“Please don’t leave us – Why Germany needs the British” read the front page of Der Spiegel two weeks prior to the referendum. Britain’s complicated relationship with the EU was never a secret, but the idea of Great Britain leaving the EU still seemed unfathomable. Accordingly, Germany’s pre-referendum press was characterised by a whiff of nostalgia and humble pleas to reason.
If Germany was looking at the UK with both a sense of curiosity and anxiety before the referendum, the victory of the Leave campaign has now caused the country to collectively shift its gaze inward. Both in the German press, and in the political and public spheres, Britain’s impeding exit from the European Union has been much less received as a decisive turning point for Britain, than, as Angela Merkel phrased, “a watershed moment for Europe and a watershed moment for the European unification process.” Over the course of a single night, Germany’s relationship with the UK has shifted from a close political, economic and cultural partnership to muted and reluctant acknowledgement. The post-Brexit front page of German business newspaper Handelsblatt, merely wishing Britain a sardonic “Pleasant Journey,” has become somewhat indicative of Germany’s attitude towards Britain following the referendum result.
To understand this sudden shift In Germany’s relationship with the UK, it is vital to consider our somewhat unique relationship with the European Union. Even though it was Winston Churchill who first proclaimed the idea of a “United States of Europe,” there are perhaps few countries for which the EU, both as an idea and as an institution, has played such a pivotal part. To German politics, a united Europe was the only reasonable response not only to the biggest catastrophe in European history, but also its division during the Cold War. Many Germans, to this day, perceive the EU as a peace project first and foremost, and will now be focusing on keeping it from unraveling. Angela Merkel in particular, in many ways a political heir of Helmut Kohl, will therefore fight tooth and nail to stabilise the European Union and its markets, if need be at the expense of the UK.
If the ridicule over the almost farcical political fallout of Brexit in the German press is any indication, the UK as a brand will suffer from the Brexit result both immediately and in the long run. Given the current political climate, Britain will undoubtedly be forced to play a subordinate role in Europe’s future reconfiguration. The fact that Germany’s own Eurosceptic party, AfD, is currently making headlines for dismantling itself, seems to underline the general consensus that it is within the EU, rather than with Britain, that the country will have to renegotiate its future. To many Germans, the supposed “death of Europe” could also signal Europe’s rebirth. Looking at the current collapse of Britain’s political system, the same appears less likely right now for the UK.
Part of our Culture Crunch: Brexit edition – perspectives on Brexit from our partners around the globe.