Merkel, Brexit, and the Future of Europe

There was no doubt about who was the star attraction at this week’s plenary session in Strasbourg. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, now running on borrowed time, delivered a flagship speech to the European Parliament. But while Merkel’s vision on the future of Europe was the highlight of the week, it was another (albeit connected) issue that would dominate discussions in the corridors of Strasbourg: Brexit – and what at least initially appeared to be an impending deal on the withdrawal agreement (before the focus quickly turned to the UK Prime Minister’s ability to sell the deal to the House of Commons, her own party, and indeed the cabinet).

To a packed plenary room, on Tuesday 13 November, Angela Merkel thus took her turn in giving her views on the future of Europe. The German chancellor is accustomed to this exercise, but perhaps the context surrounding this address was slightly more particular than usual. With a Brexit deal hanging, the rise of nationalists and populists both within and outside of Europe, and her own uncertain political future, Angela Merkel’s latest profession of her vision for the future of Europe was highly awaited, despite the predictability of its most visionary tones.

In essence, Merkel’s speech was centred around the themes of solidarity and tolerance. Solidarity, she says, is a universal value which must always be linked to the “commitments of the community”. For her, solidarity must make the EU stronger by embracing working together and responding to external challenges together. From the refugee crisis to the challenges of the Eurozone, solidarity amongst Europeans is in our own self-interest and will allow Europeans to “deal with things when it is necessary and do so in a decisive and effective manner”.

Perhaps, the key element of her speech was when she proclaimed that “we should work on the vision to one day create a true European army”. A European intervention force would indeed be an important development in the EU’s foreign policy. Relying less on US protection and counting on the community to defend its values and interests, such an idea would perhaps secure Europe’s security and lasting peace but would nevertheless take time to implement – not least to define. Merkel does not want this to go against NATO but sees it as a supplement to the alliance.

The German Chancellor also congratulated the Juncker commission for their current economic achievements but, she warned, that a stable Europe needs a stable economy. The intense discussion around digital taxation needs to move away from the “whether” to the “how” – again underpinning her idea of European solidarity. However, solidarity has its limits: if no solution is found at international level, Europe will look at minimum taxation and go it alone.

Beyond what she talked about in her address, it was her silence on other issues which spoke the loudest. Was it a mere coincidence that Merkel had very little to say on Brexit (even if she did call it a “deep wound” to the EU); or had she been told that the news of a deal would break just a few hours later, and judged it unwise to say anything that could scupper the chances of success?

It may be unfair to categorise Merkel’s speech as ‘underwhelming’ or ‘predictable’. With the future of Europe facing uncertainty, Merkel’s firm stance on the need to fight for “our European opportunity” is a welcome and familiar beacon, a lighthouse for European federalists, from the moderates – she did say “Europe does not need to be everywhere” – to the zealous. The question now is: how close will Merkel’s vision be with the reality to unfold in the next years?

That is a tough question indeed. The solidarity that Merkel spoke of from the EU27 has been there for all to see during the Brexit negotiations to date and if the Brits might argue that tolerance has been less present, in the end, it appears that both sides have found a deal they believe will work. While business may now feel that they are within touching distance of the certainty that has been long sought, the mood scattering around Strasbourg corridors late Wednesday night and Thursday was that there were too many obstacles and possible outcomes remaining to say with any certainty what will follow next.

Arguably it is now that the real test begins for the EU27. Will the consensus that has held to date amongst the EU27 unravel as competing economic interests come to the fore during negotiations over a future trade deal with the UK?  Regardless of the political machinations that will take place over the coming days, Brexit will have a profound impact not only on the bloc’s relationship with the UK but on the very future of Europe itself.

Zachary Burnside is Senior Consultant and William Scharf is Consultant in FTI Consulting’s health team in Brussels.

The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting Inc., its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals, members or employees. 

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