Hostility to EU on the rise across Europe

By Simon Korner

Brexit will lead to greater German economic dominance over the rest of Europe – and at the same time create serious challenges for it The exit of the EU’s second biggest economy will give Germany even greater weight in Europe than it has now.  But Brexit poses problems for German imperialism. 

First, Germany will be exposed definitively as the pre-eminent European power – a role already obvious from its treatment of Greece but given a degree of cover by Britain’s presence within the EU.  As the Financial Times put it:  “Ms Merkel has shielded herself with allies… If Germany now starts giving orders even more than it does already, it will be more vulnerable to charges of hegemony.”  On the other hand, Germany cannot afford to leave “a political vacuum for others to fill, notably nationalists in France and elsewhere.” As Der Spiegel commented, Germany has been “condemned to take on the leadership role it never wanted.”

Second, other EU countries may now see Brexit as an opportunity to resist German-led austerity. France and Italy, with economies suffering inside the EU trap, have the potential to form a united front – along with Spain – against Germany’s insistence on tight budgetary constraints.  

German strategy in response to this will be to keep the most powerful of these, France, close – at the core of the EU – to prevent any loosening of EU integration.  It will also insist that Italy – with its massive state debts, shrinking GDP and crisis-ridden banks – sticks to the EU rules imposed after the 2008 financial crisis: that private savers and shareholders must be liable for 8% of any bank losses before any state bailout can be allowed.

Likewise, Spain and Portugal are now facing stringent fines for having broken the EU’s budgetary spending rules – a clear sign of the way Germany is going to defend its dominance post-Brexit. 

For the same reason, Germany won’t allow Britain to be seen to gain from Brexit.  Merkel has already made it clear that Britain will not be able to “cherry pick” aspects of EU membership, stating that any access to the single market depends on acceptance of the “four freedoms” – free movement of people, goods, services and capital.

In spite of its widespread ability to dictate terms post-Brexit, Germany may find it hard to impose its authority on 27 EU countries simultaneously.  One growing challenge, for example, comes from the east European nations, which declared at a post-Brexit summit in Warsaw that they wanted more autonomy for nation states within the EU.

A third problem facing Germany post-Brexit is the growth of mass euroscepticism across Europe – largely as a result of the austerity policies above.  

In the French referendum in May 2005 on adopting the EU constitution, 55% voted No.  Commenting on it in the New Statesman, Professor Robert Tombs said: “a now familiar pattern emerged: enthusiastic Europeanism was confined to the wealthiest suburbs and quarters of Paris, and the only professional groups that strongly voted Yes were big business, the liberal professions and academics.”

More recently, the results of a Pew Research Center poll last month showed that 61% of the French population has a negative view of the EU, and a clear majority of the working class favours Frexit.  The Front National is calling for a referendum, with other rightwing parties such as Sarkozy’s Parti Républicain calling for treaty revision and an end to enlargement.  On the left, the French Communist Party, part of the Front de Gauche coalition, backs a referendum, while harder line communists are calling for Frexit.

This groundswell of anti-EU feeling, given a major boost by Brexit, has led President Hollande – facing significant class struggle against his government’s anti-trade union legislation – to call for the rapid triggering of Article 50, in the hope that any difficulties experienced by Britain will act as a deterrent to others. “It can serve as a lesson for those who seek the end of Europe,” Mr Hollande said.

A Pew poll in the Netherlands last month put the anti-EU numbers as high as in Britain. It is this “anti-EU sentiment in the union’s western heartland”, as the Financial Times put it, that poses the most serious challenge for Germany.

Other EU countries are likewise increasingly Eurosceptic. Roughly half of all Italians would vote to leave the EU if they were given a referendum, according to opinion polls.  Both the reactionary populist Five Star movement and the rightwing Northern League have called for a such an opportunity, while most of the communist groups in Italy – the Fronte Popolare, the Partito Communista and the Partito Communista d’Italia – hailed the Brexit vote.  The reformist Rifondazione Communista, however, argues for democratizing the EU from within.

Spain’s Podemos – which suffered a setback in the general election that took place just after the Brexit decision – takes a similar position as Rifondazione Communista, calling the Brexit vote “a sad day for Europe” and arguing for reform within the EU. But Spain’s Communist Party, with which Podemos has been in an electoral alliance, has a clearer anti-EU position, arguing that to regain sovereignty, the country would need to leave the EU.  This is in line with the clear majority of Spanish people who disapprove of the EU, according to polls.

In Portugal the influential CP sees the Brexit vote as a positive development, a chance for workers across Europe to begin campaigning to leave the euro and the single market.  It blames the EU, among other causes, for Portugal’s huge public and foreign debt, which is among the highest in the world.

Most of the Communist and left parties in Europe – in Holland, Belgium, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Greece, the former Yugoslavia, Ireland – have Leave positions.

The Finnish party (CPF) says the Brexit decision “opens up a new political course for the left” arguing that the EU promise of peace and prosperity has brought discord and poverty.  The party chairperson said:  “Breaking with the EU’s treaties, which are undemocratic and impoverish working people, has been an aim of the Party for as long as Finland has been an EU member… We reject the way in which Finland is increasingly party to EU agreements without there being proper public debate and the use of referendums.  We reject the narrowing of democracy… National economies must be released from the shackles of the neoliberal euro regime… so that the specific needs of each country and differences in development can be flexibly taken into account.”

The Swiss CP – in a country closely tied to, but not a member of, the EU – has urged the left in Europe to “abandon the romantic view” that confuses EU membership with internationalism.

In the Czech Republic, the president has called for a referendum on both EU and Nato membership, while the Communist Party, the third biggest party in the Czech parliament, vocally opposes the Lisbon Treaty as imposing “a reactionary antisocial and military politics against the interests of the people.”

In Hungary, Orban’s rightwing government plans to hold a referendum on the resettlement of refugees, with the consequent threat that could pose to EU cohesion.

Closer to the German heartland, in Austria there could well be a referendum, if the far right eurosceptic candidate wins the re-run presidential elections,

In Germany itself where, according to Foreign Affairs, in spite of low official unemployment 12.5 million people are classified as poor and over 3 million people live below the poverty line, Pew Research shows the same EU disapproval rate as in Britain.  The eurosceptic Alternative für Deutschland is growing.  On the left, German Communist Party (DKP) has called for a German left exit, while Die Linke wants reform inside the EU. 

What this picture shows is the rise of a broad wave of popular euroscepticism – not in the least confined to the nationalist right – which represents a challenge to Germany’s strategy of stabilizing and tightening the EU structures.

A fourth problem for Germany post-Brexit – but also a potential opportunity – is in the military sphere.  Without the British, Germany and France will feel freer to develop a military structure outside US control.  According to Germany’s defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, Britain “consistently blocked everything that had Europe written on it.”

A post-Brexit discussion paper A strong Europe in an uncertain world, drawn up by the French and German foreign ministers, states that the EU should develop “step by step into an independent and global actor”.  The EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini likewise called for deepening EU military co-operation.

Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, made a more directly nationalist statement at the post-Brexit Nato summit, stating that Germany was now a “central player” in the world, and criticized the US for having “stumbled” in this role.  

But while Germany has re-armed massively over the past decade, and has been given concessions by the US at the Nato summit – gaining the leading military role in Lithuania as part of the new Nato deployment against Russia – Germany is not yet ready to challenge American foreign policy head-on. 

Though the New York Times (June 27) complained that US ability to force EU countries to pay for Nato missions has been “suddenly diminished”, America will continue to use Britain as a powerful lever to control Europe – from outside the EU but within Nato.  So it remains to be seen how far any changes will actually go. 

Moreover, any opportunities Brexit gives Germany in military terms are likely to come up against French military ambitions.  France, an independent nuclear power with the biggest armed forces in the EU, may have accepted its economically subordinate role vis a vis Germany, but will seek to re-assert itself militarily as an autonomous player, in line with traditional Gaullist foreign policy. Hollande has already made it clear, for example, that France disapproves of Nato’s belligerent Russia policy:  “Nato has no role at all to be saying what Europe’s relations with Russia should be.  For France, Russia is not an adversary, not a threat,” he said.

Meanwhile, Poland and other east European countries have demanded more Nato involvement in Europe, not less, believing that Germany and France have been too weak in the face of a resurgent Russia, particularly over Ukraine.  Their call for a greater US presence in Europe is at the same time a plea for protection against the growing might of Germany.

Though it is impossible to predict the future, clearly the old system of alliances is coming under strain.  According to Der Spiegel, Brexit plus a Trump presidency could destabilise “seemingly permanent alliances.”

As with Nato, the TTIP trade deal is under strain post-Brexit.  Though a British-US trade deal will go ahead bilaterally – according to commentators such as Nick Dearden, director of Global Justice Now – for the rest of the EU, without Britain as TTIP’s main cheerleader, the deal is less certain.

Not only will TTIP be delayed until after the triggering of Article 50 – and the ensuing discussions over UK-EU relations – but France is increasingly wary of TTIP, facing opposition to it from both left and right.  Prime minister Valls stated recently that TTIP was contrary to “EU interests”. In Germany, only 17% of the population support TTIP, according to a recent poll, with similar scepticism in Austria and elsewhere. The think-tank Chatham House believes that the drive towards TTIP – an “economic Nato”, in Hillary Clinton’s words – has been seriously weakened by Brexit.  This poses a problem for German imperialism, as TTIP is a key element in its austerity agenda and a means of reinforcing itself against Chinese competition.

In conclusion, any analysis of Brexit and its effects should be careful not to overlook the real possibility of the British vote being overturned or at least undermined.  However, if Brexit really does mean Brexit, its effects could be summed up as accelerating political processes already underway and sharpening existing contradictions.


"...any analysis of Brexit and its effects should be careful not to overlook the real possibility of the British vote being overturned or at least undermined."