Irrespective of petitions, speculation about when Article 50 will be triggered and the implosion of the UK’s two leading political parties, one thing is certain in post-referendum Britain – the country has voluntarily and irrevocably surrendered its privileged place within the inner circle of EU leaders.
Nature – and politics – abhors a vacuum. The UK’s departure will inevitably result in a shift in the informal power politics of the EU. We are likely to see a resurgence and reconfiguration of the Franco-German alliance.
The political leaders of the EU member states play an increasingly crucial role in European Union politics. Their formal role within the European Council is supplemented by informal meetings called when an unexpected crisis needs an urgent response.
Underpinning these inclusive informal gatherings, under the radar of media and party interests, are more select ad hoc meetings held by variable leadership coalitions. Until now these have almost always involved the undisputed managers of the EU’s informal politics – France, Germany, and, except for matters involving the eurozone, the UK. So how will the UK’s fall from grace change this inner circle?
In the short term, it seems unlikely that another member state will be elevated to take the UK’s place. None of the other western countries has the political and economic weight to stake a plausible claim.
In recent years, Germany has forged a closer partnership with Poland over the EU’s eastern neighbourhood (a relationship that was both deepened and strained through the Ukraine crisis). Eastern enlargement has yet to be cemented at deeper cultural, social and economic levels and Poland’s contribution as interlocutor has been welcomed as a means of promoting integration between east and west. However, differences between the western and more recent eastern member states remain stark. France in particular would find Poland’s strong pro-US and pro-NATO stance hard to stomach. The last thing the inner circle would want would be a new irritant to replace the exiting awkward partner.
The logical conclusion is a further strengthening of the Franco-German alliance that has long been the mainstay of the European project. Since the 1960s, France has pursued its vision of Europe as a global power through a special relationship with Germany.
Originally tolerated rather than valued, Germany rapidly developed into the leading economic force within the EEC and its successor organisations. Conscious of its need for post-war rehabilitation, Germany avoided an autonomous political role, operating instead through the Franco-German alliance.
Recent years have witnessed a shift in the balance of power within the Franco-German alliance. While France’s political and economic standing in the EU has declined, Germany’s star has risen. The conclusion of the EU’s eastern enlargement (rather than France’s preferred expansion southwards, to incorporate additional Mediterranean/North African countries) greatly enhanced Germany’s geostrategic position within the EU. It is telling that it was taken for granted that Germany would assume responsibility for managing the 2008 eurozone crisis.
However, Germany remains reluctant to adopt a unilateral leadership role within the EU. For one thing, its lack of experience in international security and ongoing reluctance to lead in this area undermines its external credibility. France is the only remaining member state with a claim to be a global security actor.
And with one eye always on its past, Germany’s leaders continue to exercise restraint. They are fully aware that they are operating at the limits of their authority. The backlash from the EU’s German-led austerity programme demonstrates that Germany is damned if it does lead and damned if it doesn’t.
Going forward, Germany will be aware that it has the weight to act alone as uncrowned leader of the now 27 member states. It will nevertheless prefer to work with and through its traditional alliance with the French.
Shortly before the UK referendum vote, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier held a meeting with his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault. He declared afterwards that whatever the outcome, the two countries would “jointly take on the responsibility of ensuring that the European Union continues and can function”.
However, the balance of power has shifted definitively towards a Germano-French alliance. Hampered by the general atrophy of its position within the EU role and amid far-right calls for Frexit, the French can no longer boss this relationship. Both president François Hollande and chancellor Angela Merkel made statements after the Brexit vote. Merkel’s have received more media coverage by far.
A message for Brussels
A second impact of the departure of the UK from the inner circle is a growing divide between national leaders and the highest officials of the EU – particularly European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
Juncker holds that all the EU’s ills can be cured through deeper integration. Many of the member state leaders are themselves not averse to “more Union”, particularly when it comes to the single market. But European governments have been exposed to the flames fanned by the UK’s Brexit debate and vote. Populist parties in the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and France have called either for their own referendum to leave the EU or a renegotiation of their relationship.
Brexit has highlighted failing confidence in the EU across the bloc, accompanied by growing discontent with a treaty framework straining under a weight of compromises and an unwieldy and fragmented decision-making structure. The member state leaders have been more ready than the EU’s officials to admit that in order to thrive and maybe even to survive, the EU will have to change.