Angela Merkel Doesn’t Have a Brexit Plan, Either

Britain's departure from the EU has made Germany far more powerful than it should be.

BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 24: German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to the media following the United Kingdom's referendum vote to leave the European Union on June 24, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. Leaders across the EU are expressing disappointment and regret over Britain's decision to leave the European Union. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - JUNE 24: German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks to the media following the United Kingdom's referendum vote to leave the European Union on June 24, 2016 in Berlin, Germany. Leaders across the EU are expressing disappointment and regret over Britain's decision to leave the European Union. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

At Monday afternoon’s news conference in Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s body language was a notch less downcast than her post-Brexit vote appearance on Friday, when the dispassionate, even-keeled chancellor actually looked disheartened in a way she seldom does. Flanked by her allies French President François Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, Merkel was back to her old self: monotone, emotionless. Britain’s pending exit seemed like just another crisis, one Berlin and the EU as a whole would address step by step, as they had its many predecessors. “Governance as repair work,” as the weekly Spiegel once described Merkel’s preferred method.

From her poker face, you would never know that the Brexit vote has thrust Germany into the driver’s seat of the European Union as never before. Britain’s exit not only eliminates one-third of the Berlin-Paris-London triumvirate, the gear shaft of the 28-member union; it also costs the union a member that often functioned as a counterweight to EU-wedded Germany. Given that France is entirely consumed with its own affairs – recession and economic reform, labor unrest, terrorism — Germany is emerging from the Brexit vote with more clout and responsibility than ever before. Indeed, the post-Brexit EU will be an even more German one — a state of affairs that pleases nobody, not even the Germans.

Tragically, it doesn’t appear that Merkel has the slightest inkling of what to do with her country’s new, even more powerful, status. She and Germany as a whole are so thoroughly intertwined with the problems plaguing the union that it’s nearly impossible to imagine Berlin summoning the vision and grit to overhaul the union in order to halt its decline. Merkel and other members of Europe’s leadership, like EU President Jean-Claude Juncker, are the old guard: the exhausted, played-out elite against whom the masses are rebelling. Their like can’t be the EU’s saviors, too.

The Brexit vote, though jarring and unwelcome, nevertheless speaks out loud uncomfortable truths that EU leaders, Merkel among them, have up until this point strained to ignore. But now it’s impossible to simply keep the EU on the path of least resistance. The referendum vote cried out, through arena loudspeakers, that EU citizens are unhappy with the distant, ramshackle, undemocratic monstrosity that the EU has become. This is also the essence of what happened in 2005, when French and Dutch voters thumbs-downed the European constitution. European volk, from the Brits to the Dutch to the French, have expressed displeasure with the current incarnation of the EU by the only means available: referendums, with their simple “in” or “out,” “yes” or “no” options.

It’s unclear whether at the moment Merkel has grasped the gravity of this message — or reality of Berlin’s new station. The issues on Merkel’s plate at the moment are, as usual, short term, the stuff of crisis management: Should Brexit be slow or fast? Rough or smooth? Most of the EU establishment, with the notable exception of Merkel, is pressing British Prime Minister David Cameron to make it quick: to officially inform Brussels — this week, if possible — of its desire to secede and then to get about the business of making it happen. London, to their consternation, has implied that it may wait until autumn to serve notice. Behind this is Cameron’s desire not to be the executor of an act that extricates the United Kingdom from a union that he never wanted it to leave. Understandably, he’d prefer to have a successor deal with the mess.

The forces calling for a speedy Brexit, including Juncker, Germany’s social Democrats, and the governments of Italy and France, are anxious for a variety of reasons. One is that, until the U.K. officially leaves, it holds voting rights in all of the EU’s common institutions. As a bargaining chip, it could hold up decision-making, vote tactically, or simply obstruct anything from getting done. More critical is that waiting could create a vacuum in which raging insecurity and angst cause financial markets to go haywire. In addition to the economic fallout, this unstable dead time would be made-to-order for anti-EU populist movements plotting their own “Leave” referendums. Britain’s bolting could cause a stampede; on the other hand, if Brexit happened fast enough, and the negative fallout for the U.K. was severe, it could discourage euroskeptics and reverse momentum.

Why then is Merkel alone in advocating a go-slow approach (other than the fact that her response to almost every crisis is go-slow)? One possibility is that she wants to cool tempers — to quiet things down so that the complicated, contentious Brexit can happen in the most ordered, dispassionate fashion possible. Moreover, for her, the EU is just one aspect of Germany’s amicable postwar partnership with Great Britain, and she wants that relationship to remain as congenial as possible for the sake of regional security and diplomatic harmony.

But there’s another underlying reason for Merkel’s cagey, measured approach. Namely: She has no master plan to keep the EU from unraveling.

Arguably, Merkel’s actions for over a decade have only aggravated the discontent of the European demos, not least the Brits. First and foremost, there’s the tight-money policy imposed uniformly across the Eurozone, and draconian austerity prescriptions for the southern Europeans who have kept just about all of Europe in recession and unemployment at record highs. The bailout measures imposed on countries in financial need were designed mostly to benefit German and French banks, and the conditions they imposed on the recipient governments have failed to produce growth, new jobs, or higher wages. Greece, the worst case, is trapped in a downward spiral from which it may never escape. Meanwhile, Germany’s exports continue to boom, as do its trade surpluses, which means that other countries run deficits. It’s hard to look at the EU economy and not think that it’s run by Germans to profit Germans.

Whether fair or not – and I think not – Merkel’s migration policies went down poorly with almost all its EU peers and have spurred the rise of far-right euroskeptical parties from Croatia to Denmark. The chancellor, very uncharacteristically, went out on a limb by suspending the Dublin II rules and opening the EU to waves of migrants last summer fleeing wars and hardship in the Middle East. This was the right thing for a number of reasons, I believe, not least because international law requires the acceptance of refugees. But it sent the Central Europeans, the Austrians, the British, and most every other EU member, too, into a tizzy. The Brits seemed to confuse Merkel’s refugee measures with the EU-internal labor market provisions that enabled Central Europeans to travel to their island to work. The fears unleashed by Merkel’s decision were potent stuff and made Germany and the EU many more enemies than friends.

Add to this the EU’s long-running democratic deficit that EU leaders have periodically tried to mend with Band-Aids. Various efforts to tinker around the edges, such as endowing the European Parliament with a smidgen of greater responsibility, were nothing close to enough to allay critics who demand, rightly, that EU decision-making be more democratic, transparent, and accountable.

There are as many proposals for wide-ranging reform of the EU as there are think tanks in Brussels, Berlin, and London. Some call for a bicameral European Parliament with powers to draft legislation, others for a European republic, while still others want EU Europe to revert to a giant free trade zone and little more. Few governments have put their names next to any of these blueprints. Many politicians in Berlin, and EU old-timers such as Juncker, want a more deeply integrated EU, both politically and economically, which almost all experts say is the only way that a monetary union (in the form of the eurozone) can work. Merkel, typically, has steered away from visionary pronouncements for the EU or a root-and-branch reform process, preferring to talk generally of ever-closer economic integration, including Brussels-based control over national budgets. The problem is that most EU nations seem to want the union to move in the other direction — that is, less Europe, not more. There’s nothing close to a consensus on how the EU should be reformed, and putting the odd man out – namely, Germany — in charge of it seems like a recipe for disaster.

The EU needs a remodeling and a fresh source of inspiration, something like the rallying cry for peace and prosperity that inspired enlargement and the integration process over the postwar decades. Simple gestures at peace and prosperity just don’t cut it anymore. Peace we take for granted, and Europe’s efforts at prosperity are concentrated on German interests, many Europeans believe. Over the weekend, the foreign ministers of the community’s founding members – Germany, France, Italy, and the Benelux countries – met to brainstorm about the EU of the future. They zeroed in on security (within EU borders and beyond) and investment in hard-hit regions as possible rallying points.

Might these thoughts mark a veering away from the austerity-über-alles policies of the past five years? It bears remembering that it wasn’t Merkel but Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a social Democrat, who attended the weekend powwow and broached the possibility of more spending and less saving. Renzi and Hollande have long been advocates of less restrictive, more Keynesian approaches to the euro and financial crises. According to German newscasts, they lobbied this in their meeting with Merkel. But at the Berlin news conference, which she led, Merkel made no mention of a shift in economic policy. Rather, she underscored the need to press forward with the hard, anodyne work of simply getting Europe through another week.

Photo credit: CARSTEN KOALL via Getty Images

Paul Hockenos is a Berlin-based journalist. His recent book is Berlin Calling: A Story of Anarchy, Music, the Wall and the Birth of the New Berlin (The New Press).

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