Berlin and Paris have long been seen as the main political drivers for the European Union project. When Britain voted last month to quit the 28-member bloc, it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande to whom the leadership role beckoned for rallying a «united Europe» and defending the core concept of the EU.
However, this circling of wagons by the EU’s top two nations is prone to debilitating competing nationalist interests. And those diverging interests will tend to undermine the much-heralded unity of purpose between Berlin and Paris. What we can expect, in the aftermath of the Brexit, is increasing tensions between Germany and France that could, in turn, lead to further fracturing of the EU.
Already a notable divergence of positions has emerged. When Britain’s new Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May embarked on her first foreign visit last week she was scheduled to meet Chancellor Merkel in Berlin, followed the next day by a reception with President Hollande at the Élysée Palace, Paris. May had to wait until the evening on the second day to be received by Hollande who had earlier that same day gone on an official visit to the Republic of Ireland. His strange absence looked like Hollande was sending the British leader a sly snub.
More substantively was the contrasting German and French positions on the Brexit process. The British premier had announced that there would be no formal commencement of Britain’s departure from the EU until early next year. Britain, said May, needed to formulate suitable economic terms with the EU before it would sign Article 50 of the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, thus triggering the exit process.
On this delayed departure from the EU by Britain, the German chancellor appeared to be in comfortable agreement with her British counterpart. Merkel said she understood the importance for Britain to obtain economic matters in order.
By contrast, Hollande reportedly adopted a much more vexed attitude, demanding «the sooner the better» Britain leaves the EU. While the French president appeared to soften his hardline stance on meeting May, he nevertheless continued to express his government’s frustration with Britain. Speaking alongside the British leader, Hollande said that Britain cannot continue to avail of the single market while imposing restrictions on freedom of movement.
This differing position between Berlin and Paris towards the Brexit was apparent immediately following the British referendum result. The French have been pushing a policy for more abrupt termination in Britain’s membership of the EU compared with the Germans.
The divergence betrays separate nationalist interests between Germany and France.
For Germany, the issue is economics. Britain has in recent years emerged as a key global trading partner for German exports. The United Kingdom market for German goods is nearly twice that of France.
Germany’s annual trade surplus with Britain has reportedly reached about €48 billion, or about 25 per cent of Germany’s total trade surplus with the rest of the world. Given the strategic importance of export-led economic growth for the German government, Britain thus represents a vital partner, and one not to be treated in a high-handed manner. No wonder then that Merkel appears to show understanding towards London’s bargaining on economic terms. The chancellor knows that a testy severance with Britain could hit her exporters with punitive trade tariffs.
And one senses that Britain is well aware of its bargaining strength owing to Berlin’s vested interests. This was hinted at by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson when he commented while in New York last Friday that economic dependency meant that it was «manifestly in the interests of our [EU] friends to continue with a good relationship».
For France, Britain is, of course, an important trading partner too. In their respective global rankings, both rank each other in fifth position for exports and imports. Whereas for Germany and Britain the mutual global ranking for each other’s exports and imports is second and third. That is, for Germany and Britain, economics are dominant, as reported in the Wall Street Journal.
What seems to be of greater urgency to France is the political repercussion of the Brexit. Hollande’s nominally Socialist government is facing challenging presidential and parliamentary elections early next year. Of concern to both the incumbent Socialists and the rival centre-right Les Republicans of Nicolas Sarkozy is the meteoric rise of the National Front, led by Marine Le Pen.
Le Pen’s party is stridently anti-EU and has championed the Brexit result a blow against Brussels’ «totalitarianism». As the Financial Times reported shortly after the British referendum: «The [French] anti-euro, anti-immigration party has consistently attracted the largest share of votes in the first round of local and European elections in the past two years. Its leader Marine Le Pen, who is expected to qualify for the second round of next year’s presidential election, has already seized on the In-Out campaign to call for a similar referendum on French membership if she wins powers».
What the French establishment fears is the «contagion» of the Brexit breaking into a fever pitch over the next months up to the national elections.
Such is popular discontent with the political establishment, not only in France but across the entire EU, over economic austerity, perceived immigration problems, terrorism, futile sanctions and tensions with Russia, and a servile following of Washington’s foreign policies that Le Pen’s National Front is in with a good chance of tapping a huge protest vote.
The more that the Brexit debacle drags on the more grist it will provide to the political mill of Le Pen, as well as other anti-EU parties ascending in Netherlands, Italy, Denmark and Germany.
With France’s National Front already making significant electoral gains in recent years, the last thing that the Paris authorities want to see is for Le Pen to derive a further boost from the Brexit. If Britain makes the departure from the EU drawn out by wrangling over divorce terms, the danger is that this could strengthen Le Pen’s anti-EU political platform and embolden French voters to back the National Front.
Meanwhile, in Germany, the anti-EU party, Alternative for Deutschland (AfD) has not yet risen to pose a serious electoral threat to the Christian Democrats of Merkel and her coalition partner, the Social Democrats.
Germany’s priority concern is to afford Britain an agreeable economic package in order to keep its export-led economy strong. But by doing so, this softer stance in Berlin towards London will rankle Paris, where a delayed, favorable Brexit will be seen as giving an electoral boost to the National Front.
Thus the Brexit is pushing Berlin and Paris into two opposing directions which will inevitably chafe relations between the two pillars of the EU.
Germany’s export-led turbo economy and its fiscal austerity have been the source of recriminations between Berlin and Paris and other southern European states. Berlin is accused of selfishly and ruthlessly pursuing its national economic interests over and above the EU’s collective interest. For example, Germany has been called upon to stimulate import demands from weaker European economies, thereby giving these economies a much-needed fillip.
On the other hand, Berlin sees Paris as being a chronic offender on trade and budget deficits.
The contrasting positions over the Brexit are sure to accentuate these long-held tensions between Berlin and Paris.
What this illustrates is the limits to supposed European unity. While EU advocates like Merkel and Hollande wax about «solidarity and collective strength», it seems obvious that when the chips are really down each member state pursues its own national interests, even at the expense of other members.