The foreign ministers of the EU’s founding member states in Berlin after Britain’s EU referendum.
In the run-up to the referendum on 23 June, the European Union was divided between optimists and pessimists. The pessimists – the majority – saw Brexit as a huge threat. A British vote to leave would strengthen “centrifugal forces” and could even be the beginning of the end of the EU. The optimists – the minority – saw it as an opportunity. The shock of Brexit could galvanise the EU to move ahead with further integration, especially in areas that the UK had blocked. But both optimists and pessimists agreed that, if the UK did actually vote to leave, the EU would need to respond.
Two months on from the referendum, however, little has happened beyond declarations of commitment to the future of the European project. The reason for this odd period of apparent inactivity is not just the lull caused by the summer break or even the shock of the British vote to leave the EU. It is also that, although everybody in Europe seems to agree that something must be done to respond to the Brexit vote, no one can seem to agree on what.
German politicians are aware that expectations have increased, but so have fears of German power
While Europeans have watched the chaos that has been British politics over the last two months and waited for the new government to decide what it wanted, there have been plenty of exhortations to see Brexit as a wake-up call. But what Europeans are supposed to do if and when they wake up is less clear. Many among Europe’s great and good have urged a new focus on the “essentials”, what is being called the “Europe of necessity”. The EU must deliver for citizens,but how?
Far from lurching towards the superstate that British Eurosceptics always feared, the reality is that the EU is paralysed by the multiple intersecting fault lines that already existed within it – between creditor and debtor countries, between old and new member states and between left and right. This matters for the UK because its negotiation about a new relationship with the EU will be linked to the parallel deals between Europeans on the other areas that matter most to them, in particular economic policy and refugee policy.
At the centre of all this, geographically and politically, is Germany. The Brexit vote has thrust Berlin into an even more pivotal position – the future of the EU will now revolve even more tightly around Germany. German politicians are aware that expectations have increased, but so have fears of German power. German politicians talk about “leading from the centre”, in other words, to drive policy but to do so by seeking to find a European consensus.
What this means in practice is a kind of hub-and-spoke Europe in which diplomacy, bilaterally and in groups, centres on Berlin. It began, disastrously, when the German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, invited the foreign ministers of the six founding member states of the EU to Berlin the weekend after the referendum. The meeting was meant to be a show of European unity but inevitably alienated other member states.
Since then, Angela Merkel and Steinmeier have met other European leaders to prepare for the post-Brexit summit that will take place in Bratislava on 16 September. Tomorrow, the Italian prime minister, Matteo Renzi, will host Merkel and the French president, François Hollande, on Ventotene, an island off Naples where, in 1941, two interned anti-fascist activists wrote a famous manifesto calling for a federation of European states.
However, despite all this diplomatic activity centred on Berlin, there is unlikely to be much progress by the time of the summit on the two biggest challenges for the EU: the eurozone and the refugee crisis. In both cases, the differences, roughly, between north and south in the eurozone and east and west on the refugee crisis, remain as wide as ever. If any initiatives are announced in Bratislava, they are likely to be in other less divisive areas such as better co-operation on counter-terrorism and perhaps some small steps in integrating European security and defence policy.
The problem is that this is unlikely to do much to stop the rise of Euroscepticism, which most recognise is not an exclusively British phenomenon, even if it is more extreme here. “We must acknowledge that support and passion for our common project has faded over the last decade in parts of our societies,” wrote Steinmeier and the French foreign minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, in a joint paper published shortly after the referendum.
What some see as a necessary response to Euroscepticism, others see as a capitulation to it. For Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian prime minister and president of the Liberal group in the European parliament, the lesson of David Cameron’s failure to persuade the British population to remain in the EU was that “one cannot defeat nationalism by pandering to nationalists”. The solution is “more Europe”.
Others see calls to transfer more sovereignty to Brussels as part of the problem rather than the solution. “Neither a simple call for more Europe nor a phase of mere reflection can be an adequate answer,” Ayrault and Steinmeier wrote in their paper. Some, including the Dutch and Polish government, are more interested in devolving power back to the member states.
It is also almost universally recognised that ways must be found to better legitimate European integration. But this is another mere aspiration. While some want a tighter EU centred on the eurozone, with its own parliament, others want a looser EU based on the idea of “variable geometry” in which national parliaments would play a greater role.
For the first time in the history of European integration, Germany is putting the brakes on. The shift is exemplified by the transformation in the attitude of the finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, since his tough treatment of Greece last summer, the most popular politician in Germany. Schäuble is generally seen as the most “pro-European” member of Merkel’s cabinet. But even before the referendum, he said in an interview with Der Spiegel that the EU couldn’t simply react to a British vote to leave the EU with a call for more integration.
German officials increasingly justify positions such as this on the basis of the need for a European consensus – it must occupy a middle ground between different member states. But this is typically disingenuous. In reality, there is national politics behind Germany’s opposition to further integration. Euroscepticism is rising in Germany too, not just among voters who are drifting to the Eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland party but also in bastions of the establishment such as the Bundesbank and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.
The reality is that while an overwhelming majority of Germans remain committed to the EU, many no longer see further integration as being in the national interest. When France and Italy talk about more “risk sharing” in the eurozone, Germans see this as a stealth attempt to the “transfer union” – in other words, an EU in which the fiscally responsible subsidise the fiscally irresponsible – that they have always feared. With a presidential election in France and a general election in Germany in 2017, positions are likely to harden over the next 12 months.
This may all seem like the kind of arcane drama from which Britain voted on 23 June to liberate itself. But whether Britons like it or not, it will inform the way the EU negotiates with the UK. Behind the European commission’s negotiating position will be member states concerned about Euroscepticism at home. It is the fear of empowering the Front National in France and the AfD in Germany, rather than a desire to “punish” Britain, which is behind the reluctance to give the UK the “best of both worlds” that it wants. There may also be implicit trade-offs between member states linking the negotiation with the UK and negotiations in other areas.
Chancellor Merkel seems, for now, to have prevailed with her patient approach to Brexit; as the reality set in that there was nothing anyone could do to make the UK invoke article 50, the calls for the UK to “go quickly” largely stopped. Informal negotiations even seem to be taking place despite the initial Brussels mantra of “no negotiation before notification”.
But two months on from the referendum, the answer to the big question – will the UK be able to negotiate access to the single market, particularly for services, while restricting immigration from the EU? – remains unclear. Last week, Germany’s European affairs minister indicated Britain could be given a “special status”. To British ears, that might sound like the best of both worlds – perhaps the access to the single market that comes with EEA membership together with the ability to restrict immigration that comes with a looser trade agreement. Whether that turns out to be wishful thinking will depend on the domestic political pressures on Europe’s leaders and the negotiation between them about the future of the EU “at 27”.