European integration has suffered the greatest blow in its history with the UK’s Leave vote. But Britain is no longer the priority. The most pressing question is not how the UK leaves the EU. It is also hard to imagine the country taking up the EU presidency in 2017; it should pass on the job.
Given the range of challenges the EU faces with Libya, Syria, Russia, the euro, youth unemployment and the refugee crisis, the most urgent and profound danger for the EU is not economic or geopolitical: it is psychological. The danger is that we fall into a state of paralytic shock. The fear that pro-European governments feel in the face of rising popular nationalism threatens to accelerate the erosion of the European project. It also leads to inaction, which fuels the perception that pro-European politicians are self-satisfied and do not hear the concerns of Europe’s citizens. The next referendum, wherever it may be, could well end in a defeat for Europe.
The lesson from the Brexit debate is that pro-Europeans cannot allow anti-Europeans to dominate the public debate. The populists are stubbornly convinced of their position — with the possible exception of Boris Johnson, the former London mayor and leading Leave campaigner — and will defend it against all rational arguments. But the EU’s proponents lack such ardour. If the pro-Europeans’ main tactic is to scare people into support of a status quo and capitalise on the fear of change then the unravelling of Europe is inevitable.
Until now, the EU has been a success story. It seemed a fairly simple development from a small coal and steel community to a big, politically integrated union. That is no longer the trend. For the first time we must fight for Europe. Muddling through will not work.
Because globalisation drives so many people to nationalism and isolationism, it is all the more important to explain that today the most fundamental desires of Europe’s citizens, such as peace and prosperity, can best be safeguarded through European co-operation. Since the cold war ended, Germans and their European partners have taken those goods for granted. But in the past two years disruptive global changes have opened our eyes to a new reality.
The response has been mixed. Europe’s common stance against Russian aggression is a tribute to the power of collective action. Steps to save the euro have brought us back from the brink of disaster. But on other issues, such as the refugee crisis and high youth unemployment, Europe has failed.
To turn things round we will need all our strength. Yes, Britain is out. But there are 27 other nations left to hold this together. Germany wants to see more shared leadership in the EU and has a crucial role in achieving this. It is our responsibility to generate cohesion and facilitate compromise. That means being more flexible about deficit spending in nations with high unemployment and considering the energy security interests of Europe as a whole regarding the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, designed to bring Russian gas to the west.
Only by making concessions in these areas can Germany demand solidarity on the refugee question and expect support for a much-needed revitalisation of the common foreign and security policy. Together, we need to take our security into our own hands — for example, by finally committing more resources and personnel and by establishing a European defence headquarters. Moreover, Europe needs a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the turmoil in its southern neighbourhood, whose problems quickly spill over and become our own.
Germany should push for unity, not purely out of altruism but because it is in our own interests. Europe is a different place now the British have voted to leave. It is up to the rest of us to determine what type of Europe it will be.