Dr Alim Baluch, Teaching Fellow, Dept of Politics, Languages & International Studies
The German government and the German media are watching the Brexit debate very closely and Germany is taking it personally. There are, of course, many different German perspectives, but Germany is a special case. This can be traced back not only to its role as the dominant driver of European integration but also to a traditionally Europhile population.
This piece seeks to shed light on the German perspective on Brexit and, in doing so, examine the very awkward relationship between the two ruling conservative parties in Germany and the UK. Here it will be argued that an EU without Britain makes it harder for Germany to conceal its hegemony (a hegemony it is not quite comfortable with) and that even a “Bremain” will trigger further disintegration.
All the major European integration projects have been designed or strongly endorsed by Germany whether it is the Single European Act, the Schengen Zone, the Economic and Monetary Union or enlargement. The European Central Bank (ECB) has been designed using the German Federal Bank as its role model.
Ever since Germany’s attempts to impose its will on the rest of the continent by force had failed, its main successor, the Federal Republic, avoided any discourse alluding to national interest, emphasising European interests instead. The Europeanisation of discourse and the trans-nationalisation of policy goals helped to re-socialise Germany after World War II. In this manner, the Federal Republic was able to pursue its interests by shaping European integration in ways that met its export-oriented needs.
Following the financial crisis of 2007/08, which affected Germany far less than other countries of the EU, Germany’s economic dominance is more pronounced than ever before, leaving German governments more exposed to meet leadership expectations from the United States and its European partners. Thus, the EU is at risk of being perceived as a German-led bloc, an impression which Germany is all too eager to avoid.
Whenever a crisis hits the EU, the German government will face increased expectations but, moreover, the opposition will blame the government for its flawed leadership of the EU. When the EU takes a hit, Berlin takes a hit as well.
The European debt crisis exposed Germany’s (reluctant) leadership role. While the British media followed the unfolding disaster of the currency union with some degree of Schadenfreude, Germany was expected to lead, yet it took the government quite a while to craft a coherent narrative which would allow it to effectively bail out Greek’s debtors (i.e. banks like Hypo Real Estate), whilst appeasing the German taxpayers. This narrative portrayed Greece as a culprit who needed to be taught a lesson in fiscal discipline, a lesson which would ultimately crush private domestic demand in Greece and impoverish large parts of society.
This new aggressive side of Germany may come as a surprise given the country’s history of post-World War II reservations when it comes to leadership aspirations or even formulating German interests. However, Germany’s new confidence had already manifested itself in its flawed diplomatic handling of the transition from the New Labour government to the current Cameron administration. The alienation between the two conservative parties started long before Cameron became Prime Minister and both parties have been incapable of establishing a constructive partnership ever since.
A significant proportion of the isolation felt by the Tories in Europe has to be seen in correlation with a change of course in the European Parliament, i.e. Cameron’s decision that his party was to leave the European People’s Party (EPP), which came despite several warnings by other European conservatives that such a step would not be without consequences.
This process was triggered in 2005 when Cameron, as the new leader of the British Conservatives, did not attend the traditional EPP gathering in Brussels. In a letter to David Cameron, Angela Merkel made clear that the partnership between the two conservative parties should rest upon the affiliation in the EPP:
"I look forward to good and intensive co-operation with you, in particular within the framework of the EPP-ED as a clear base for our bilateral dialogue as partners."
The wording seemed admonishing and unlike the typical German understatement in international politics.
The leader of the EPP group and Merkel compatriot Hans-Gert Pöttering was even more direct:
"If Mr Cameron forces [the British conservatives] out of the EPP, he cannot expect high level contacts with the EPP. If someone intends to leave, this creates a clear distance."
While British Europhiles can be quick to criticise Cameron’s clumsy diplomacy, the German response was not helpful either. On the domestic front, party leader Cameron was not only trying to keep UKIP small but was also under pressure from influential Eurosceptic groups in his own party. Publicly threatening him to reconsider his course of action made it almost impossible for him to adjust his position without losing face.
The Tories were faced with a choice: either leave the party group of the most influential pro-European conservatives, or seek new alliances among Eurosceptic conservatives, many of whom are largely branded as right-wing populists.
It took the Tories another four years to leave the EPP, and in 2009 they established an alternative party group; the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). Once a tolerated pariah in the EPP, the Tories have since reinvented themselves as the most prominent and influential member of the smaller ECR. Leaving the EPP was considered an affront by the German Christian Democrats and the fact that the Tories were now working together with the Polish right-wing party Law and Justice (PiS) made matters even worse. PiS chairman Kaczyński raised eyebrows in Berlin after insinuating that Merkel became Chancellor with the help of a network of former East German spies and that “Merkel belongs to a generation of German politicians that would like to reinstate Germany's imperial power.”
After Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010, Britain’s isolation became increasingly obvious and reached a climax during the EU summit of December 2011. Cameron was unable to reach concessions that would exempt Britain from a revision of the Lisbon Treaty, which - during the height of the European debt crisis – would affect financial regulations. The British government was unable to gather support among other EU members. Its isolation became apparent when it voted against the treaty revision while all other member states supported it.
German-British relations were further strained when the German right-wing populists of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) joined the ECR in summer 2014.
The AfD explicitly endorses David Cameron’s position on the EU which they consider a role model for Germany, i.e. pro membership but against the currency union in its current form and demanding more democracy and a transfer of sovereignty back to the national parliaments.
The Tories found themselves in the camp of right-wing populists and fierce Merkel critics which further strained German-British relations in a time when Cameron needed Berlin in order to come up with a credible prospect of the promised renegotiation of aspects of the EU Treaty.
In February 2016, Germany helped broker a deal for the British government that indicated sufficient consensus for curtailing benefits for EU migrants, leading David Cameron to announce the date for a referendum. In the case of Brexit, the UK withdrawal from the EU was to happen on the basis of Art. 50 of the Lisbon Treaty which requires member states to agree on the terms of the withdrawal.
Shortly after – and likely as part of a deal with Merkel - (purely speculation on my part), ECR chairman Syed Kamall (British Conservative) asked the AfD members to leave the party group. There was considerable unease with the AfD members over a meeting with the far-right Freedom Party of Austria FPÖ and remarks that using firearms was a legitimate way of protecting borders against refugees. The AfD members refused to leave and suspected Merkel’s influence behind this move. Their refusal to leave did not save them from being expelled a few weeks later.
Despite the strained British-German relations with regard to centre and right-wing parties, a poll from early April 2014 suggests that the overwhelming majority of Germans want Britain to stay in the EU. The polling institute infratest dimap had asked 1,023 federal citizens (18 years or older) of which 78% expressed their appreciation of British membership in the EU.
For German governments of the future, Brexit would mean the loss of the second largest economy within the EU. The historically problematic picture of German domination in Europe would be even more difficult to conceal. In an interview with the New Statesman Michael Heseltine, melodramatically portrayed as the one of the last great Tory Europhiles, conjured a picture of a teutonic post-Brexit EU: “It would leave Europe exposed to a dominance of Germany that Germany doesn’t want and no one else wants.”
From a German perspective, Merkel’s handling of the EU will be extolled against the long shadow of history. Her impact will be compared to Willy Brandt’s vision for Europe, whose short Chancellorship managed to change gears from East-West confrontation to “change through rapprochement” (Wandel durch Annäherung), a slogan that was followed by treaties with the countries of the Warsaw Pact and which helped to improve East-West relations and de-escalated the Cold War.
Under Brandt’s watch, Britain joined the European Community. His successors, Schmidt, Kohl and Schröder, successfully endorsed further far-reaching integration and enlargement projects. It may very well seem that under Merkel’s watch the EU went one step too far as seen in the Treaty of Lisbon which gave the EU a legal personality, a supranational diplomatic service and a Common Security and Defence Policy. While it is worthwhile remembering that nobody forced the British Parliament to ratify the Treaty of Maastricht, the Treaty of Amsterdam, the Treaty of Nice and the Treaty of Lisbon, none of this matters anymore when Britain votes on 23 June. Brexit would be another setback for Merkel with the Schengen Zone and the Eurozone already disintegrating.
While it would be misleading to blame the current disintegration processes on Germany, the Chancellor knows all too well how superficially Chancellors have been judged by the media, leaving Helmut Kohl as the “Chancellor of [German] unification”, an achievement which very much came down to being the German Chancellor at the right time in history.
Much more important than the perception of Merkel’s legacy is the dire prospect for Europe. Even if the UK bremains, a disintegrative momentum has been set in motion. Cameron will be expected to renegotiate the agreement from February and other Eurosceptic parties can use this example as leverage in election campaigns. What many European voters may perceive as the carrot can, in a Hegelian twist, very well be Merkel’s stick.
Finally, another German nightmare looms on the horizon: Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (who is leading the polls in the Netherlands ten months ahead of the next general election) is not only running on an anti-Islam but also on a hard Eurosceptic platform. Brexit or even just the example set by the British referendum can boost the Nexit camp. The European integration project has been kidnapped by a disintegrative process which may prove difficult to contain.
This blog post is part of a new IPR Series – all related to the BREXIT debate and the EU Referendum. This collection of commissioned blog posts will be published as an IPR Policy Brief in May 2016. Sign up to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or to our mailing list to receive invitations to our events and copies of our Policy Briefs.
 Euobserver.com. 16,12. 2005.Merkel urges Tories to stay in EPP group https://euobserver.com/political/20572.
 Spiegel.de/international. 05.10. 2011. Polish Opposition Leader: Kaczynski Warns of Germany's 'Imperial' Ambitions. http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/polish-opposition-leader-kaczynski-warns-of-germany-s-imperial-ambitions-a-790034.html .
 Guardian.com. 09.12.2011. David Cameron blocks EU treaty with veto, casting Britain adrift in Europe http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/dec/09/david-cameron-blocks-eu-treaty.
 Euobserver.com. 09.03. 2016. EU parliament group tells German AfD party to leave. https://euobserver.com/political/132619 .
 Dw.com. 16.04. 2016. SW-Umfrage: Mehrheit der Deutschen ist gegen einen Brexit. http://www.dw.com/de/dw-umfrage-mehrheit-der-deutschen-ist-gegen-einen-brexit/a-19186450 .
 New Statesman, “They have swallowed their own propaganda.” 29 April – 5 May 2016, p. 26.