Germany may pretend otherwise but it has reasons to fear a Europe without Britain

A country that long ago lost its taste for political gambles of the Cameron variety. 

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The best Brexit novel was written a little more than 50 years ago. It says something that John le Carré could take Britain’s desperation to join the European Economic Community (EEC) as the motor for the plot of A Small Town in Germany. Britain’s “ticket” into the EEC is threatened in the novel by a low-level German functionary at the British Embassy in Bonn who has stolen secrets that, if delivered into enemy hands, may sufficiently gall the West Germans into blocking Britain’s membership out of a lack of trust.

Le Carré knew his German politics. Even after Charles de Gaulle was out of the way, and Britain joined the EEC in 1973, successive German governments never fully trusted British motives for being there. For German politicians, the question was less whether or not Brexit would happen than which party would carry it out. Under first John Major and then Tony Blair, the UK refused to join the euro and lagged behind the integration project. Every British government has carried Brexit in its bloodstream.

The more interesting question is what Europe without Britain means for Germany. Some think it will be much better off. “Brexit will stabilise the EU rather than weaken it,” writes Herfried Münkler, one of Germany’s rare grand strategists. “The inner decay will be slowed down. Different countries, which are also flirting with an exit, now see how risky that is. The Brexit advocates agreed only on the issue of withdrawal. It is easy to build a mood against Brussels, but concrete policy does not follow.”

For Münkler, Germany is a country that long ago lost its taste for political gambles of the Cameron variety. Its rulers are more responsible because of their attention to history – they cannot even stomach a minority government because it reeks too much of the Weimar Republic – but also because they know that the EU would collapse were there to be blundering on such a scale in Berlin. Still, one senses an empty quality in Berlin political chatter about the future of Europe these days. Talk of a European army is floated now as common sense, but everyone knows it’s not going to happen.

Münkler is a formidable thinker. But the more persuasive case for Germans may be the negative one made by Hans-Werner Sinn, an influential conservative economist. “The Lisbon balance has been destroyed because the block of northern European states shrinks after Brexit to a population share of 25 per cent,” Sinn writes, “while the Mediterranean countries extend theirs to 42 per cent. They may now seek to turn Europe into a trade fortress.” Sinn’s fear is that there may be a ganging-up against Germany by southern, potentially anti-austerity states, such as Spain and Italy, and genuinely socialist states such as Portugal. Politicians of the far-right Alternative für Deutschland, while cheering on the spirit of Brexit, are acutely worried about southern domination of the EU, and at least some of them already mourn the departure of the British Tories and their votes against the Latin leeches.

When Brexit is glossed 100 years from now in whatever replaces textbooks, it will likely figure as merely one response among many worldwide to the problem of migration. Last December the coalition government of Belgium nearly collapsed after a dispute over whether to sign the UN’s Global Compact on Migration. This month the Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven reassumes office after an election last year in which the migration question rearranged the country’s political landscape.

Since the political crisis about migration in 2015, the centrist governments of Europe have attempted to assuage anti-migration fears of the Brexiteer variety. This has entailed not only huge pay-offs to Ankara and African states to keep migrants away from Europe but revolutionary new strategies to seal off the continent. Last November, Germany’s armed forces opened a base in Niger to join French and Italian military efforts to cut migration off at the source. Meanwhile, Germany’s propagation of austerity across the continent has made lives more precarious, and thus increased the political sensitivity to migration that makes these African deployments seem vital in the first place.

The nightmare of European centrists is the old vision of Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri: the large-scale decampment of migrants to wealthy countries, where old hierarchies will fall and new polities will have to be built. But where the right and centre are paranoid, the anarcho-left vision of refugees emancipating Europe from capitalism is perhaps still too sanguine: most migrants aiming to exit Africa, for instance, will remain too poor to travel to Europe in the coming decades, and European trade policy appears determined to keep it that way.

So there is a certain irony in a Brexit fuelled by migration when the Germans have done their utmost to quell that fear. The other exotic feature of Brexit for Germans is the nature of the elite warfare in Britain – something that seldom happens in the cloistered rooms of German politics, where consensus rules. In part this is because Germany’s ruling class was pulverised in the Second World War and the survivors never garnered much political allegiance. There is almost no equivalent of the Old Etonian, and leaders are drawn from haphazard backgrounds: Gerhard Schröder was the son of a cleaning woman, Merkel the daughter of a pastor. As one character says in A Small Town: “In Germany they’re all middle class.”

In a topsy-turvy Europe in which French socialism is improbably extinct, and British socialism is improbably alive, cool German heads are making their calculations. How long can they keep Europe as it was, and make the British departure appear as a mere bump on the road back to the status quo ante?

Thomas Meaney is a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) in Vienna

This article appears in the 25 January 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Who’s running Britain?