JR Max Wheel
6th July 2017
On the 16th June 2017 Germany mourned the death of Helmut Kohl, the Chancellor who oversaw the reunification of Germany; perhaps he was not the greatest German post-war Chancellor, but one who will be fondly remembered for his down to earth qualities, domestic political acumen and the extraordinary responsibility of integrating the two Germanies of West and East into one cohesive country. His place in history will nevertheless be secure. Significantly he chose to be buried in the cathedral of Speyer in the heart of the Palatinate (Rheinland-Pfalz), by the Rhine and not in his native City of Ludwigshafen, further upstream. The reunification, presaged by the implosion of the Soviet Union and the collapse of its vassal states in central and eastern Europe marked the true end of WWII and 1989 should rightly be seen in the same light as 1789.
Speyer Cathedral: Courtesy Wikipedia
After Germany’s disastrous history in the 20thC, the creation of the largest and most powerful economy in the EU was not greeted with universal enthusiasm by the former Allied Powers, in particular, France, the UK, Netherlands and Poland as well as in Israel. Indeed, the notion of unity – or “Einheit” was a near toxic word with its quasi Third Reich overtones, such that “die Wende” or change, transition was preferred.
Whilst the unification preceded the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, with its ambitious political and monetary aims, it placed France and Germany, effectively Kohl and Mitterand as the key representatives of the proto European Union. In the following years the costs of reunification meant Germany exceeded the threshold levels for debt enshrined in the Growth and Stability Pact: the first of many to violate them over the next 25 years.
Fast forward to 2017, and after years of feeble economic performance from France, it was now crystal clear that the leadership of Europe was de facto in German hands. It was not meant to be so, since it was rashly assumed, at least by France, that the EU would be a “German horse with a French rider”, reflecting France’s long-honed diplomatic skill and expertise and as the designer of many of the EEC institutions, which subsequently morphed into the EU. This Franco-German axis has always been the core with other member states being important but peripheral, especially the UK, with its radically different history, political systems and law.
Why is this important? Mainly because the EU is now notably unbalanced in terms of relative economic strength and influence. It’s eastward and south eastward expansion to include Poland, Czech and Slovak Republics and the Baltic states to the Balkans and admission of Greece, Romania and Bulgaria has tilted it towards members whose history, culture and identities vary notably from the largely contiguous borders of the founding six. Those member interests are not necessarily those of the core, this is especially true of the Central European [Visegrad] Four, as well as the UK.
One is loath to add to the entire and poisonous Brexit debate whereby the UK voted to leave in a hotly disputed referendum, but it has to be understood that the desire if not the reality of a shared federal future, long a cherished dream of its founders, Monet and Schuman was never shared by the UK. Here lies an important ironical twist, the quasi Constitution, opposed by France, Ireland and the Netherlands and then hastily cobbled together as the Lisbon Treaty 2007 was never offered to the UK in a referendum. This was a major missed opportunity, since a putative EU constitution should have always been offered up to all member states’ electorates, but was cynically avoided in the UK or meekly accepted elsewhere.
Thus, no proper debate was ever held in the UK until its own in/out referendum. The British, ever the unplanned pragmatists thus did not get to engage on this fundamental aim which was always the core of the European Project. It is remarkable, but inexcusable that the powerful British media never elevated European matters and aspirations as either important enough to warrant serious discussion or to inform its electorate appropriately. Its outcome and consequences were both dramatic and less surprising in retrospect.
The UK is the first member to voluntarily withdraw from its membership. There has always been a long streak of Euroscepticism in Britain, but the fallout demands more than its tortuous disengagement under the one-sided and deeply flawed Article 50 procedures, it argues for a radical shift in British politics away from the adversarial first past the post system to a more consensual PR system and an overhaul of the Commons (viz. a massive reduction in numbers) and Lords ( abolition and substitution by a Senate comprised of all devolved administrations and England) which would reflect the wishes of all the constituent countries of the UK. It is astonishing that the UK played a leading role in constructing a successful federal constitution for the then West Germany, but failed to recognize any need for change in its backyard.
The outcome for the UK is highly uncertain, as it is for much of the EU, but a collective failure of imagination and will may result in a sub-optimal solution for both, weakening both parties at a time when the old order and institutions that have prevailed since the end of WWII are reaching the end of their life span and usefulness.