BERLIN-Whether Britain’s decision to leave the European Union turns out to be a disaster or just a bump in the road for Europe on its path to unification, one consequence is already abundantly, disturbingly clear: Brexit will cement Germany’s role as the Continent’s leader — a role that neither Germany nor anybody else is entirely comfortable with.
It has rarely felt this lonely at the center of Europe. With Britain leaving, Germany is losing an important partner within the European Union, as well as on foreign policy beyond it.
That is not to say that Britain was an easy partner in recent years. The mind reels at what Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, known for her cautious, step-by-step policies, must have thought of Prime Minister David Cameron tossing his country’s membership onto the gambling table in a bid to blackmail the European Union. Ms. Merkel is a committed Europeanist; Mr. Cameron called the union “too big, too bossy, too interfering.”
Still, given the nativist pressures rising in practically every country in Europe, Mr. Cameron counted as a pretty good partner. He was a strong supporter of the Berlin-led austerity politics during the financial crisis and the Greek crisis that followed.
He defended the refugee deal that Ms. Merkel devised with Turkey. And when the leaders of Germany, France and Italy called President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to tell him to stop backing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Mr. Cameron eagerly jumped on the line.
And Mr. Cameron brought more than his personal support to the table. Britain has the largest military budget in Europe and a world-class diplomatic corps — not to mention an economy that, if not exactly firing on all cylinders, was on fire compared with much of the rest of the Continent.
Britain’s departure is a particularly hard blow to Germany since its other partners are weak or growing distant. The German-Polish relationship, once strong, has eroded since the nationalist Law and Justice Party came to power in Poland in 2015. Austria just missed electing the far-right Norbert Hofer as president.
And France — well, it’s complicated.
At first glance, the German-French axis, which acted as the European Union’s steel spine for decades, seems as strong as ever. Just a few hours after the victory of the British Leave campaign was announced, the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung quoted extensively from a joint paper by Jean-Marc Ayrault, the French foreign minister, and his German counterpart, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, about the future of Europe. “Europe needs guidance now,” it said. “It is Germany’s and France’s responsibility to provide that guidance.”
But France is a difficult partner, too. President François Hollande enjoys the trust of neither his people (only 13 percent, according to polls conducted in June) nor his Socialist Party. He is under immense pressure from the far-right National Front, which expects to win about a third of the vote in next year’s presidential election, and from France’s powerful unions, which oppose Mr. Hollande’s modest Anglo-German-style labor reforms. All of this — and a perpetually weak economy — leaves him unable to provide strong leadership within Europe, let alone abroad.
True, Brexit doesn’t require an end to British-German cooperation. But Britain faces a long period of turning inward, politically, as it deals with the implosion of its leading political parties, an empowered far right and the possibility of Scottish independence. For the foreseeable future, Germany stands alone — a role it not only did not seek, but also at times actively resisted.
In an essay for Foreign Affairs magazine published about two weeks before the British referendum, Mr. Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, disavowed any interest in Continental leadership by his country. “Circumstances have forced it into a central role,” he wrote. “Preserving that union and sharing the burden of leadership are Germany’s top priorities.”
The problem is that a core reason for the European Union in the first place was to constrain German power by dispersing leadership roles across the membership. But what happens when the future of the union depends, arguably, on a new assertion of German power?
Germany’s immediate reaction to the Brexit referendum has been to call for a new burden-sharing arrangement with what’s left of the old gang. On the Saturday after the vote, the foreign ministers of the European Union’s founding members — Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands — assembled at the Villa Borsig, the Brandenburg retreat of the German government. On Monday, Ms. Merkel summoned the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk; Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of Italy; and Mr. Hollande of France to Berlin.
The significance of the fact that she could summon her colleagues onto her own turf to discuss how they might share some of Britain’s newly discarded burden was lost on no one. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Poland’s Law and Justice Party, called the idea of convening only the union’s old guard “little thought through.” And Prime Minister Xavier Bettel of Luxembourg complained at the European Union summit last week about the formation of “small clubs” within the union.
Thus the dilemma. Germany cannot go it alone, and doesn’t want to. But without a strong partner to share the leadership, it has the unpalatable choice of letting power sit with a broad cast of unreliable partners, or creating a new inner circle. No one wants to give Law and Justice a seat at the table. But denying it will only strengthen national narcissisms in countries already troubled with euroskepticism, further splintering the Continent.
Which means that Germany may have to take command, after all. It’s a delicate task. But now that Germany finds itself on center stage, it might as well perform.
The New York Times