Brexit in Berlin Merkel Sizes Up the Next EU Crisis

Closed-door meetings, crisis talks, hastily arranged diplomatic consultations: Since the British voted to leave the EU, officials in Berlin have been rushing to figure out how to respond. What happens next?
German Chancellor Angela Merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel


The Brexit tremors hadn't even begun dissipating before Berlin switched into crisis mode. Since early on Friday morning, top politicians have been gathering for emergency meetings and confidential discussions to develop possible scenarios for a shrunken European Union. On Friday, Berlin hosted a meeting of six EU foreign ministers, who issued a statement calling for exit negotiations to begin soon, but the shock in Berlin still hasn't completely sunk it. After all, the government of Chancellor Angela Merkel had been adamant in its appeal to the British voters to remain in the EU.

Everybody in political Berlin is affected by the Brexit vote: diplomats, foreign policy experts, members of government and parliamentarians. And they will have their hands full for the foreseeable future. But what happens next?

Angela Merkel: a watershed moment

Angela Merkel: a watershed moment

Foto: Wolfgang Kumm/ dpa

Brexit and the Chancellor

Merkel had actually been hoping to spend Friday patching up relations with the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to the chancellor's Christian Democrats (CDU). Delegates from the two parties met in Potsdam in the hopes of setting aside their deep enmity that has grown over the past 10 months, primarily as a result of Merkel's refugee policies. But the meeting was postponed at the last minute to the late afternoon once the Brexit results began pouring in.

Instead, Merkel spent midday meeting in the Chancellery for an hour with parliamentary floor leaders. She did her best to seem unperturbed and focused the discussion on the exit proceedings the British must now follow in accordance with Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. No reason to panic, was her message, and it is one she stuck to throughout the day, including during her statement to the Berlin press corps.

Brexit, Merkel said, "is a watershed moment for Europe." But she added the consequences of this watershed moment depend on whether the remaining 27 member states "will be willing and able to avoid drawing quick and simple conclusions" from Britain's exit "that could further divide Europe." In other words, continue on as before and no overly hasty reforms.

On Saturday, she elaborated briefly on her hopes for the approaching negotiations with Britain, saying she hopes for a positive climate in the talks. She said there was "no need to be particularly nasty" in the negotiations and that "they must be conducted properly."

She also didn't appear to be in much of a hurry. In response to comments made earlier on Saturday by French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, in which he said that it was a "matter of respect" that Britain trigger the EU's exit clause soon, Merkel said: "To be honest, it shouldn't take forever, that's right. But I would not fight over a short period of time."

On neither Friday nor Saturday, however, has there been a joint appearance of coalition leaders, as took place during the 2008 banking crisis -- an absence that was rather conspicuous.

Sigmar Gabriel, head of the German Social Democrats

Sigmar Gabriel, head of the German Social Democrats

Foto: Wolfgang Kumm/ dpa

Brexit and the Social Democrats

There is, though, a likely explanation. The Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel's junior coalition partners, have a much different approach to Brexit than the chancellor. Party head Sigmar Gabriel, who is Merkel's vice chancellor, spoke on Friday of an "opportunity for a new beginning" for Europe. He would like to see less austerity and more investment.

Germany has thus far been "very reserved when it comes to creating jobs," he says. "Austerity alone doesn't create jobs in Europe." Had the two appeared together, it would not have been possible for Gabriel to voice such an indirect criticism of Merkel.

The SPD would like to respond to Brexit with a grand plan, a hope that was also apparent in a joint paper written by Gabriel together with European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who is also a member of Germany's SPD. "The conviction that Europe benefits everybody can only become stronger when we finally find a way out of the economic crisis," reads the paper, a copy of which SPIEGEL ONLINE has obtained. "A new economic upswing must have priority!" they write and call for an "economic Schengen." The two hope to discuss steps toward realizing the plan at the beginning of next week with French President François Hollande and other leading center-left politicians in Europe.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (at the lectern) flanked by, from left to right, his counterparts from Luxembourg, Italy, Belgium, France and the Netherlands.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (at the lectern) flanked by, from left to right, his counterparts from Luxembourg, Italy, Belgium, France and the Netherlands.


Brexit and Foreign Policy

Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, also a senior member of the SPD, is calling for a "flexible" EU together with his French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault. The two met on Saturday in Berlin with the foreign ministers of Italy, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium, countries that, together with France and Germany, represent the six founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community. The group issued a joint statement  following the meeting which, echoing Merkel's language, called Brexit a "watershed moment in the history of Europe."

Furthermore, the paper called for efforts to work for a more cohesive EU while also providing insight into the kind of flexibility they have in mind. "We shall ... recognize different levels of ambition amongst Member States when it comes to this project of European integration," they wrote. "While not stepping back from what we have achieved, we have to find better ways of dealing with these different levels of ambition so as to ensure that Europe delivers better on the expectations of all European citizens."

The foreign ministers likewise urged that Britain quickly invoke Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon so as to begin the negotiation process as soon as possible and avoid a prolonged period of uncertainty following Brexit. Steinmeier said that "intensive European discussions" are needed. "We understand the result and understand that Britain will now concentrate on Britain," he continued, but added that the country has a responsibility to engage with the EU on leaving the bloc.

His French counterpart Jean-Marc Ayrault added: "There is a certain urgency ... so that we don't have a period of uncertainty, with financial consequences, political consequences."

Brexit is a bitter pill to swallow for Germany. Britain was a frequent ally when it came to financial policy and EU spending. Together Berlin and London often joined together in criticism of the lax approach other EU member states exhibited with their own finances.

It is almost certain that Steinmeier and Ayrault are right, that Germany and France will play a leading role in reshaping a rattled EU. Coordination between Paris and Berlin is more important than ever. That, though, may not be as easy as it has been in the past. France is facing significant economic problems and the relationship between Merkel and Hollande has not always been a harmonious one. Furthermore, Germany is facing a general election in 2017 and France, too, will choose a new president that same year, with Hollande's chances for re-election not looking good. Furthermore, the right-wing populist Front National could give the establishment parties a run for their money.

The big question, though, is whether a two-speed Europe will emerge from the current crisis, one in which a limited number of strong countries push ahead and deepen their cooperation. The Steinmeier-Ayrault paper discussed by the six foreign ministers in Berlin on Saturday seems to allow for the possibility that some EU member states may not be interested in deeper European integration.

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen

German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen


Brexit and Defense Policy

Britain will remain in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), of course. But the German Defense Ministry admits that it is unclear what will happen with joint EU military missions. If Britain pulls out, new command structures for all maritime operations must be quickly established.

Currently, the anti-piracy mission Atalanta, which patrols the waters off the coast of Somalia, and the recently launched operation targeting migrant smugglers in the Mediterranean are both commanded and organized from the Northwood Command Center just outside of London.

No other EU member state would likely be able to take over that role on short notice. Berlin officials are thus hoping that London will continue to participate in the EU operations. But it is completely unclear what will happen with ongoing efforts to establish a joint military and security policy. That question will have to be addressed in the days ahead.

What Next?

In the coming days, there will be plenty of meetings between top European politicians to discuss the way forward, such as that which took place in Berlin on Saturday. First, however, Europe will be keeping a close eye on Spain on Sunday, where voters will be casting their ballots in snap elections. There, too, Euroskeptics have gained strength in recent months.

On Monday, Merkel plans to meet with Hollande, European Council President Donald Tusk and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi in the Chancellery ahead of the Tuesday EU summit. There is also a special session of German parliament on Tuesday at which Merkel will speak.

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