Looming Brexit brings geostrategy to Germany


Picture of Almut Möller
Almut Möller

Almut Möller is Senior policy fellow and head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR)

‘What if Britain leaves?’ is being asked as an open question in Berlin these days. Well aware of the constraints Germany has in influencing the domestic debate in Britain, Angela Merkel, not known to be a fan of big public statements and drama, has said clearly that she wants Britain in rather than out, and as Chancellor has been doing quiet work to bring this about.

The Chancellor summed up Germany’s preference for ‘a strong Britain in a strong European Union’ during the European Council negotiations over a British reform agenda. There are quite a few messages woven into this formula, addressed to different audiences. To the British, Merkel intended to say that the EU would be weaker without the United Kingdom, underlining the UK’s weight in Europe. Germany, the country considered the most powerful at the heart of decisions in Europe, thus endorses Britain as its strong partner in forging a strong union. The Chancellor has carried this message forward with a number of joint visits and initiatives over recent months, in February co-hosting the Syria conference in London, for example. And only days later, just before Britain’s EU agreement was concluded in Brussels, Merkel and Prime Minister David Cameron attended the Matthiae Mahl, a sumptuous annual dinner in Hamburg, underlining the joint global outlook and liberal mindset of both countries.

The German perception of European order’s dismantling would be cemented if the third-largest member state decided to leave

For the German audience, a ‘strong union’ in the British-German context implies something quite different: a union not watered down by what are seen as excessive British claims for reform that undermine the union’s fundamental pillars. A strong union in this understanding sets a limit to how far Berlin can embrace London’s ideas for reform. The message here is: ‘Yes, we want the UK in, but not at any cost’. This has been a major pattern of the German debate since Cameron’s 2013 Bloomberg speech. But Berlin’s red lines have successively shifted as the EU has further plunged into crisis.

The negotiations over the UK reform deal already demonstrated that Berlin has become more flexible, particularly in discussions centred on the free movement of people. This is partly because questions of free movement have become more sensitive in Germany since the refugee crisis, making Berlin more conducive to sending messages of ‘limitation’. More importantly, though, is that Berlin wanted to conclude the deal with London so as to move on to the issue of real concern: the dismantling of order in Europe.

It doesn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that the deal itself does not continue to resonate much in the German Brexit debate (as little perhaps as it does in the UK referendum campaign), even though its substance suggests it should be debated more widely. The argument that increasingly dominates in Berlin has to do with the overall state of the EU. Berlin is very much at the heart of dealing with both the internal and external crises of the union. The German perception of European order’s dismantling would be cemented if the third-largest member state decided to leave. Britain’s loud voice would broadcast globally that the EU was crumbling and no longer a force to be reckoned with. This is quite a nightmare scenario for a German government to wake up to 24th June.

Cameron’s 9th May speech likely hit just the right tone for a Berlin audience. ‘How could it possibly be in our interests to risk the clock being turned back to an age of competing nationalisms in Europe?’, the prime minister argued. ‘And for Britain, of all countries, to be responsible for triggering such a collapse would be an act of supreme irresponsibility, entirely out of character for us as a nation.’ Ultimately, it seems, Berlin is getting the Britain it needs in Europe – a Britain whose national interest merges to a greater extent with the interest of the union as a whole.

What David Cameron kicked off as a British domestic issue has become a major geostrategic question for Europe, and for Germany at its heart

It is the major issue for the future of European order that Berlin has come to care and worry about multiple recent crises. Well beyond the details of market access, trade deals, the difficulties of German leadership in a union without Britain, or possible concessions to the UK ‘the day after’, it is this vital strategic question that preoccupies Berlin most in relation to the Brexit scenario.

If the British people decide to leave, Berlin officialdom will be in the midst of damage limitation and preparing to push back the common interpretation of a crumbling union. In this attempt, Germany will closely strategise with its major partners in Europe, including the government in London. What David Cameron kicked off as a British domestic issue, even as an internal quarrel within his Conservative Party, has become a major geostrategic question for Europe, and for Germany at its heart.

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