What would God do about Brexit
"We need the big bang"
Michael Miebach and Brendan Simms - Brendan Simms, born in 1967, is Professor of the History of International Relations at Cambridge University and author of the bestseller »Europe on the Edge« (2016). The Irish citizen with a German mother is convinced: The EU will only survive if it develops into the United States of Europe. To propagate this idea, he founded the "Project for Democratic Union" think tank. "Berliner Republik" editor Michael Miebach spoke to Brendan Simms about the Labor Party's European policy, clever strategies for the Brexit negotiations and the future of the EU-27
After the majority of Britons opted to leave the EU, the economy collapsed and political chaos began. Are you concerned about these developments?
Brendan Simms: Of course there is great uncertainty after such a decision. But now there is a stable government again, and the economic decline was initially less severe than feared. However, the economy will likely continue to plummet once Brexit actually takes place. But the UK is not going to collapse. Britain is not Greece.
The Tories quickly recovered, but there is a bitter dispute over the direction of the Labor Party. What role does the European question play in this?
The trench warfare has been going on since Jeremy Corbyn became party chairman in September 2015. The referendum was not the trigger for this, but it shows the completely opposing positions in the party: Up until the 1980s, it was essentially anti-European. The European Union was seen more as a capitalist plot. That only changed when Jacques Delors became President of the Commission, who placed greater emphasis on the social dimension. But to this day there is a strong current within the Labor Party that does not consider the realization of British socialism within the European Union to be possible - the socialist counterpart to the conservative opponents of Europe, so to speak. Jeremy Corbyn himself said that he voted against remaining in the EU in the 1975 referendum. I wouldn't be surprised if he secretly voted against it this time too. Actually he is a Brexiteer. The modernizers in the tradition of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, on the other hand, are in part ardent supporters of Europe.
Another possible consequence of Brexit is that Britain will fall apart because Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland declare their independence in order to stay in the EU. That would be the end of the British Union.
It is interesting that such predictions even exist in continental Europe. I have just been in Germany for a while - there is not only the expectation, but almost the hope that the UK would fall apart because of Brexit. According to the motto: God punish England. I don't think that will happen. Northern Ireland will not leave, even if a clear majority has spoken out in favor of remaining in the EU. Most of these voters do not want to leave the UK. Northern Ireland has no problem with England or Great Britain itself, but the conflict there lies within Northern Irish society. On the contrary, the Northern Irish desperately need the United Kingdom not to clash. As for Scotland, I don't think there will be a second vote on independence in the next five years. And if it did, little would change in the last result of the vote, although almost 60 percent of the Scots for remain have voted. Because the overall situation has deteriorated radically for the Scots. First as an independent EU member they would suddenly become net contributors, while within Great Britain they would be net recipients due to the relative economic weakness. Secondly they would lose the pound and have to take over the euro. Third they would have to build an external EU border with England at once. In the event of a trade war between the UK and the EU, they would be the first victims. Fourth Then there is the insecurity within the EU itself. If you then also consider that the founding of the kingdom in 1707 was a reaction to the European threat, then it becomes almost absurd to leave a successful union under these conditions in order to remain in a very problematic union or to be able to re-enter. In short, the UK will still be around ten years from now.
The election result on June 23 was close. In other circumstances it might have turned out differently, for example if the Remain camp had worked more convincingly or if the Leave campaign had argued less populist. Would you describe the decision as an accident?
From a historical point of view: No. Because the European Union was actually an answer to the German question: How do you embed Germany in Europe? And how do we protect the smaller, weaker European states from Germany? In that sense, there is no British problem to which the European Union is the answer. The United Kingdom is not a threat to European peace and should not be involved, nor is it so weak that it needs the protection of this European Union. Therefore, the restrictions on sovereignty in connection with the European Union are less justifiable for Great Britain than elsewhere in the EU. The result of the referendum was also based on these historical circumstances.
It sounds like the EU only exists to keep peace. Great Britain also benefits from the internal market, from the common foreign policy or from certain social standards.
Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of European unification - but on the continent. Because everything that the EU is needed for is already provided by the British Union: security vis-à-vis other powers, economic strength, representation. The central question is therefore how all of this can be achieved in continental Europe. That is the hope of the less developed countries in particular: what the Greek or Romanian state cannot manage, Europe should deliver at some point. But in the UK all of this already exists today. In addition, continental Europeans have not been really sovereign since the Second World War - unlike Great Britain. Because Germany is so big that it would never have been allowed to become a democracy after 1945 without European involvement. Other countries were too weak to be able to build an independent democracy. Viewed in this way, European unification was the condition that gave Europeans the opportunities to participate that have always existed in Great Britain.
The upcoming negotiations on the future relationship with the EU should be exciting. In this country, many politicians and observers are of the opinion that the EU must show a tough stance in order to deter potential imitators and not to violate its own principles.
I can understand that emotionally: Anyone who feels offended in a relationship reacts with anger, especially when this relationship actually didn't work that badly. It hurts all the more because the British are right in many places with their criticism of the EU. Still: the tough approach I think it's a huge mistake. There can be no imitators at all, because no other country has the political, economic and also foreign policy and military possibilities for independence. Not even France could take this step. What would the French economy look like then? And what currency should the French use? Apart from that, the actual constellation of forces is often not properly understood: If the threatening gestures of mainland Europeans continue, there will be a large national alliance in Great Britain. An already coherent actor would become even more coherent and take a stand against the EU. In mainland Europe it is exactly the opposite. There is no consensus, not even in Germany, where there are both hardliners and a strong business lobby that does not want trade with Great Britain to be jeopardized. In addition, there are many countries in the EU that for various reasons do not want to mess with Great Britain in the long term, be it the Eastern Europeans who want support against the Russian threat or be it Ireland because of the Northern Ireland issue. And my last argument: Europe already has enough problems - the refugee situation, the euro crisis, terrorism, high unemployment. To tie in a conflict with Great Britain now would be irrational. What the Europeans absolutely do not need would be a kind of positive Russia on the western flank that sucks the energy out of Europe.
How would the UK react if the EU did not compromise?
Right now the British are benevolent: they have a self-interest in making the EU-27 work well. European chaos and disunity are seen as a fundamental danger. But that will change the moment the continental Europeans actually get together and work against Britain. Then the priority of British foreign policy will be to destroy that unity.
Sounds like you're a little overestimating the importance of the UK.
Great Britain is the fourth or fifth largest economy in the world. It is the third or fourth largest military power in the world. It has a seat on the Security Council. It's nuclear power. With the exception of the United States and China, which state would be stronger than the United Kingdom right now?
Do you really believe that there can be access to the single market on special terms? Without a special status, the British would have to continue to adopt the European rules, but they cannot influence them. That would not be a gain, but a loss of sovereignty. The Norwegian opposition describes Norway's status as a fax democracy: faxes come from Brussels and what is written on them then has to be implemented.
I think you have to see the situation in the broader political and strategic context. On any major European issue, Britain will have something to say for the reasons mentioned. For example, it makes little sense to pursue a common European policy towards Putin's Russia without involving the British with their military might. Presumably, therefore, there will be a compromise in the end: access to the single market on special terms in return for security guarantees. From a European point of view, that would be cherry-picking. But such cherry-picking has been going on all along in the military sector when the mainland Europeans say: War and mobilization have nothing to do with us. The Americans and the British should do that, if you please. Specifically, I envision a new confederal structure for Europe that would give Great Britain a say in important issues, such as banking or the internal market.
In your book “Europe on the Abyss” you paint a desolate picture of the European Union and compare it with the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, not least with regard to its weakness in foreign policy. It's all a question of perspective: If the founding fathers had been told how far integration would progress, you would probably have been happy.
That does not change the fact that the central problems of the EU are not being addressed, but are being postponed. The current silence is deceptive. With regard to the euro crisis, it is still not clear who is actually responsible for the many debts in the end. Many banks are still failing. The current account differences persist. The Greek problem will also come back. A common currency without a common finance minister - that just doesn't work. And a Schengen area without common border security works just as little. The common foreign policy is also so complicated that Europe is not really capable of strategizing globally.
That is why you are calling for a political union of the members of the euro area - the United States of Europe. Which additional areas would have to be communitized for this?
I am concerned with a real European state with common national debts, a uniform defense policy and a common democratic representation. Debt, defense and democracy - these three Ds belong together. This is what the state formation of the United States and Great Britain teaches us.
If the situation in the EU is so dramatically negative, wouldn't a political union be excessively overwhelming and therefore unrealistic? The better way forward in Europe has always been a policy of small steps in the sense of pragmatic visions.
What we have now is not realistic either. And historically, all successful unions - especially the United Kingdom and the United States - did not emerge evolutionarily through small steps, but through extreme ruptures, through a big bang in times of crisis. Once there is a democratic European state, the various problems can finally be solved - by finding compromises in functioning institutions. The European Union's big mistake is to understand integration as a process and not as an event. In every country there should be a referendum on accession to this European state. I am sure most continental Europeans would vote for it. If a country votes against it by a majority, it has to leave and can reintroduce its national currency. I tell you: if there is such a core Europe, nobody will want to be left out.
Such referendums would, however, be associated with risks. What happens if France votes against and Germany votes for it? Europe would be divided.
But that would be the opposite of the entire French policy since the Second World War, which has always aimed to involve Germany. That was always the difference between France and Great Britain: the British did not consider it necessary to give up their sovereignty in order to integrate Germany, but the French did.
The creation of the British Union in 1707 and the American Union in 1787/88 took place under completely different circumstances. It seems to me that the cultural, economic, democratic and also linguistic characteristics of the European nations are so different that such a “real” union is not at all desirable.
England and Scotland were also two very ancient states. Scotland of 1707 was older than many of today's European states.
But there were only two and not 27.
Yes, but it is also a multinational union. The Scots were a different nation with different traditions and didn't like the English at all. Such a union is not a love marriage, but something much more serious. The identity is provided later, so to speak, through joint action. Just as different in terms of mentalities and interests were the individual areas of America before the founding of the USA. The argument was and is: If we don't team up, we will fall apart. We will invite other powers to attack us. And it is not impossible that we will fight each other again at some point.
Thank you very much for the conversation.
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