E.U. Future

After Brexit, Brussels in Denial

Cartoon Quelle Berndt Skott
Merkel's job just got a lot harder.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If the European Union fails to institute effective reforms and start on a new administrative tack in the wake of the Brexit vote, it is likely to create a fertile fishing-ground for Europe’s populists.

  • Facts


    • The UK’s major banks warn they will move many jobs abroad, now that the city of London faces losing its “passport” privileges.
    • German Chancellor Angela Merkel says she sees no need to rush the British divorce from the E.U.
    • Donald Trump, in Scotland the day the results were announced, congratulated Britain on its decision. 
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Just imagine, if you will, Germany’s next presidential election, but with the heavyweight politicians of the mainstream parties, Wolfgang Schäuble or Frank-Walter Steinmeier, out of the running.

Parties on the left and right wing extremities hold the majority in the federal parliament, and they choose the candidates from among their ranks. That could never happen, you say to yourself. Well, something very similar has just transpired in Austria.

Imagine core Christian Democrat voters are so disillusioned by the party leadership that they thought no politician worthy to represent them in the federal elections. Instead, a shady businessman features on the campaign posters, a man who understands nothing about politics but a lot about insults. Couldn’t happen? Well it’s happening right now in the United States of America.

Imagine that in Germany the European Union and its politics was put to a popular vote. And the day after the people voted for a “Leave” there was no remorseful hangover, but a feeling of national pride. On the front page of one German tabloid the headline ran: “Take a bow, Germany! The quiet people of our country rise up against an arrogant, out-of-touch political class and a contemptuous Brussels elite.” That couldn’t happen? That parallels the headline on page one of the British tabloid, the Daily Mail.

Parking regulations are policed more strictly than the stability criteria of the Maastricht Treaty.

The worldwide subsidence of competent political leadership and the ascendancy of populism are two sides of the same coin. But the correlation between the two is not quite what the establishment parties claim. The rise of populist forces hasn’t caused the political elite to lose control; it’s the loss of control that has allowed the rise of populism. We shouldn’t curse the indignant masses for this: they are the passengers of an aircraft in a tailspin, loudly pointing out that the pilot is slumped over the controls. It’s correct to say that these passengers are not likely to pilot the jet any better, but the pilot also needs to wake up and regain control.

Three days after the Brexit vote, however, Germany’s politicians are still sitting, stunned, in the cockpit. Angela Merkel has tonelessly implored that nobody rush into anything before thoroughly analyzing the situation; she appears to be overburdened by the course of events. Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous epithet about still being alive but unable to see what lies three paces ahead seems to fit her perfectly.

A closer look at Great Britain, Austria and the U.S. could be useful to Germany’s political class. What’s playing out in those countries is the trailer for a film that could soon be showing just around the corner. The West’s political system is losing its balance. The political center, once a guarantee of stability, isn’t resisting – it’s eroding.

There’s no one reason, but a whole toxic cocktail of reasons. A government that’s unable to protect its borders loses the support of its people, in any country. Angela Merkel’s predecessor, former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder, once used the phrase “Big heart, no plan” to describe his successor. And rightly so. But one should not blame her for the fact that a society wants to avoid her own excessive demands. That’s not xenophobic, but astute.

A government whose security apparatus isn’t able to prevent someone’s home being broken into every three minutes soon loses legitimacy. An interior minister who, in the face of the fact that 97 percent of people guilty of burglary get off scot free, reacts by commissioning more auxiliary police, doesn’t warm people’s hearts – in fact relations become frostier.

A government, in an export economy like Germany’s, that can’t address the negative side of migration of goods, capital and people, loses the support of the little people. The story that Bernie Sanders in the United States and Sarah Wagenknecht of Germany’s Left Party in Germany are telling about the polarization of society, is accurate in its analysis if perhaps exaggerated in its conclusions. Everywhere in the Western World there is a hardening upper crust of high-paid managers and consultants, at the bottom a growing pile of people living precariously. In the shrinking middle there are only losses, real and imagined.

For the German economy, its employees, managers and business owners, the legitimacy crisis of the political system is drastic. They need a balanced state that fosters peaceful relations in society. The economy depends on the concept of ownership surviving unscathed through this period of global turmoil. The economy needs immigrants, but the right ones. The German economy wants Europe, but doesn’t want a bureaucratic orgy of unification and fiscal policy that sends the wealth of the thrifty down the road to the debtors.

Nowhere in these times is one further from Europe than in Brussels. This city has become a symbol for the great delusion. The Single European Market was supposed to promise wealth and jobs. Instead, growth rates have halved. Around 21 million people are out of work, mainly in Europe’s southern parts. The single currency has not become a global anchor of stability, but instead has led to renewed faith in the greenback. The European Central Bank has not become a second federal reserve, but instead the biggest money printing operation in Europe. Parking regulations are policed more strictly than the stability criteria of the Maastricht Treaty.

In “Truth and Politics,” Hannah Arendt speaks of a process of “derealization” and the conscious creation of an Alice in Wonderland atmosphere. The themes change, but the method remains. The diversion politicians are once more having their big appearance on the world stage.

“See if I care!” the Brussels establishment shouts across the channel at Britain, after the Brexit vote. Onwards, to the next round of deepening consolidation. Dispel the people’s doubts with more regulations.

Everywhere in Europe aftershocks are being felt. If the renovation works on the foundations of the European Union don’t succeed, then stasis must be feared. The former mayor of London and Brexit Leave campaigner Boris Johnson knows how to set and detonate political explosives.

It won’t hurt the E.U. aristocracy, but it will hurt the European ideal. Of all the ideals that this continent has produced in the last 100 years, that is perhaps the most valuable. There are many reasons to reject the E.U., but no reason to bury the idea of understanding and economic cooperation.

It inspires, warns and encourages us – also to resist the Brussels Operetta state and the Strasbourg facade-democracy. Seen in this way, the Brexit vote is a wake-up call that one hopes will also be heard in the fortresses of power. But the walls are high.

After the tremors of the last few days, the European house is standing a little crooked. Deep down, fear smoulders.


Gabor Steingart is the publisher of Handelsblatt and Handelsblatt Global Edition. To contact him: steingart@handelsblatt.com

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