Bratislava should be modest in rhetoric and look to develop coalitions for security and growth initiatives.
From a German perspective, the current stress on the integration system is enough of a challenge, and should not be complicated by additional demands or pressures. Therefore, Angela Merkel and her government are not eager to call for a major redesign or relaunch of the EU, nor do they like to see all actions framed or motivated by the Brexit paradigm. The Chancellor has stated repeatedly that she believes in the need to show the strengths of the EU as the common instrument to solve problems. In her view, this should be the response to the questions raised by the British referendum and the surge of populist nationalism sweeping Europe, just as it should be the response to the deep and bitter divisions that surfaced between EU capitals over the refugee issue.
German policymakers still want the EU to find a common approach to the refugee issue and related policy issues instead of merely coordinating national responses. Angela Merkel has found common language with French President Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Renzi on the priorities of EU-delivery: internal security (which includes protection against terror attacks, border management, migration and asylum), external security (focusing on protecting the integrity of the EU in a comprehensive sense), and economic growth (triggered by better market integration and investments as well as special schemes to raise employment, in particular of young citizens). Merkel pointedly avoids depicting these priorities as Brexit-consequences. Indeed, she seems to be avoiding talk about Britain’s exit from the EU in general, referring to it only when directly asked.
At the Bratislava summit Germany would like to see EU leaders reflect and prepare steps through which to address the three priorities mentioned above. The German government would be prepared to drive implemention of respective initiatives using reinforced cooperation or other means of flexibility to constrain the potential of veto actors. Merkel is fully aware that she needs like-minded partners beyond a French-Italian-German triangle to add credibility to such an approach. Her intensive diplomacy before the summit has to be understood in this context as the attempt to read the appetite for initiative among leaders. Germany would like to use the coming six months as a preparation phase for member states to come together on specific initiatives, in order to see what could be done by the EU at large, and what might better be carried forward by a number of member states.
In the German view, the integration process suffers from a systemic risk of over-selling its results, because it is slow, requires a great deal of compromise, and struggles to keep up with emerging challenges. Since Maastricht, European citizens have been exposed to such an overdose of over-selling that this has in itself become a reason for EU-skepticism. Bratislava and the steps following the summit should therefore be modest in rhetoric and refrain from either grandiose declarations or gloomy scenarios of disintegration.
In part, this pragmatism should also guide the treatment of the British question. The German economy will be effected by Brexit more than those of many other member states, given that Germany’s high volume of exports to the UK and investments in the UK would be affected by tariffs and/or non-tariff barriers to flows across the Channel. It is also important for the German government that the EU avoids any impression of punishing Britain or pushing it out of the EU. As such, it wants negotiations to be conducted pragmatically rather than emotionally.
On the other hand, German EU-actors do not see Brexit as reason to fear for the EU, given that the British government was rarely a driver of integration. As a result, Berlin does not see exit negotiations as a strategic issue for the EU and would like them to be conducted independently of the reflection process to be launched in Bratislava. While Germany would prefer if London decided to remain part of the single market, it is insistent that such an outcome would have to involve full recognition of the EU’s four freedoms, the regulatory framework of the single market, and contributions to the EU budget.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.