LONDON • Being Europe's biggest power is no fun, for it entails more liabilities than advantages. Just ask the Germans, who are invariably expected to pick up the pieces in every European crisis, but are then also invariably blamed for any outcome.
However, this week's referendum on Britain's continued membership in the European Union (EU) will test German power and patience to their outer limits. For almost regardless of whether the British decide to stay or leave the EU in the ballot scheduled for Thursday, it will fall on Germany to guide Europe the day thereafter. And this time, even Germany's legendary powers won't be enough, for the country is no longer as big as Europe's mounting problems.
It is an article of faith among those who oppose the European Union that the organisation is a German "plot" to dominate the continent through nefarious bureaucratic means. One of the most disgraceful slogans by EU opponents during the present British referendum campaign claimed that Hitler tried to dominate Europe "with gas", while current German Chancellor Angela Merkel "does it with paperwork".
Similar things are also being peddled in a handful of other EU states. Many Greeks, for instance, believe that their country faced bankruptcy and now faces decades of austerity not because it was badly run, but because Germany lured Greece into a fiscal trap. And two leading commentators in Italy recently published a book in which they called the German Chancellor "Merkiavelli", a cross between her name and that of Niccolo Machiavelli, a 16th century Italian politician now regarded as a byword for duplicity.
Many of these comments are just silly, with no basis in fact. For the one constant characteristic of post-war Germany is the country's determination to be self-effacing, to contribute to European prosperity and security but not hog the limelight. Indeed, it could be argued that both the EU and the euro single currency were created and pushed forward by Germany itself in order to neutralise the country's superiority.
Of course, that does not mean that German politicians are always prepared to sacrifice themselves on the altar of the EU, or that they ignore their country's national interests. Germany's persistent refusal to accept that the country cannot continue to run huge trade surpluses with most of its neighbours or that it is impossible to condemn nations such as the Greeks to decades of austerity are just some examples of how German leaders can occasionally be tone-deaf to the needs and aspirations of their partners. But on the whole, these are exceptions, for the Germans take their European responsibilities seriously and Europe would not be the continent it is today without Germany's often selfless contributions.
The snag is that those days may now be over. Having dealt with the Greek debt, the Ukraine crisis and the imposition of EU sanctions on Russia and, more controversially, having ignited the refugee crisis, Germany is now beginning to realise that what is happening in Britain will affect all Europe in ways which are probably irreversible and can no longer be addressed by either German cash or German political brawn.
There is a whole host of reasons why Germany needs Britain to remain in the EU. The British are Germany's biggest and closest European partners in promoting free trade and the liberalisation of Europe's internal markets. The British are also one of the few European countries with truly global defence capabilities. These are much diminished in comparison with the past, but still considerable, so a British withdrawal would effectively put paid to any pretence of a European defence capability. Britain's intelligence services are considered among the best in the world, and also the closest to the Americans', important considerations as Europe as a whole and Germany in particular confront an increasingly complex and enduring terrorism challenge.
But as far as Germany is concerned, the most important reason for wanting Britain in the EU is that the British provide a political balance to Germany's close relationship with France, especially since the old Franco-German axis is coming under strain due to France's own deep-seated economic difficulties. The Central and East Europeans, always wary of Germany and largely mistrustful of France, also see Britain as a key balancer on the continent. The current centre-right government in Poland went as far as identifying Britain as one of its special and key strategic partners.
For these reasons, German Chancellor Angela Merkel bent over backwards to help British Prime Minister David Cameron earlier this year in negotiating a special deal with the EU. Dr Merkel did not like Mr Cameron's claim that this deal would allow Britain "to have its cake and eat it" inside the EU; that offended the collegiate instincts of most Germans. Still, the chancellor accepted that this may be the price to pay for helping Mr Cameron in winning the referendum, thereby ensuring that Britain remains in the EU.
But the concessions which Dr Merkel painstakingly put together sank without trace. No British politician even mentioned it during the referendum campaign. And the outcome of the referendum is now too close to call. The chances of a British exit from the EU real enough for the chancellor to be forced into making alternative plans.
Dr Merkel is far too diplomatic to say anything before the British votes are counted on Thursday night, but Mr Sigmar Gabriel, her deputy, readily admits that a British departure would inflict a huge damage on Europe. "The weight of the EU, but also confidence in the cohesion and the steadfastness of the EU, would diminish dramatically", he says.
The question is what Germany can do in the event of a Brexit vote. One possibility touted in Berlin is that of a new Franco-German initiative to tighten EU integration. The purpose here would be to show that Europe won't be deflected by Britain's departure. But, as Mr Alan Posener, a noted commentator with Germany's Die Welt newspaper group, rightly points out, that idea may overestimate France's readiness for further integration.
For Britain is by no means the only euro-sceptic nation. According to latest opinion polls, 61 per cent of the people of France have a negative view of the EU and, with presidential elections due early next year, Mrs Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, is bound to suggest that, if the French are being asked to integrate themselves even further in Europe, they should also be given the chance to approve this in a referendum, something which will stop any Franco-German initiative in its tracks.
There is also no indication that other EU member states would go along with Germany's urgings. So the EU could be stuck somewhere in the middle, unable to cope with the complex talks about Britain's departure, fighting a rear-guard action to prevent other countries from following the British example, while being increasingly dismissed by the rest of the world as just a club of losers.
There is still some hope in Germany that ultimately, the British will come to their senses, and vote this Thursday to stay in the EU. But there is also the start of a realisation that this won't solve Europe's problems either. It is patently clear that a British decision to stay taken by a wafer-thin majority will merely store trouble for the future. It will not make a British government keener to cooperate on future European schemes. And it will not discourage populists in other European countries from demanding their own future special status within the union.
Always the masters of political correctness, Germany's politicians are as yet unwilling to admit that their original and largely romantic idea of a federal Europe, one which mimics the domestic structures of Germany itself but projects them on a continent-wide scale, is now dead.
With a bit of luck, the British may yet stay in the EU. But the EU in which they may chose to remain will no longer be the same Europe. And the Germans will no longer be able to push it towards further integration.
At least in that respect, the British referendum has already inflicted its irreparable damage.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2016, with the headline 'Brexit and the burden of being Germany'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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