To understand German views toward European integration generally and Brexit specifically, you first have to grasp a fundamental difference between Anglo-American and German mentality. The American celebrity economist Paul Krugman once described this difference quite perceptively thus: “It’s not Karl Marx vs. Adam Smith, it’s Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative vs. William James’ pragmatism. What the Germans really want is a clear set of principles: rules that specify the nature of truth, the basis of morality, when shops will be open, and what a deutsche mark is worth. Americans, by contrast, are philosophically and personally sloppy: they go with whatever seems more or less to work.”
How does this apply to Germany’s EU policies? European unity and stability have been a priority of German politics since the beginning of post-war European integration. In the 1950s, Germany’s main goal (and achievement) was to be readmitted into the community of civilized nations. Even today, with some allowance for depreciation, this historical motive still plays a role in German politics. No other country “sacralizes” the European project in this way, making it almost taboo to question European integration – even where criticism is deserved or a healthy dose of “sloppiness” could help. European unity, you might say, is a categorical imperative to Germans.
The German position during the Brexit-negotiations will be thus shaped by this confluence: 1) stickling for principles in general and 2) prioritizing European unity as the highest such principle.
Angela Merkel and politicians across the German party spectrum made utterly clear early on that the “four freedoms” of the European single market were “inseparable.” Thus the UK, if it wanted to remain a member of the single market, which allows the free flow of goods, services and capital (the first three freedoms), would also have to accept free movement of EU citizens (the fourth). Any compromise that leads away from the inseparability of the four would, to Germans, amount to an anti-Kantian (and sloppily Jamesian) “Europe à la carte.” Germany’s clarity on this point is the main reason why Theresa May has already dropped the “Norwegian” option as a negotiation strategy (ie, the goal of leaving the EU, but remaining in the single market).
So now Angela and Theresa, both daughters of pastors (and thus influenced by Protestant ethics), have to go from here. It remains to be seen whether they can reach a solution that would please both James and Kant, Britain and Germany. On purely economic grounds, it would be reasonable for Germany and the EU to seek as much free trade as possible with the UK. Britain, after all, has a big current account deficit with the EU27 and with Germany in particular. This economic logic extends to financial services. It would be damaging for both sides if the EU were to cut itself off from London, Europe’s most attractive and global financial center, and cause an artificial and costly fragmentation in banking and other finance. It would also make practical sense to keep cooperating closely with Britain in diplomacy, defense and intelligence. These are areas, after all, where Britain is traditionally strong and the EU27 tend to be weak.
Standing against such pragmatic considerations is an equally pragmatic political Angst: that an amicable divorce, one with no apparent cost to Britain, could tempt other member states to follow suit. At worst this could lead to Frexits, Czexits, Dexits, Nexits and so forth. At best other members states could start asking for opt-outs, rebates or other concessions. Berlin and Brussels worry that this would cumulatively hollow out the EU as a coherent entity.
Germany’s federal election in September complicates the negotiations further. If Martin Schulz were to defeat Angela Merkel, the German position might become even tougher. Schulz, formerly president of the European Parliament, is known for being a die-hard EU federalist. He might take some pleasure in punishing the Brits for their decision to leave in order to demonstrate that the “European social (democrat) model” is superior to the British “neo-liberalism” he disdains. In any case, there will be no settled German position before a new government is formed sometime in October. This shortens the timeframe for pragmatic Article 50 negotiations by half a year.
These, then, are the mental fault lines as negotiations get underway: On one side, the British take their seats at the table hoping for a practical arrangement that minimizes damage to all involved, even if this entails a sloppy Jamesian compromise. On the other side, the Germans take their seats, worried that any such deal could breach the Kantian categorical imperative of keeping the EU united.
That said, not all Germans are entirely “German” in that way. Perhaps I should blame my exposure to the British classical liberalism of Hume and Smith, but I, for one, still hope for some sort of practical compromise. I also believe that Germany will at some stage support parallel Brexit and FTA discussions in order to avoid the cliff edge for business on both sides of the Channel. It would be bizarre to deny one of the closest European partners — one that has been complying with EU market regulations since 1973 – the sort of market access that, say, Canada or South Korea have. And yet, in my conversations in Berlin, I keep hearing the equivalent of: “No, we Kant.”
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