The morning after the UK’s decision to leave the EU, as I was on my way from the University of Braunschweig, in Lower Saxony, where I had given a talk on Brexit, to the hotel, a German taxi driver told me that the Brexit vote is a catastrophe for Britain and for Germany.
The prospect of Brexit had been widely covered in the German media in recent weeks in a well-informed and comprehensive debate. Two weeks before the referendum, the magazine Der Spiegel published an edition in German and English under the title: “Please don’t go/Bitte geht nicht”, accompanied by an image of the Union Flag.
Der Spiegel’s key message was that it was “smarter” for the UK to stay in the European Union. The magazine argued that the future of the West was at stake, and that the referendum was about preserving Europe’s competitiveness in a time of change and struggle between world powers.
Not only would Brexit damage Britain and the EU as a whole, it would also be a catastrophe for Germany. If Britain left the EU, Germany would lose an important ally, one that is much admired by Germans, especially by the post-war generation inspired by the British sense of freedom. Without the UK, the magazine argued, Germany would be “condemned” to take on a leadership role in Europe that it does not want.
Der Spiegel’s forthright approach was in contrast to German politicians’ reticence to express strong opinions before the vote. British Prime Minister David Cameron had asked his European counterparts not to get involved, lest they inflame anti-EU sentiment. For this reason, there were few significant interventions by German politicians during the referendum campaign.
Merkel: no kneejerk response
In the early hours of June 24, when the results of the referendum were announced, German politicians maintained the same approach. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel, made only a short statement, calling the result a watershed moment for the process of European unification, and one that she personally regrets. At the same time, she warned against a kneejerk response to the referendum result, calling for calm and prudence in the EU’s dealings with the UK.
She acknowledged that across the whole of the EU, many citizens have doubts about greater European integration. “Therefore”, Merkel said, “we must ensure that the citizens feel that the EU can improve their lives. The EU is strong enough to find the right responses to today’s problems.” She added that it was now important for the 27 other member states to stand together and make sure that the EU finds a common solution.
There were few signs of complacency in German politicians’ reactions towards the vote. Many fear a domino effect, citing the example of Marine LePen, the leader of the French far-right Front National, who has now called for France to hold its own “Frexit” referendum.
In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), a Eurosceptic far-right populist party, is on the rise and predicted to win over five per cent of the votes and enter the Bundestag in the 2017 federal elections. Many German commentators fear the AfD and other similar parties across Europe will repeat UKIP’s electoral appeal, which is based on bundling up opposition to the EU with a strong anti-immigration stance.
Not surprisingly, in the aftermath of the vote, the German media has been focusing a great deal on the economic consequences of the Brexit vote. While the initial slump in the value of sterling was reported as being bad and dangerous for the British economy, a number of German economists also stressed that Frankfurt, Germany’s financial capital, could actually attract investments and money away from the City of London. Britain’s loss would be Germany’s gain. But such voices were in the minority.
The overwhelming message across all forms of German media has been one of regret on the result. Most Germans think that the EU is necessary to address common European and global challenges, and they also think that the EU needs the UK.