13 June 2016

Continental leaders have thus far been fairly quiet on the UK’s Brexit debate. German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a cautious intervention a few weeks ago when she said Britain would have more influence inside the EU rather than outside of it. The leaders of the so-called ‘Visegrad 4’ group of Central and Eastern countries expressed their “shared strong and sincere interest” in the UK’s continued EU membership. The most high-profile intervention – when US President Barack Obama warned that Britain would “go to the back of queue” for a trade deal with the US after leaving the EU– wasn’t even from a European leader, and showed little sign of shifting the polls.

No doubt No.10 has requested other capitals around Europe to stay stumm – knowing that one foreign intervention too many could swing voters the other way. This seems to have changed this weekend with both European Council President Donald Tusk, and German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble giving lengthy interviews on Brexit, and hammering home the geopolitical and economic uncertainty they believe would follow a Leave vote.

As the Remain campaign gears up for a shift to more “positive campaigning” in the days ahead of the vote, they will still want “uncertainty” top of voters’ minds come polling day. Though both these major interventions were in the German press, they would have known that they would have been picked up in the English press – and it’s therefore possible they were encouraged by the Remain campaign.

Schäuble takes care to say that he asked himself whether it would be “helpful for German politicians to be telling British voters what to do,” but that Chancellor George Osborne had “allayed his fears,” thus leading the Finance Minister to believe it “would be a good idea to explain to the British public why I believe that it is better for the EU and Britain if voters decide against Brexit.”

Tusk:  Brexit could eventually lead to the destruction of Western political civilization

In an interview with Bild, European Council President Donald Tusk says that Britain’s post-Brexit deal with the EU could take up to seven years to negotiate. “Cancelling all Treaty obligations and connections would be very sad, but relatively easy. It would take about two years. It would be much more difficult to negotiate the new relationship afterwards, he said. “Every single one of the, then, 27 EU member states plus the European Parliament would have to agree on the overall settlement. This would take at least five years, I am afraid, and without any guarantee of a success.” The interesting point here is the separation between a transitional agreement and a trade agreement, one we and others have noted but the assumption has been the two would be negotiated concurrently. Tusk sees them as being one after the other, stretching out the timeline.

I am afraid [Brexit] could in fact be the start of the process of destruction of not only the EU but also of the Western political civilization.

Donald Tusk, European  Council President

He then followed up this relatively uncontroversial observation (as we set out here, complex trade agreements can take between four and ten years) with a rather over the top warning that Brexit could instigate the very unravelling of the Western political order: “The leave campaign contains a very clear message: ‘Let us leave, nothing will change, everything will stay as before’. Well, it will not. Not only economic implications will be negative for the UK, but first and foremost geopolitical. Do you know why these consequences are so dangerous? Because in the long-term they are completely unpredictable. As a historian, I am afraid this could in fact be the start of the process of destruction of not only the EU but also of the Western political civilization.”

Schäuble: Leaving means leaving the single market

In a special ‘Brexit’ edition of Der Spiegel (published in German and English) German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble warns that a vote to Leave means leaving the single market too. “If the majority in Britain opts for Brexit, that would be a decision against the Single Market. In is in. Out is out. One has to respect the sovereignty of the British people.”

Asked whether Britain could adopt the Swiss or Norwegian models under which it would retain access to the market without being a member of the bloc, Schäuble commented, “That won’t work. It would require the country to abide by the rules of a club from which it currently wants to withdraw.” He concluded that “Europe will also work without Britain if necessary. At some point, the British will realise they have taken the wrong decision. And then we will accept them back one day, if that’s what they want.”

The close economic integration offers advantages for everyone involved, so it would be a miracle if there were no economic drawbacks following a British withdrawal.

Wolfgang Schäuble, German Finance Minister

The lead editorial in Der Spiegel’s Brexit edition  goes on to say:

“We can no longer convince the British to love the EU. It’s too late for that. But perhaps we should use this opportunity to mention how much the rest of Europe admires them. It’s unbelievable that they don’t seem to see how much they’ve shaped the continent, how much we value them here, how close we Germans feel to them – that too is part of the story. This island is part of the global avant garde – in human rights, in freedom movements, in culture and in its talent for being cool.

The urge for freedom is a thread that runs through British history − from the Magna Carta in the 13th century, when English barons cheekily wrested their rights from the king, up to the suffragettes of the 20th century fighting for women’s right to vote. It was only a short step to the miniskirt, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and punk. In the 1960s and 1970s, Europe wanted to be just as free as England. The British may have lost an empire, but they invented pop and presented the world with cultural exports from James Bond to Twiggy’s haircut.

They are more colourful, shriller, louder and livelier than anyone else could ever be. Germany has always looked across the Channel with some degree of envy. On our emotional map of Europe, the Italians were responsible for love and good food, the French for beauty and elegance and the Brits for nonchalance and progress. They have an inner independence that we Germans lack, in addition to myriad anti-authoritarian, defiant tendencies. A lot of what happened in Britain spilled over to us sooner or later, reinforcing our cultural ties.

The country has always exerted political power in those moments when it has pursued a specific goal and thrown all its energy into achieving it. Churchill freed Europe, Thatcher drove forward the single market, Blair pushed ahead with enlargement. The British contributed greatly to security and prosperity on the continent. But every time they pulled back, order began to crumble. Britain is always at its best when it doesn’t turn its back on Europe.”

Meanwhile, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan popped up to claim that “no one can tell” what the status of the UK-Ireland border would be if the UK opted to Leave the EU and that it would “subject to negotiations” – a crucial consideration for voters in Northern Ireland.

It remains to be seen whether these foreign interventions will help or hinder the Remain cause. Having senior figures from other countries might make voters aware of the wider context of the referendum – i.e. that there is more at stake than a domestic political dispute, although Tusk’s warning about the end of Western civilisation is too abstract and easy to misrepresent. There is also a risk that some swing voters could interpret these warnings not as helpful advice but as ‘being told what to do’ by foreign interests – despite Schäuble’s clear reference to respecting the sovereignty of the British people – and will therefore vote to leave in protest.

But every time [the Brits] pulled back, order began to crumble. Britain is always at its best when it doesn’t turn its back on Europe.

Der Spiegel