Germany and Brexit Berlin Has Everything To Lose if Britain Leaves

Will the British really leave the EU? For Germany it would be a catastrophe. And yet Chancellor Merkel is still avoiding strident anti-Brexit warnings lest she boost its supporters.
British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel

British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel


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The world's most powerful woman doesn't dare. Of course Angela Merkel is urgently hoping that Britain will stay a part of the European Union, but the German chancellor prefers not to say it too loudly.

On June 2, Merkel made a small exception, which the British media in turn described as her "strongest intervention in the Brexit debate so far" and even a breaking of her "self-imposed silence." During a press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Merkel's Chancellery, a BBC journalist asked the German leader if the possibility of Brexit concerned her.

In a lengthy yet circumspect reply , she said negotiations were better conducted internally than publicly. She didn't really offer anything memorable -- except, perhaps, at the end of the press conference, when she offered: "I don't want to give rise to any misunderstandings -- the people in Britain are the ones who have a say here, who are the ones to decide."

But the angst is mounting in German political circles -- fears of Brexit. So too are fears that passionate appeals from Germany for Britain to remain in the EU may have exactly the opposite effect, instead providing fuel to the Brexiteers.

The Message from the UK: Stay Out of It

It has been reported that the Brits themselves requested  German and other EU leaders to remain restraint on the issue. British Prime Minister David Cameron reportedly made the request as he negotiated for special concession for the United Kingdom in February with other EU leaders in order to make continued membership more attractive to his people. The message was to stay out of the debate -- no interviews with the British press and no appearances addressing the issue in the UK, so that Brexit backers wouldn't be able to turn around and say: This is exactly what bothers us, this endless paternalism and heavy-handedness from Berlin and Brussels. In a recent interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said, it would be "intelligent and correct to remain as silent as possible."

At the same time, the German government has many reasons not to keep mum, because the United Kingdom's withdrawal from the EU would be a disaster for Germany.

And it's by no means just the threat of turbulence on the financial markets or other economic consequences that concerns German politicians. Britain is Germany's third largest trading partner, with an export volume of €€89 billion in 2016. More than 2,500 German companies are active in the country. Conversely, around 3,000 British companies also have subsidiaries in Germany. In the absence of the single market, these tight connections would become more complicated.

For Germany, however, what is at stake is more fundamental. European consensus is an intrinsic part of Germany's postwar identity; the aim of a united Europe as an official national goal is anchored in the German federal constitution. If Britain were to bid adieu, it would deal a blow to the EU from which it would be very difficult to recover. And this at a time when the EU already finds itself in the middle of an historic crisis.

In Berlin, politicians fear that Brexit would further strengthen those forces that appear to be pulling the EU apart. In the east, where much-cited European solidarity has been pushed to the limits. In the south, where economies still haven't recovered from the euro crisis. And everywhere where right-wing populists and euroskeptics are on the rise. If the Brits go, it could send the signal that Europe is cracking.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble believes it is entirely plausible that other European countries could follow the British example and then leave the EU. "That cannot be ruled out -- it is conceivable theoretically," the politician, a member of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union, told  SPIEGEL. "How, for example, would the Netherlands react, as a country that has traditionally had very close ties to Britain?"

German Needs Britain as a Counterweight to France

But that's not all. The cherry picking and eternal special requests from other EU member states in the future may be irritating, but there's an even bigger issue: Germany needs Britain inside the EU as a partner and as a market-friendly counterweight to socialist ruled France. This has become even more important with the recent cooling of relations between Germany and France, a pairing once described as the motor of Europe. In many areas -- including the single market, free trade, competitiveness, cutting of red tape, and particularly in economic and finance policy -- Germany and Britain have similar interests.

Without Britain, which is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a nuclear power, the EU's importance in foreign and security policy would also decline dramatically. "This Europe would be taken less seriously," warns Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Merkel's foreign policy advisor in the Chancellery, Christoph Heusgen, says: "Without having the British as a partner, the EU would not have the same weight as an EU with the British." And even though Britain wouldn't, of course, disappear from the world stage, Brexit would still force Germany to take on greater responsibility within the EU.

It's little surprise, then, that officials in the Chancellery these days are closely monitoring each new poll in Britain. In or out? At the moment, the race is extremely close, but it is safe to say that Brexit fans have definitely caught up in recent weeks.

So far, the word has been that Merkel still has no plans to woo the British in the final leg of the Brexit campaign. But behind the scenes, officials have been preparing for the worst  for some time now. In his SPIEGEL interview, however, Merkel's finance minister, Schäuble, sought to reassure, saying, "Europe will also work without Britain if necessary."

Lesen Sie auch / More on Brexit:

Leitartikel von DER SPIEGEL und SPIEGEL ONLINE: Wer klug ist, bleibt

English Editorial: It's smarter to stay

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