as her foreign minister and with EU counterparts ahead of the EU summit: The clear stance by Germany’s partners, in particular Paris, and domestic developments in the UK in the days after the vote, including calls to not trigger Article 50. Angela Merkel understands that if the rest of the EU wants to remain in the driving seat in this precedent of European integration, then they also need to take charge of the process. A joint stance on Article 50 is vital if this is to happen.

Before travelling to the European Council Angela Merkel delivered a policy declaration on behalf of the federal government in the Deutscher Bundestag. Not only did the chancellor push back on claims voiced in the UK to negotiate access to the single market without implementing the right to free movement for EU citizens. She also drew a clear line on “cherry picking” (Rosinenpickerei – Germans pick raisins). The following statement gives a flavour of a chancellor that sounds a lot more determined than she did in the immediate aftermath of the vote:

“To be very clear: We take note of Britain not yet wanting to invoke Article 50 of the EU treaties, and Britain will in return have to take note that there will be no negotiations or pre talks of any kind as long as Article 50 has not been invoked, neither formally nor informally. I can only advise our British friends not to delude themselves about the necessary decision that will have to be taken in Britain.”

In her press conference following the European Council 28/29 June Angela Merkel reiterated this position, being well aware that eyes were on Germany in this formative phase for European integration.

Read more on: Note from Berlin,European Power

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