Is Merkel to Blame for Brexit?

Immigration opponents in 2017 at a demonstration celebrating Britain’s planned exit from the European Union. Credit Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media, via Getty Images
Immigration opponents in 2017 at a demonstration celebrating Britain’s planned exit from the European Union. Credit Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media, via Getty Images

Angela Merkel is the chancellor of Germany, not the prime minister of Britain, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that she played a critical, if indirect, role in Britain’s 2016 vote to leave the European Union. If not for her decision not long before the vote to allow for uncontrolled mass immigration into the heart of Europe, the pro-Brexit forces might have lost.

Remember that, like President Trump’s election that same year, Brexit was dismissed as an impossibility, until it happened. But unlike in the United States, Europe has not done much in the way of asking what happened, and why.

In late 2015, the Leave campaign started putting up placards which showed the exodus of refugees from Syria and other countries through the Balkans, and adorned them with slogans like “Breaking Point” and “Take Back Control.” With Ms. Merkel declaring an open-door policy, the message hit home for millions of worried Britons and Europeans. Not coincidentally, it was around this time that support for Brexit began to tick up.

If members of the chancellor’s government recognize her complicity, they don’t show it. Ms. Merkel’s diplomats in Berlin treat the looming farewell of the second-biggest economy in the European Union as if it were merely another tiresome bureaucratic process that needs to be handled according to the treaty rules. If they consider the bigger picture at all, it is to think of ways to scare off other union members from following Britain’s lead.

There is, in other words, a near total lack of strategic thinking in the face of the most severe blow the European Union has ever suffered. Britain is not just another member, something officials in Berlin tell themselves repeatedly. Its exit will remove a good part of the union’s international clout. London is not just a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, it has significant military and diplomatic forces, as well as Europe’s best intelligence service. And, as a frequent outlier on European Union debates, it was always an important dissenting voice at the table in Brussels.

Strangely, while other member states listened (often grudgingly) to Britain while it sat at that table, they are paying no attention to the message being sent by its departure.

Britain is leaving because too many of its people became unhappy with one of the union’s governing principles, namely the free movement of workers. In a healthy, functioning organization, such a departure would lead the remaining members to revisit that principle. This is especially true if other member states have exempted themselves from that rule in the past.

A bit of background: When the European Union took in 10 mostly central European states in 2004, the German government sought the right to restrict free movement of laborers for a period of up to seven years. Ms. Merkel, then the opposition leader, thought those restrictions did not go far enough to protect the German labor market against an feared influx of low-wage workers from Poland and the Czech Republic. The government should have installed an even “better protection mechanism,” Ms. Merkel insisted in spring 2005.

Britain’s prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, did nothing of this sort; he left his country’s borders open to internal immigrants from every member state, old or new. As a result, over the next decade, around two million people from Central and Eastern Europe migrated to Britain. While they integrated well into the labor market, the influx strained public services like schools, health care and transport.

In 2014, 77 percent of British respondents said they favored a reduction of immigration numbers, which caused Prime Minister David Cameron to call for quotas on internal migration. Ms. Merkel rebuffed him. Strangely opposed to her own, earlier demands, she now insisted that “no compromise” could be made on the principle of free movement of workers.

In other words, Germany has no excuse not to lead a period of union-wide introspection into its own failure to keep Britain in the group, and whether the union should revisit its principles in light of that failure.

The union is not just lacking in vision, its hardball approach to Brexit is likely to backfire. Has anyone in Berlin or Paris thought about the consequences of an economic downturn in Britain after a Brexit, or, much worse, after a “hard,” no-deal Brexit that could entail a customs barrier across the English Channel? It does not take much imagination to realize on whom the Murdoch yellow press outlets (and not only them) will pin the blame for the downfall: stubborn, egoistic, Anglophobic Europeans.

Given what is at stake, Brussels and Berlin are gambling with far too poor a hand. What, after all, is to be gained from a stumbling, humiliated, angry and alienated Britain?

For those of us who still want to see a vibrant, unified Europe, our best hope for the moment is the faint chance for a second referendum on Brexit. If Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan on how to leave does not find approval in Westminster, the question of whether to leave with no deal at all could be put to the British people: Look, is this really what you want?

It is a remote possibility, yet it offers Ms. Merkel her own second chance — an opportunity to do everything she can to show British voters that the European Union is worth keeping. She could begin by endorsing limits — even slight ones — on the free internal movement of labor. Done right, it would send a signal that Brussels and Berlin are listening to voters, while doing minimal harm to Europe’s labor markets.

This would not hurt the principle of free movement as such. It would also be a move that the Germans themselves might find attractive, given that a new batch of countries — this time in the western Balkans — are lining up for membership. Whatever her answer, the choice is pretty clear for the European Union: reform, or face the next revolt.

Jochen Bittner is a political editor for the weekly newspaper Die Zeit and a contributing opinion writer.

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