Germans – especially German politicians – are waking up this morning to the Brexit reality, and their initial reactions are predictable. Shock appears to be the overwhelming emotion, followed closely by sadness, anger, and then subdued panic.
The Social Democratic Party, a partner in the governing black-red coalition, has called for an emergency session of the Bundestag today. (One wonders what this would accomplish except perhaps to issue a statement aimed at shoring up EU solidarity in other wavering member states, or maybe just express petulance.) Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke of a “sad day for Europe and Great Britain,” while the leader of the Left faction, Sahra Wagenknecht, used the occasion to lambaste the influence of corporations and lobbyists in Brussels (a non-factor in the British vote, as far as I know).
One of the more thoughtful commentaries today is from Torsten Krauel in the right-of-center Die Welt. Krauel asks whether German Chancellor Merkel is partially to blame for the Brexit and concludes her asylum policy almost certainly played a major role. And indeed, the spectacle of Germany unilaterally deciding to change the face and future of the European Union by announcing Berlin had opened the doors to all comers – regardless of the wishes of or the impact this would have on other EU states – has been a powerful symbol of elite disconnect with the concerns of average Europeans and an uncomfortable reminder that Germany has come to dominate the union. Krauel also points out Dover, the British end of the Channel Tunnel to the continent, voted 60 percent to leave. Maybe this has something to do with the thousands of North African migrants seeking to storm the tunnel and cross to England?
While loathe to admit it, Germans at some level suspect their country’s role in the discontent in Britain. Speaking to German friends over the past several years, it’s been difficult not to come away with the sense many view the EU as an extension of Germany policy and as a respectable outlet for German nationalism that has been suppressed since the end of World War II. A new path to German greatness, if you will, camouflaged by warm and fuzzy words about “Europeaness” and immune to complaints of skeptics, all of whom immediately are labeled as right-wing extremists – the kiss of death in German politics.
For me, one of the takeaways from the referendum is the reminder that people care deeply about things other than pure economic interest. On the train this morning, I listened to a left-wing British woman complaining bitterly about the stupidity of her fellow citizens. Her points were all about lost EU subsidies for construction projects and the indignity of having to use the “non-EU” line at passport control when traveling to the continent (I’ll save a spot for you!). It seemed not to have occurred to her that more abstract concepts such as democratic legitimacy, self rule, and national identity matter to people as goods in themselves. This is a lesson U.S. conservatives should take to heart, too, as the all-but-certain prospect of Donald Trump as the Republican candidate demonstrates. Republicans can argue all day long that unrestricted immigration and free trade are good for the economy. But it doesn’t feel that way to people who see illegal immigrants as taking their jobs and uninterested in assimilation.
The EU as an economic project was a good idea. But only European elites signed off on ever closer political union and de facto rule by unelected Eurocrats in Brussels. These elites weren’t interested in making their case democratically, preferring to ignore popular concerns while demonizing any opposition to their supranational project. The British electorate has now pushed back. Will the EU learn the right lessons or will it double down on political integration? I suspect the latter, but time will tell.