Merkel's Chief of Staff on Brexit 'Advice from Outside Out of Place'
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's chief of staff, Peter Altmaier, discusses the consequences of Brexit for Europe and why he believes the British should be given the time they need to contemplate the consequences of their vote to leave the EU.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Altmaier, on Wednesday, the European Council, the powerful body made up of leaders from EU member states, met for the first time in 40 years without Britain. In your view, can Brexit still be prevented?
Altmaier: The result of the referendum was clearly in favor of withdrawal. That disappointed us, but we must respect it. But we can also see that the debate over how to handle the results is only just beginning. Wisdom demands that we wait and see the outcome of this debate.
SPIEGEL: Would it please you if there were still a political means for keeping Britain in the EU?
Altmaier: I have always desired for Britain to be a strong member state in the EU, especially from a German perspective. The Brits must first decide if and when they want to submit a request to withdraw. No one knows what demands the new government will put forward. Advice from the outside would be entirely out of place.
SPIEGEL: You have said that politicians in London should be given the possibility to rethink the consequences of withdrawing from the EU. It sounds as if you are hoping they will change their minds.
Altmaier: At the moment, that seems rather unlikely. But reflection is taking place everywhere -- for example what it means to reverse 40 years of integration, to leave the single market or to lose influence over how it is shaped. British institutions should be given the possibility to discuss these consequences.
SPIEGEL: There is a tradition in the EU of simply holding multiple referenda until you get the desired result.
Altmaier: You're hinting at the votes in Ireland on the Treaty of Nice and the Treaty of Lisbon. The EU didn't have the votes repeated, Ireland did so itself. Germany's constitution does not permit such referenda for good reasons.
SPIEGEL: Horst Seehofer, the head of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, has been advocating strongly to change that.
Altmaier: I think it is right for us to continue to be reserved at the federal level about plebiscitary elements -- especially if such decisions have direct effects on other countries, as is the case with Britain right now.
SPIEGEL: What does the British vote tell us about Europe?
Altmaier: Globally, the EU has enormous allure and enjoys a great degree of respect. But the debate has become strongly polarized in many member states. There are very different notions about how Europe should continue. Many federalists want to take advantage of the situation to integrate Europe even further. Others would like to roll back the level of integration. But a change to the EU treaties, as some are demanding, stands no chance currently because they can only be agreed to in a unanimous vote.
SPIEGEL: Are the words of Jacques Delors true -- that "Europe is like a bicycle. Stop moving forward and you fall?"
Altmaier: Yes, but the implementation of integration is not an end in itself. It is a means to the end of meeting political, economic and social challenges. It is only when we are no longer capable of doing so that the bicycle falls over.
SPIEGEL: For European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and EU Parliament President Martin Schulz, the answer lies in more Europe.
Altmaier: We have undergone paradoxical developments in recent years: On the one hand, many in Europe are again placing value in their national identities. At the same time, globalization has led to a situation in which individual nation-states are less able to address current problems on their own. That's why we must act with prudence. Simply calling for more Europe is not enough.