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Merkel in spotlight as EU faces fallout – Bloc seeks to preserve its unity, win back voters

LONDON:  People walk over Westminster Bridge wrapped in Union flags, towards the Queen Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben) and The Houses of Parliament. - AFP
LONDON: People walk over Westminster Bridge wrapped in Union flags, towards the Queen Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben) and The Houses of Parliament. – AFP

BERLIN: Britain’s decision to leave the European Union puts German Chancellor Angela Merkel at center stage as the bloc seeks to preserve its unity and win back skeptical voters across the continent. Merkel stressed that “Germany has a special interest and a special responsibility in European unity succeeding” as she voiced regret Friday at Britain’s departure, citing Europe’s 20th century history of wars. She signaled that she was taking the initiative, inviting her counterparts from France and Italy – the two other largest remaining members – to meet her Monday in Berlin as well as EU President Donald Tusk.

But, true to a methodical approach to problems tried and tested over a decade in power, she also sought to slam the brakes on any hasty decisions, arguing that the 27 remaining members must avoid drawing “quick and simple conclusions” that would only create further divisions. Germany traditionally has been reluctant to exert an overt leadership role in Europe, though it has been increasingly assertive in recent years in designing the response to the Eurozone’s debt troubles and, less conclusively, in seeking an EU-wide response to the influx of refugees and other migrants from the Middle East and elsewhere.

Hegemonic position
Even now, with one of the EU’s heavyweights on the way out, Berlin isn’t likely to seek a sole leadership role, ever conscious of the historical burden of its Nazi past. “It will continue to lead with and through groups,” said Daniela Schwarzer, an expert on EU affairs at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think tank in Berlin. “There’s this really strong concern to always be part of something and not going it alone.” “Germany has a huge interest that the Brussels institutions have more support than they currently have,” she added, and there’s no sign that it “actively seeks power and a hegemonic position.”

Guntram Wolff, director of the Bruegel think tank in Brussels, said Britain’s EU exit, or Brexit, will mean issues can no longer be addressed by shifting coalitions of France, the U.K. and Germany. Instead, it would increase the dependency between France and Germany – the traditional motor powering EU integration, but one that has sputtered somewhat over recent years amid differences on the debt crisis and other issues. “In that couple, Germany is the stronger player, quite clearly,” he said. “So in that sense it will probably increase the role of Germany in the EU.”

Merkel, Germany’s chancellor since 2005, isn’t in quite as strong a position at home as she was in recent years, though her support remains solid. Unease over last year’s influx of asylum seekers to Germany and internal squabbling over Merkel’s welcoming approach last fall have weighed on her conservative bloc’s poll ratings, and other policy arguments in her “grand coalition” of right and left have sharpened as an election expected in September 2017 begins to loom on the horizon.

There is still, however, little sign of a successful left-wing challenge to her and none from within her own party. That contrasts with the fortunes of deeply unpopular French President Francois Hollande, who faces elections next spring, and many other European leaders. German officials left open what exactly the response to the British referendum might be. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said earlier this month that “we couldn’t simply call for more integration” if Britain leaves.

The remaining 27 EU members should “calmly analyze and evaluate the situation and, on this basis, together make the right decisions,” Merkel said. She acknowledged that people all over the continent increasingly have doubts about the direction of the European unification process, and added: “We must ensure that citizens can feel in concrete terms how much the European Union contributes to improving their personal situation.”

Common solutions

Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said leaders should focus on finding “common European solutions where they are missing” – for example, to the migrant crisis, and doing more to boost jobs and growth. Steinmeier said the bloc should fall neither into hysteria nor shock, and must acknowledge that it doesn’t yet have answers to all the questions raised by the British referendum result. On Saturday, he hosted his counterparts from the EU’s other five founding members, and said there will need to be further discussions “in big formats and in smaller formats.”

With Britain’s departure, Germany will lose a traditional ally within the EU on matters such as free trade and competition. Britain was the No. 3 destination for German exports last year and was Germany’s fifth-biggest trading partner overall. “Germany on many economic issues relies more on the UK and Poland than it traditionally relies on France, because they have a more similar mindset on those issues,” Schwarzer said.

Merkel sounded a notably conciliatory note toward Britain in responding to the referendum, signaling what appears to be “a willingness to lower the cost of Brexit for both sides,” she added. “Our aim should be to shape future relations between Great Britain and the European Union so that they are close and based on partnership,” Merkel said. She said she wants an “objective, good” climate in talks on Britain’s exit and there is “no need to be particularly nasty in any way in the negotiations.”

Germany also will be losing a fellow major contributor to the EU budget. The leader of the upstart nationalist Alternative for Germany party, which has risen in polls during the migrant crisis at the expense of Merkel’s and other parties, raised that issue. Celebrating what she called “a signal to the Brussels politburo and its bureaucratic appendages,” Frauke Petry said that the government should not simply “plug the British net contribution with German tax money.” All the same, Germany appears determined to ensure that the show goes on. “Great Britain decided yesterday to leave the European Union. All the same, the sun rose again this morning,” Parliament speaker Norbert Lammert, a member of Merkel’s party, told lawmakers Friday. “As regrettable as the first is, the second is reassuring.” – AP

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