As part of my time in Germany this summer I am trying to learn about the country’s political situation along with the language. While the acceptance over the past year of over a million refugees is the major event shaping German politics currently, Britain’s recent referendum on its membership in the European Union (EU)–which is not unrelated to the matter of refugees and immigration–also has received significant scrutiny here and likely has serious consequences for the country. As one of Britain’s strongest allies on the continent, and as one of the EU’s leading nation’s, Germany’s perspective on the UK’s referendum decision to leave the EU highlights some of the central issues at stake in this major development.
Britain’s EU referendum (often referred to using the neologism “Brexit”) is a difficult phenomena to summarize. A motley cast of political actors are allegedly involved: fear-mongers, technocrats, cosmopolitans, a disaffected British working class, immigrants, racists, nationalists, the young, the old, Little Englanders, Europeans, patriots, economists, globalists, and a politician nicknamed “BoJo.” In spite of this carnivalesque scene, however, there are two basic takes on the British referendum that can be illustrated by way of reference–since we are talking about Britain–to a pair of famous Monty Python scenes. On one hand, Britain sounds like the leader of the People’s Front of Judea from Life of Brian, naively and pompously asking, in spite of a long list of benefits, “What have the Romans ever done for us?” Understood in this spirit, the vote to leave the EU is a foolhardy, small-minded, even ethnically motivated repudiation of the broader human flourishing brought about by its membership in the EU. On the other hand, Britain’s choice also recalls the anarcho-syndicalist peasant in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, who tells King Arthur that “Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses,” and when threatened by the monarch cries out, “Help, I’m being repressed!” If the peasant’s perspective is taken as a guide to Britain’s decision, it becomes a matter of a democratic country reclaiming its national sovereignty back from an elite bureaucracy out of touch with the lives of the people. Both of these examples are too simple to stand on their own, but taken together I think they illustrate well the questions animating Britain’s EU referendum decision: what sovereign powers and privileges should nations in a supranational organization like the EU possess, at what point should the inevitable limits of a political relationship be considered as ground for terminating that relationship?
For those who consider the EU a self-evident good, a glorious international project built on free trade and free movement, it would be good to turn away from Britain towards the continent and remember the national interests that drove the formation of the EU’s predecessor organizations, for example, France’s desire for a political platform to spread their interests across Europe, and Germany’s concern to establish a new role for itself post WWII. Along with recognizing the persistence and even dominance of national agendas in the EU supposedly supranational framework, liberal critics of Britain’s referendum decision should also take into account arguments in favor of Brexit coming from the left, which question the ability of the EU to be a working against inequality or to be reformed democratically. The EU is not the institution many, especially Americans, perhaps, imagine it to be, and I think Rachel Donadio of the New York Times is right to say that the referendum “signaled the definitive end of the era of transnational optimism.”
The again, the EU is probably not exactly what Britons voting to leave imagine it to be either. Just as the anarcho-syndicalist peasant, however justified in his grievances, probably overestimates the nature of King Arthur’s hegemonic power, so too Britain may overestimate the EU as a monolithic institution. Thinking about the continent again, specifically Germany, is helpful here. While it is true that some leaders in the EU such as the President of its executive branch, Jean-Claude Juncker, wish move towards a superstate model where national powers are transfered to the EU, the current attitude towards Brexit, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, is that elected national leaders should negotiate the terms of Britain’s departure, not EU officials. Germany takes this stance to a great extent out of self-interest: with the EU’s largest population and strongest economy, Germany can maintain its position of strength and influence by advocating for the autonomy for EU nation states, emphasizing cooperation rather than integration. Britain’s decision to leave the EU is a great loss for Germany, which shares with the UK a more democratic and capitalist outlook that its other major ally (and rival), France. And while French President François Hollande has pushed for Britain to make a quick exit, Merkel has cautioned Europeans leaders to “avoid drawing quick and simple conclusions that could further divide Europe.”
Europe is already, of course, quite divided, and this state is both a cause and consequence of Britain’s referendum: Perhaps the biggest mistake made by both Brexiters and European Unionists is to imagine the EU as a monolithic political entity. Living in Germany this summer makes me a little more aware of the country’s unique place in European politics. In some ways Germany and its recent open borders to refugees represents a major characteristic of the European project some British voters are wary of. Then again, Germany is much like Britain in that it maintains a strong interest in its own national sovereignty. It is therefore somewhat in the middle of Europe politically, as it is in the middle of Europe geographically. Whether the middle can hold together remains to be seen.