Since 2009, the European Union has faced down at least three challenges that might have split apart its 28 member states: the eurozone’s near-collapse from Greek debt; Russian aggression in Ukraine; and a flood of refugees. Now Britain’s vote to leave Europe’s common market is set to actually break up the union, or at least take out its second largest economy, perhaps triggering others to quit.
To deal with “Brexit” and its effects, what might EU leaders learn from its earlier woes?
A key factor in the previous crises was a calm and reflective reaction by Germany. Under Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is Europe’s longest serving leader, Germany kept alive a vision of common purpose for the EU under its core principles. Germany listened to the contending voices and exercised a patience that expects wisdom to prevail.
Some EU states seek a rapid exit for Britain. Others want to extract revenge and humiliate Britain in hopes of preventing others from leaving. A few see an opportunity to now get something from the EU that has been blocked by Britain in the past.
With all these demands, Ms. Merkel has told other EU members that they should “calmly analyze and evaluate the situation and, on this basis, together make the right decisions.” Britain is still trying to pick a new prime minster to replace the departing David Cameron. The UK itself might split apart. The next meeting of EU leaders is months away. Financial markets are still digesting what Brexit might mean for the European economy. Most of all, Britain itself needs time to come to grips with its referendum vote – and perhaps reconsider.
Such German patience is not new. Rather, with all the problems on the international stage in recent decades, Germany has “emerged as a central player by remaining stable as the world around it changed,” wrote Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s foreign minister, in the current Foreign Affairs publication.
“Germany is a reflective power: even as it adapts, a belief in the importance of restraint, deliberation, and peaceful negotiation will continue to guide its interactions with the rest of the world,” he wrote.
Any final withdrawal by Britain from the EU may take at least two years. Negotiating the terms of Britain’s future relationship with Europe could be difficult. With so much uncertainty, Germany is asking for patience and also acting on it. Given the high emotions, that virtue may be the perfect solvent for this latest EU crisis.