Ever since German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, tried to persuade a reluctant Churchill to join the nascent European project in the years immediately following World War II, successive German leaders have acknowledged the weight Britain lends to the EU, if not always its political aims and negotiating style.
While collaboration between Britain and Germany in Europe has been overshadowed by the more formal Franco-German alliance, the two form part of an informal group of leading member states whose influence is clearly seen in the agenda-setting European Council meetings.
Chancellor Angela Merkel would prefer Britain to stay in the European Union after its referendum on membership. Brexit would have adverse consequences both for Germany’s domestic politics and for the EU, which remains almost exclusively the focus and domain of Germany’s foreign policy.
In the event of Brexit, Germany would lose an important ally in its free market economic approach within Europe. Germany and Britain are on the same page when it comes to pushing for austerity and promoting a pro-business agenda.
Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble has spoken of the damage Brexit could do to the EU’s economy and structures. Without Britain, the economic power of the EU would would be reduced by 17%, diminishing Germany’s leadership role in global economic affairs. As the largest net contributor to the EU budget, Germany would feel the withdrawal of Britain’s input disproportionately.
Brexit would also dent the credibility of the EU’s foreign and security policy. Acting seprately from the EU, Britain would complicate EU security relations with the US and NATO. Germany would come under pressure from the US and France to “normalise” its anachronistic culture of restraint in military matters more rapidly than it would like.
That said, it wouldn’t all be plain sailing if the British public votes to stay either. Germany would find it difficult to reconcile Britain remaining in the EU with its overarching aims for the European project as it favours closer ties, particularly in areas such as economic and monetary union; migration; internal security and justice; and energy. That is in stark contrast to the UK’s deep aversion to further political integration.
Germans back Bremain
Meanwhile, public opinion about the prospect of Brexit is far less ambivalent in Germany than in the UK. The research institute Forschungsgruppe Wahlen found that 73% of Germans judged the UK’s continuing membership of the EU as “very important”, or “important”. Only 23% of respondents thought it “not so important” or “really not important” for Britain to stay.
This unambiguous position partly relates to concerns about the future shape of the European union – a pressing concern for Germany.
Currently, 48% of Germans think Europe is in the grip of a severe crisis and 7% that it is facing imminent collapse. And 39% at least think the EU faces major problems.
For government leaders whose citizens traditionally associated the EU with stability in Germany and in Europe, this must be deeply unsettling.
Feelings about Brexit are also linked to the immigration debate. As the refugee crisis takes its toll, Germans show little confidence in the official government line. In the February poll, a significant majority of 58% opted for the reintroduction of state border controls, even at a cost to the freedom of movement associated with the single European market. And 58% of Germans now believe the country will struggle to integrate the bulk of the recent arrivals into the workforce.
This pattern of public opinion suggests a quandary for Merkel. If Britain goes, German confidence in the European project may fall even further. If it stays, Britain embodies an alternative approach to reform in Europe that may speak more to the German public than the positions espoused by her own national government.
As David Cameron sought to renegotiate the UK’s place in the EU, in a bid to convince Brexiters to vote to remain, Germany notably refrained from setting red lines or formulating joint positions with Cameron over EU reform.
Typically, Merkel left Cameron to kick up a storm over issues only marginally relevant to Germany while she worked on keeping broader alliance options open. While she continues to offer understated support for Cameron’s project, there is a view in Germany that he needs her more than she needs him.
For Merkel, the challenge is a complex one: how to use the flames fuelled by the debate on border control and other issues to Germany and Europe’s best advantage without undermining the eurozone austerity programme or derailing the remain campaign in the UK.
While not unimportant, for Merkel the British referendum is the least of these concerns. She will not stand in the way of Cameron’s attempts to keep Britain in, but neither will she go to the wire over it