‘The United Kingdom has one leg inside the European Union and one leg outside. After 23 June the reverse will be true”, Jean-Louis Bourlanges told Le Monde last week. This bon mot by the French former centrist MEP belies a truth that many are losing sight of in the hysteria over ‘Brexit’ or ‘Bremain’: the British and the continent are stuck to each other, no matter what happens. The real question one should be asking right now is how the UK and Germany relate to each other.
After all, the European Union owes its existence solely to the ‘German question’. The idea was, after 1945, to strap Germany with France into an armoury of rules. These rules would apply equally for both countries, and for any other country wanting to join. The founding fathers of the EU understood that just punishing Germany for the horrors of the Second World War was not going to work. They had tried it before. And they had paid a very high price for that failure. The humiliation of the astronomic World War I reparations imposed on Germany was one of the main causes of World War II. In other words: in order to tame Germany after three wars since 1870, it was important to tie the country in a European straightjacket not on its own but together with France. The first baleen in the corset stay was the European Coal and Steel Community, established in 1951.
Throughout the centuries, the British have wrestled with the question whether they wanted to be part of the continent or preferred splendid isolation. In a sense that choice becomes a daily dilemma. Germany has often enforced that choice. It British detachment that was partly responsible for German hegemony.
When Germany becomes too dominant, the British take action. They liberated Europe from the Germans twice. Afterwards, they withdrew. London did not want to participate in European unification at first. Later it changed its mind. Le Monde dug up two Winston Churchill quotes, which beautifully illustrate this eternal paradox – and the essence of Europe! Before the Allied landings in Normandy Churchill told Charles de Gaulle, the leader of Free France and a critic of the US, furiously: „So get this quite clear. If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea.” For open sea, read: America.
In Zurich in 1946, however, Churchill called for the „constitution of the United States of Europe”. He had considered European unification a necessity for some time already, as a way to rein in Germany. He was always ambivalent, though, about the question whether Britain should be part of that.
An issue that the UK has been unable to solve until now, and will probably never be able to solve, is how they can keep some kind of control over this ‘European necessity’. All British attempts to sabotage European unification from the moment it became a success are manifestations of this – as are all their attempts to limit the status of their membership after their accession in 1973.
This is what the Brexit referendum is about. Most of the news about Brexit should not come from London, but from Berlin. What is at play here is a purely European issue; the British ambivalence is well-known. Berlin is tired of the constant British obstruction in Europe. Still, it fears Brexit more than Bremain. If Britain leaves, Germany will be alone in Europe with a weak, sinking France at its side. Germany fears itself. Contrary to what analysts say on prime time television, this referendum is only partly about migration, Eurocrats or the ‘Brussels monster’. It centres on the eternal question of who owns power in Europe; about what Germany is going to do with this power this time; and what this means for Europe.