View from Berlin: Subdued shock

Political Berlin has been has been in a state of subdued shock following the Brexit vote.

Political Berlin has been has been in a state of subdued shock following the Brexit vote. While politicians and officials have kept their cards close to their chests in recent weeks to avoid making headlines about preparing for the possibility of a “Brexit”, the federal government has never ruled out this scenario. The British EU debate was viewed as having spun out of control – a perception that was proven right by the referendum results. Regret is the theme of the day, but with a commitment to hold the course.

The Foreign Office was the first to react to the news on Friday morning by announcing that Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was to convene his colleagues from the other five founding EU member states in Berlin on Saturday. This group began meeting ahead of the 2017 celebrations of the Treaties of Rome to explore how far views still converged on the overall direction of the Union, indirectly acknowledging that conversations among the 28 had become arduous.

Angela Merkel made a press statement later in the morning with two messages: one for the UK, and one directed at the EU at large.

The Chancellor called the vote a “caesura” or break, but made clear that relations with the UK would not change immediately. She also gave an insight into Berlin’s expected timeframe, suggesting it would take days, weeks, months, or even years to build a complete picture of future relations between the EU and the UK. Merkel underlined that for her the work began today, and would perhaps last for longer than some would wish.

Merkel’s message to the Union at large was one of confidence in the EU27 to demonstrate that it could deal with the challenge, and a call for Union members to invest in making the positive case for membership to its citizens. Berlin is clearly worried about the risk of contagion from the British vote. The chancellor said that Germany had a special interest in and responsibility for deepening integration, and underlined that Berlin’s commitment to ever-closer union (even though she avoided the term as such) was unaffected by the British vote. Merkel announced that she was going to meet with the French president and Italian prime minister in Berlin on Tuesday ahead of the EU summit, extending the Franco-German axis to Rome.

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who ahead of the vote put the hard line “in is in, and out is out” mantra, suggested – in a move that had been anticipated – that now the EU would have to make the best of the situation. Merkel pointed out that she was not thinking of punishing the UK, but was committed to finding a way towards close cooperation in the future.

The German Federation of Industries (BDI) raised concerns about the longer term and immediate impact that the vote would have on trade relations between the UK and Germany, including foreign direct investment. From the point of view of the business community, a swift move towards a new settlement would be welcome, ending a period of uncertainty.

But the political atmosphere in London that has been observed closely from Berlin over the past days suggests that this might be wishful thinking. The government in Berlin is prepared for a longer ride, and is therefore focusing on where it can make a difference, that means in keeping the EU27 together. “We must not allow ourselves to become hysterical or paralysed by shock”, Foreign Minister Steinmeier said ahead of the meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg on Friday, and that “while we are losing one member state we are working to make Europe strong”. On Saturday, Steinmeier met with his counterparts from the other five founding members. The foreign ministers asked the UK to start exit negotiations swiftly, and again underlined their commitment to the Union. The German foreign minister also announced that he was to hold meetings with other EU foreign ministers shortly: with his colleague from Slovakia on Sunday, and with the Baltic and Visegrad states. There is a concern that following the Brexit vote countries in Central and Eastern Europe will challenge the EU security and defence structures – a sensitive subject a few weeks ahead of the NATO summit in Warsaw, in which Europe is supposed to show a united stance on European security. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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