Brexit Weltschmerz: An era ends

Britain helped bring modern, unified, and peaceful Germany into being. Its Brexit convulsions have trashed this historic reputation – probably for good.  

Britain’s unending attempt to leave the European Union has made its impact felt on the last few years – and now the lame duck months – of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship. Back in 2016, the shock of the Brexit referendum result led the German leader to engage in some unusual, for her, activism on the European stage. Merkel set out to reaffirm the integration concept, deepen political cooperation, and hold the remaining EU members together. Since then, just as Brexit itself has slowly run out of steam and lost direction, so momentum for EU reform in Berlin has also diminished to something approaching a defence of the status quo. To Emmanuel Macron, the drag that Brexit places on European matters will constitute precious time lost, while for Merkel it is likely valuable time won – time to show that Europe is still standing, time to cool the tempers of nationalists in EU governments, time to wait for a better moment to make progress on integration. In sum, time that would reward those who held on throughout the Brexit troubles.

Behind the façade of such tactical patience, Brexit affects Germany more deeply than its leaders will admit. Along with the Netherlands, the economic consequences of the Brexit process and all of its potential final forms hit hardest in Germany. Britain is an important market and investment destination in the EU, one which has been stagnating and shrinking ever since the referendum. Investment decisions by German companies are held up, also negatively affecting other locations in the value chains of German industry. Nevertheless, German businesses have not given in to the temptation to lobby the government in Berlin in favour of a softer position in the Brexit negotiations. Business leaders have understood and supported Merkel’s rejection of British advances, her insistence on a unified position for the 27, and the defence of the EU’s acquis in the negotiations.

The last three British prime ministers have all demonstrated a stubborn belief that Britain is somehow indispensable for Germany; that they are able to exert special leverage over Berlin; and that the German government would therefore wield its power in Brussels to secure Britain a soft landing. To this day, German officials finds all this simply astonishing. It puzzles them to learn that others assume their tough words to be mere cover for behind-the-scenes political power manoeuvres by Berlin. In their view, they mean what they say and they say what they mean.

Westminster democracy has suffered serious damage in the eyes of the German political class

But there is a deeper harm taking hold too. Westminster democracy has suffered serious damage in the eyes of the German political class. This has an antecedent: ever since the both governments completed their last real shared project – the single market – German admiration for Britain’s traditional pragmatism has been steadily shrinking. In the intense reform debates of the 1990s and 2000s, London became less engaged, and even less ambitious. It thus ceased to be of central significance to Germany’s EU policy. The British government was either absent from advances in integration in areas such as justice and home affairs or the Common Security and Defence Policy; or it outright opposed them. As ECFR’s EU Coalition Explorer has shown, for years now The Hague has taken the place of Berlin’s other most important partner in the EU after Paris.

There is an important historical – and potentially historic – note to this decline too. After the second world war, the United States and the United Kingdom together comprised the largest formative influence on the creation of the West German. From the big decisions about the parliamentary system; to the structures of government at local level; to economic and trade policy; to the licensing of newspapers and journals, radio and television, the British hand was of critical importance. Then, Washington and London provided stability and support to the second German republic. This anchoring of Germany proved essential to Franco-German reconciliation and the successive creation of the layers of European integration.

The self-destructive convulsions of British politics around exiting the EU are also tarnishing the monumental reputation Britain earned in bringing modern Germany into being. The disillusionment runs even deeper in light of the changing role of the US, the erratic unilateralism and isolationism of the Trump administration, and the president’s verbal attacks on Germany. Neither godparent to West German democracy can now claim the mantle of role model.

A chapter of German history is finally coming to a close: one which saw a stable, democratic, and prosperous republic rise from the ashes of the most brutal regime in its history to, in turn, lead in Europe; unified at last, and at peace with all of its neighbours. Germany’s patrons have turned away, and there is no going back – no matter where Brexit eventually leads.

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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