Post-Brexit EU must focus on issues, not visions: Schaeuble

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has warned that the European Union must quickly resolve pressing issues to regain people's trust in the aftermath of "Brexit".
German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has warned that the European Union must quickly resolve pressing issues to regain people's trust in the aftermath of "Brexit".PHOTO: AFP

BERLIN (AFP) - After the Brexit shock, the European Union (EU) must put lofty visions on hold and quickly resolve pressing issues to regain people's trust, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble warned on Sunday (July 3).

Rather than debate EU treaty change or institutional reforms, the bloc must make speedy progress on the refugee crisis, youth unemployment and other problems, Mr Schaeuble told Welt am Sonntag newspaper.

"This is not a time for grand visions," said the 73-year-old veteran minister, long a passionate proponent of the European project, who said he was stunned by the British vote to leave.

"The situation is so serious that we have to stop playing the usual European and Brussels games. The EU is facing an acid test, perhaps the greatest in its history."

Mr Schaeuble said that "in principle, I am a supporter of deeper integration. But this is not the time. At a time of growing demagoguery and deep euro-scepticism, Europe cannot just carry on as before".

With voices in other EU members also pushing to leave, Mr Schaeuble said the EU must now "avoid a conflagration and not just continue with the usual rhetoric".

Mr Schaeuble's comments came after several senior EU leaders have called for a deeper integration process in response to Britain's June 23 vote to leave the 28-member bloc.

The German finance minister said the EU must deliver with "speed and pragmatism" on issues from a common energy policy to job training for young people to harmonising its defence procurements.

"There is so much to do," he said. "The time for political sermons on Europe is over. We must act, not talk big, and prove to the people that Europe makes a difference."

Reactions to Brexit have not been uniform in Germany, where conservative Chancellor Angela Merkel leads a coalition government with the centre-left Social Democrats as the junior partner.

While Dr Merkel in her weekend video podcast argued the EU must become more "competitive and knowledge-based", leading Social Democrats urged less austerity and progress on social reforms.

Social Democratic Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel - who is expected to run against Merkel in elections next year - said the goal must be "to not only create competition but also social security".

The eurozone approach toward crisis-hit Greece, to demand harsh cut-backs without significantly reducing unemployment, "cannot go on," he said, warning of a north-south split in Europe.

The two parties in Dr Merkel's left-right government have also adopted a different tone toward Britain since the referendum.

While Dr Merkel has argued Britain needs time to decide on the way forward, Mr Gabriel said "the outcome of the referendum is clear and that's why it must now be carried out".

He warned on Saturday that a muddled EU response would be "an invitation to all national egotists to try the same approach".

The chief-of-staff of Dr Merkel's office, Peter Altmaier, meanwhile appeared to entertain some hope Britain may yet change its mind and stay in the EU, in comments to news weekly Der Spiegel.

He said that, while the vote to leave was clear, and disappointing to Berlin, "we are also seeing that the political debate in Britain on how to deal with the result has only just begun".

The smart thing to do, Altmaier said, would be to "await the outcome of this debate".