If the British vote to leave the EU in the referendum to be held on June 23, it will deal a devastating blow to the entire architecture of the European Union.
Populist and Euroskeptic parties will make hay from the result. France’s right-wing National Front Leader Marine Le Pen could be emboldened to call for the renegotiation of her country’s EU membership. Other populist and anti-immigration movements including the Alternative for Germany will demand more sovereignty from Brussels.
The EU, already weakened by the eurozone and refugee crises, would face an even bleaker future. Not even Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, would be in a strong enough position to pick up the pieces. Brexit would confirm Germany’s absolute dominance inside the EU. But it is that dominant position that Germany does not want and cannot exercise.
Berlin does not want it because it would mean Germany explaining how the country is going to fix Europe. As it is, among the German political and economic elites there are those who believe that Brexit must not hold Europe back. And even if the British vote to stay in the union, London staunchly opposes more integration and the treaty-enshrined goal of an “ever closer union.” At the same time, as one of the carrots given to British Prime Minister David Cameron to boost the Remain camp, the EU must not discriminate against countries that have not adopted the euro. It’s as if Britain has boxed the EU into a corner.
Yet the logic of the eurozone crisis and, indeed, of the refugee crisis surely points to the need for more economic and political integration. As Britain has held up both—making it convenient for some other EU countries to tag along on London’s apron strings—then maybe Brexit would lead the EU toward a two-speed Europe, led by the eurozone countries. In other words, led by Germany.
But it’s not as easy as that—even if Merkel wanted it and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble pushed for it. For one thing, Germany could not use the traditional Franco-German tandem to go forward. French President François Hollande has his own presidential campaign to wage in 2017, in addition to trying to introduce structural reforms for the French economy. Le Pen’s shrill rhetoric against a tighter and more integrated EU is enough to inhibit Hollande from joining forces with Berlin. Besides, it is also hard to see Schäuble or Merkel pushing for closer integration until after the French presidential election.
There is another reason why Germany would be reluctant to go for any kind of two-speed Europe or enhanced cooperation among the countries that want this. Berlin fears it could become even more unpopular among the other 27 EU member states. In short, a two-speed Europe led and dominated by Germany would be resented.
There is already considerable resentment in many EU capitals over the way in which Merkel handled the refugee crisis—from first insisting on the principle of solidarity in sharing the burden of accepting refugees to doing a deal with Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, to stem the flow of refugees reaching Europe. The lack of the former pushed Merkel to pursue the latter.
Moreover, would Germany really gain enough support from the Southern European eurozone members, such as Greece, Italy, and Spain, to create a two-speed Europe? They resent the austerity measures imposed on them in return for financial assistance to prevent the collapse of their banking systems. Look at the growing Euroskepticism taking root in Italy, one of the founding members of the bloc. In Spain, which holds parliamentary elections later in June 2016, opinion polls put Podemos, the far-left protest party, in second place.
And big non-eurozone countries such as Poland would dread the idea of a Europe of different speeds—as if there weren’t enough of an à la carte system already in place. Poland’s ruling conservative Law and Justice Party would make every attempt to quash the idea because it believes countries not belonging to the eurozone would be downgraded to second-class members. And for Europe to be de facto led by Germany would only strengthen Warsaw’s growing antipathy toward Berlin.
Europe’s architecture, to a very large extent, depends on Germany. But over the past decade, as the country has sought to define and protect its national interests, both Merkel and her predecessor as chancellor, the Social Democrat Gerhard Schröder, have increasingly put the interests of the EU’s nation-states before those of the European Commission.
Indeed, the EU has become more and more a collection of member states defending their interests while challenging the commission, which created the single market, among other big achievements.
Brexit campaigners, supported by populist movements across Europe, are challenging the existence of Europe’s postwar architecture. Germany, despite its ambiguous standing in Europe, has no choice but to try and rescue it—if it’s not too late.