Last week, I was on the panel of a seminar on Brexit and its consequences for different EU countries, organized by University College London. Here are my initial thoughts, formulated in response to questions by Alan Renwick, Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, Department of Political Science, UCL.
How is the UK referendum currently being viewed in Germany?
The question is getting a lot of attention in Germany. Only yesterday (18 May), in a popular talk show, the prospect of a Brexit was described by Edmund Stoiber, Ex-Premier of Bavaria, as a “catastrophe”. In the same show, Jorge Chatzamakis, a liberal German MEP, said that Brexit would trigger a “snowball effect” that could lead to the dissolution of the EU.
There are some Europhiles who think that getting rid of the Brits – or rather the English, because they say the Scots would rather leave the UK than the EU – could be a good thing. They think that without London’s constant Eurosceptic intervention, as codified in the Cameron-Tusk paper, Europe (or at least the Eurozone) could advance more quickly towards a federal state under German leadership. However, my feeling is that this position is much less widely held than it was, say, ten years ago. All political parties – including the extreme Left and the extreme right – want Britain to stay in, though I think that on the right (“Alternative für Deutschland”) there might be some Schadenfreude if the British voted to leave.
What is the state of public opinion towards the EU?
As in other countries, Euroscepticism is a common phenomenon in Germany. The EU was and is a “project of the elites”, and the Euro even more so. The Eurosceptic AfD, which says the EU is “undemocratic”, has mobilized up to a quarter of the electorate in the Eastern parts of Germany. However, when push comes to shove, I think a large majority of Germans in the West are emotionally involved in the concept of a united Europe. This is much less the case in the ex-Communist Eastern part of the country, because Communist propaganda for decades drew different consequences from German history. In the West, the EU was seen as the answer to the catastrophes of WW I and II. In the East, the answer was Socialism. So the emotional attachment to Europe and the almost instinctive distrust of nationalism is largely absent there.
Short-Term Effects of a Vote for Brexit: The Negotiation Period. How might the outcome affect public opinion towards the EU and the political dynamics around that?
The big question mark is France. Brexit would surely strengthen Marine LePen’s hand. Especially as it would fuel French Angst regarding Germany. Therefore, I think Brexit would lead to a major crisis in France within the year, which the pro-European establishment might try to solve with a referendum. Austria and Czechia are two further countries which might follow. If France leaves the EU, the project will fall apart.
If Britain remains, the Cameron-Tusk paper takes effect, which allows for a Europe of different forms and degrees of integration. On the one hand, this opens the door for countries like a post-Erdogan Turkey, the Ukraine and possibly even Georgia to join eventually. On the other hand, it will strengthen the hand of those who want opt-outs from all sorts of things, from the Euro to refugee quotas. If the EU does not come up with positive projects such as a common policy on border controls, immigration/refugees and energy, the Union could come to resemble the Commonwealth more than the “democratic empire” envisaged by Barroso a decade ago.
How would Germany approach the Brexit negotiations?
I’m pretty sure Germany would push for an accommodation of British interests. However, I don’t see Britain getting a better deal than Norway or Switzerland, unless of course Europe is falling apart at the seams anyway – see above – and the rump EU is desperate. There might also be a pushback against London as a financial centre from banking interests in Frankfurt and forces within the government interested in imposing financial transaction taxes. Presumably, Brexit would also deal TTIP a death blow, as the US would not know who they are dealing with.
Would Brexit in itself make much difference for Germany at all? Would Germany seek to push its agenda within the EU further? What would its agenda be? Would the Franco-German axis be strengthened? What would be the effects on German politics, identity, etc. if the European project started to unravel?
I think I’ve answered most of this above. But to recap: The effect would be huge. Germany has always relied on Britain as an antidote to French – and Southern European – statism. Brexit would deepen divisions in Germany over Europe across the political spectrum. There would presumably be an attempt to shore up France in order to avoid a LePen presidency or a EU or Euro referendum. The only way this could happen would be for Germany to give up its resistance to Eurobonds, debt relief, QE et cetera. That is, the government’s policy would surely be to preserve the EU and the Eurozone at almost any cost. Italy is already gearing up to present itself as Germany’s partner of choice. All this could provoke rebellion within the CDU/CSU and would surely strengthen the hand of the Eurosceptic AfD. Whatever happens, German nationalism and exceptionalism will be strengthened.
Are non-Eurozone countries confident they can protect their interests within the EU post-Brexit?
This is a question for Poland, I think, as the most important non-Euro economy. At the moment, Poland is pursuing a suicidal course – being anti-Russian, which is rational, but at the same time anti-German, which is totally irrational. In reality, Poland has even more to lose from a breakup of the EU than Germany. Especially given the prospect of an isolationist President Trump in the White House. If the Polish government were less irrational, one might expect a gesture of European solidarity immediately following a Brexit vote – such as a decision to join the Eurozone and possibly to do more to help cope with the refugee question. This makes sense, as Poland would have to replace Britain as a balancing power vis-à-vis France for Germany. But I don’t know whether Kaczinski, who dislikes Merkel (with good reason) is capable of thinking in these terms.