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Short-lived triumph if Britain leaves

Short-lived triumph if Britain leaves

Brexit could damage achievements UK takes for granted

by Michael Stürmer in Berlin

Fri 4 Mar 2016

No country in Europe has a greater interest than Germany in keeping Britain in the European Union. Industrialists, bankers, politicians, commentators: whatever sets them apart in the real world, they all see ‘Brexit’ as a mistake of historic proportions.

In a time out of joint, as Shakespeare’s Prince of Denmark observed, Europe risks becoming unhinged. Stand-offish as never before in the last half century, Britain can make or break the EU. The beautiful maiden from Greek mythology is not in good shape. Her reputation leaves a lot to be desired. At the least, high-class cosmetic surgery is required. Long before things get better, they can get worse.

You can imagine the champagne corks popping in the Kremlin if the great British public offers President Vladimir Putin European disunity on a silver platter. The most obvious challenge to Europe’s peace and wellbeing stems from Putin’s annexation of Crimea and its aftermath. Russia is conducting a proxy war against Ukraine, using not so subtle threats against Russia’s Baltic neighbourhood: non-aligned Sweden and Finland, and Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, uneasy members of Nato.

For most of post-war history, the US has been the balancing force from across the ocean. Britain has been strongly supportive in Nato and in global crisis management. Europe, for all its weaknesses, has been a force multiplier. All that is now at risk.

As a seasoned US diplomat has stated, the chances of war by accident or by design are now as great as they have been for 50 years. This is not the time for schoolboy games.

The changes to help Britain agreed in Brussels are by no means earth-shattering. Both sides got a face-saving bargain. ‘Ever closer union’ no longer applies to Britain – but even Chancellor Helmut Kohl, as he once told me, knew the phrase was not worth pursuing to its extreme, since it could tear the European Community apart. 

The jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice over the British parliament remains a sticking point. Absence from the euro area and the Schengen agreement underlines the country’s semi-detachment. Yet if the UK were to leave altogether, that could jeopardise many achievements Britain and other countries take for granted. Little Englanders would have a moment of Schadenfreude, but triumph would be short-lived. A protracted economic, political and financial Ash Wednesday would follow.

No one in Nato or the EU wishes to destroy what has served us well. Yet the West, as we have known the Atlantic system for seven decades, could disintegrate. An edifice would shatter that has provided half a century of peace and prosperity to western Europe, extended since 1989 to the eastern part of the continent. Old demons would rise from shallow graves. The refugee crisis provides a foretaste of future trouble.

Brexit would reverse the decades-long Stille Allianz ('silent alliance') between Germany and Britain. It would shake the foundations of Pax Americana in Europe and the world. It would change the overall balance between Russia and the West. And it would disrupt the equilibrium between Germany and the rest of continental Europe.

What is at stake in Britain – in or out – is next to nothing compared with the wider international implications. Given the troubled state of the world, with every crisis driving the next one, Britain’s referendum is subject to the iron law of unintended consequences. Disasters much larger than Brexit are waiting to happen. As the Bible says, there is a time to build and a time to destroy. Those backing Brexit are not seeking destruction, but they might achieve it.

Michael Stürmer is chief correspondent of Die Welt, a former adviser to Chancellor Helmut Kohl and a member of the OMFIF Advisory Board. This is No. 4 in the OMFIF series.

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