The First Exit

LONDON/BERLIN | | grossbritannien

LONDON/BERLIN (Own report) - The British people's vote yesterday to take their country out of the EU is shaking up the EU, and Berlin's plans to use the EU for its own hegemonic policies. With a 72 percent turnout, 52 percent of the British voters opted to wave good-bye to the EU. This vote has a major impact on Berlin, not only because Europe's second largest economy - after Germany's - and a prominent military power will be leaving the EU and therefore no longer be available for German hegemonic policies imposed via the EU. It also can lead to a domino effect. Calls for referendums are being raised in other EU member countries. In several member countries, the EU's growing unpopularity is reinforcing centrifugal forces. The Swedish foreign minister has explicitly warned of a "spill-over effect" that could lead to a Swedish EU exit. In the German media, demands are being raised to simply ignore the referendum and let the British parliament vote in favor of remaining in the EU. Berlin has already begun reinforcing its national positions - independent of the EU.

Momentum Halted

Yesterday, with a 72 percent turnout, 52 percent of the British voters opted for the Brexit. For the first time in EU history, the population of a member country has decided to withdraw from the alliance. Up to now, the EU has always expanded successfully. This momentum has now been halted.

Call for Referendums

Already over the past few weeks, the referendum has not only reinforced the conviction in other member countries that the EU could actually be put into question; the desire to hold referendums has also been awakened. In early May, an opinion poll taken in nine EU member countries [1] - representing between them three-quarters of the EU population and approximately 80% of its GDP - revealed that 45 % think their own country should hold a referendum on its EU membership. In France 55%, and in Italy even 58% favor this measure. One third of those polled, declared that they would vote for leaving the EU in a referendum, in Sweden, 39%, 41% in France and 48% in Italy.[2] In early June, an opinion poll held in Denmark resulted in 42% of the Danes wanting a referendum on EU membership, as compared to only 37% in February. Simultaneously, the number of those who, in a referendum, would opt for remaining in the EU, fell from 56% last November to currently 44%, whereas those wanting to exit rose over the same period from 31% to 42%.[3]

Negative Assessment

Beyond the issue of EU membership referendums, a poll taken in ten EU countries and published at the beginning of June,[4] indicated that the EU is increasingly seen in a negative light, with clearly positive assessments mainly in Poland (72%) and Hungary (61%). On the other hand, in Spain, a mere 47% assess the EU positively - a 16% drop from 2004, whereas 49% of the Spaniards view it negatively.[5] In France, approval of the EU dropped, between 2004 and 2016, by 17%, down to 38%, with a 61% rejection. In Greece, 71% of the population views the EU negatively, with a mere 27% viewing it "positively." When queried on the EU's handling of the economic crisis, the approval ratings were devastating. (In fact, these questions refer to the austerity measures dictated by Germany.) Only two of the ten countries participating in the poll gave a positive rating - Germany and Poland (47% to 38% and 47% to 33% respectively). In Spain, 65% of those polled rejected the EU's crisis policy, 66% in France, in Italy 68%, and 92% in Greece.

"Ignore the Will of the People"

The growing rejection of the EU is particularly significant because the methods used until now by pro-EU functionaries of major political parties to neutralize EU-critical segments of the population are no longer effective in referendums. Yesterday in Great Britain, for example, traditional Labor Party strongholds turned in a clear majority for the Brexit, while Labor's parliamentary group in the Lower House, polled only seven of its members clearly favoring leaving the EU - 215, on the other hand, were energetically in favor of remaining. In Germany, demands are being made to simply ignore the referendum's results. Tuesday, Thomas Kielinger, the London correspondent for the daily "Die Welt," wrote that the Prime Minister may be bound by the results of the referendum, however, not the parliament. "Could it be that ... in the case of a Brexit, the Lower House could consider to ignore the will of the people and turn down withdrawing from the EU?" Kielinger predicts that this is "not only thinkable, but it's even probable."[6] "Of the 650 parliamentarians, 455 are in favor of remaining in the EU, 130 for leaving, and 65 undecided. Expressed in percentages: 70 percent Remain, 20 percent leave, and 10 percent noncommittal." The EU could be saved with a parliamentary vote. Recently, German media organs have openly expressed their opposition to referendums along these lines. One example was the media commentary that it is wrong to believe that "direct democracy, per se, is a good thing." (german-foreign-policy.com reported.[7])

Domino Effect

This commentary was made in connection with the April 6 referendum, in the Netherlands on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. A majority oppose the agreement. A few days later, the Dutch national parliament simply chose to disregard the referendum results, saying it was "non-binding."[8] However, this does not eliminate the EU establishment's worries. In the Netherlands, it is currently possible to impose a referendum, if 300,000 signatures are collected within six weeks - which is not considered impossible. Although referendums may only relate to new laws, and not, for example, to EU membership, observers have noted that currently only 45 percent of the population of the Netherlands are still in favor of remaining in the EU, while 48 percent are for withdrawing.[9] This signifies that in one of the EU founding member countries, the pro-EU majority is crumbling. Following the British population's vote yesterday, a domino effect cannot be excluded. Just a few days ago, for example, in a poll taken in Sweden - a country very similar to Great Britain in its attitude toward the EU - only 32% of Swedes would want to remain in the EU even if Britain left, with 36% in favour of a so-called Swexit.[10] Sweden's foreign minister, recently, warned explicitly of a "spill-over effect" should the British referendum result in a Brexit.[11] That has now happened.

National Positions

Berlin is beginning to adapt itself to the fact that the EU is eroding and cannot be available, at least for the time being, for German global policy, to the extent it had expected. Last week, the US periodical "Foreign Affairs" published a signed article by Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Steinmeier wrote that the EU "has run into struggles of its own" and has "stumbled." Until the EU "develops the ability" to play "a stronger role on the world stage," Germany "will try its best to hold as much ground as possible." Tuesday evening, Chancellor Merkel announced that the German military budget must draw closer to that of the United States. This is the beginning of a reinforcement of Berlin's national positions.[12]

Stop Disintegration

This is not in contradiction with the German government taking measures over the next few days to attempt to forestall the EU's further disintegration. The creation of a core Europe is already in discussion.[13] german-foreign-policy.com will report more next week.

[1] Die Umfrage wurde in Belgien, Deutschland, Frankreich, Großbritannien, Italien, Polen, Schweden, Spanien und Ungarn durchgeführt.
[2] Half of people in nine European countries believe UK will vote to leave the EU. www.ipsos-mori.com 09.05.2016.
[3] Lisbeth Kirk: More Danes want referendum on EU membership. euobserver.com 08.06.2016.
[4] Die Umfrage wurde in Deutschland, Frankreich, Griechenland, Großbritannien, Italien, den Niederlanden, Polen, Schweden, Spanien und Ungarn durchgeführt.
[5] Oliver Kühn: Europäer wünschen keine engere Union. www.faz.net 08.06.2016.
[6] Thomas Kielinger: Beim Brexit dürfte das Parlament das Volk ignorieren. www.welt.de 21.06.2016.
[7] See Referendums as Tyranny.
[8] Meg Hilling, Hanne Cokelaere: Netherlands sticks with EU-Ukraine deal despite referendum No vote. www.politico.eu 19.04.2016.
[9] Europa: Kommt nach dem Brexit der Nexit? www.uni-muenster.de 23.06.2016.
[10] Maddy Savage: EU referendum: Could Brexit lead to Sweden "Swexit"? bbc.co.uk 18.06.2016.
[11] Lizzie Dearden: EU referendum: Swedish foreign minister warns Brexit "could cause break-up of European Union". www.independent.co.uk 11.06.2016.
[12] See Auf Weltmachtniveau.
[13] See After Brexit.