A Shifting European Center of Gravity to Berlin?


2016-07-16 By Garth McLennan

Great Britain’s vote to leave the European Union on June 23 unleashed a wave of uncertainty across the continent and the world.

But if anything in the still-forming post-Brexit order can be taken to the bank, it is that the Obama Administration will look to Germany to fill the void.

After the Obama administration went all in for London’s “remain” camp yet still came up short, the future of Washington’s long-held “special relationship” with London has been called into question.

This line of thinking’s natural extension, America’s relationship with the now presumably UK-less EU, has bubbled to the forefront as well.

A major policy question facing the next Administration will clearly be how to deal with the new European map?

The overall architecture of the liberal international order is unlikely to materially change as a result of Brexit, though its ripple effects will be felt all the same.

The NATO alliance and the EU act as this order’s structural underpinnings; without the stability and continental cohesion provided by the EU, the functionality of NATO would be compromised.

This framework is under multiple strains that threaten to undermine its integrity.

The EU faces a security threat from Russia that splits the bloc along east-west lines and a sovereign debt crisis that divides it economically from north to south.

Superimposed over these divisions is an immigration crisis that more than anything has given rise Eurosceptic, populist-driven parties across the continent.

A divided Europe has long been a strategic ambition of Vladimir Putin’s Russia. With precedent for leaving the continental bloc now in the process of being set, the countries most concerned about Russian aggression, Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, are likely to draw closer together and away from the unionist center in Brussels.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a joint news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, not seen. during their meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)
German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends a joint news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, not seen. during their meeting at the Chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Michael Sohn)

Fusing these gaps before they widen can best be achieved by leaving, as Robert D. Kaplan has put it, no strategic space between Washington and Berlin. Great Britain’s extrication from the union then will likely see a resulting compensatory effect, with the transatlantic order seeing its European center of gravity shifting from London to Berlin.

In many ways, the Brexit, should it be completed, will formalize what has already become America’s most beneficial European partnership. The two already share a deep security relationship that has seen Germany become the home for some of America’s most developed military and intelligence infrastructure abroad.

At the same time, the United States is Germany’s single largest trading partner, while Berlin holds status as the largest export destination for 14 EU member states. With Germany’s assumption of a leading role in determining Great Britain’s future market access to the bloc, powerful economic drivers therefore exist as well to naturally draw the U.S. and Germany closer together.

Without London, Berlin’s already dominant place within the EU will only become more pronounced; the possibility of a gradual, fundamental shift from the present, multipolar composition of the union to a more unipolar one oriented economically and, perhaps, militarily around Germany is increasingly likely. The current German foreign policy establishment has been supportive of the EU without beating its chest, but growing Euroscepticism at home calls the long term durability of this stance into greater question.

Washington needs Berlin, now as much as ever.

Germany will play the decisive role in deciding what Great Britain’s new relationship with the rest of Europe will look like, and Merkel has already shown a willingness to push back against the fiery orthodoxy of some EU leaders that has advocated a quick divorce from London.

Such leadership will push Berlin out of its preferred comfort zone of playing to the middle in continental politics. As this process unfolds, and as Berlin’s at times opaque view on the EU becomes naturally more defined, American support for Merkel and the allies within her ruling coalition will be vital.

This means delivering effective responses to German concerns about power vacuums in the Middle East, continuing to back up Berlin’s leadership initiatives like the recent migration deal with Turkey, and redoubled efforts at passing the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) that both Obama and Merkel have called for.

The EU recently voted to extend sanctions against Russia, despite French hesitancy and Italian mutterings, in a show of solidarity following Brexit, and Merkel stood once more as the face of such efforts.

The more pronounced shape and scope of German leadership that will develop in the months to come will serve as an instructive look into Europe’s future.

It is a future that must bind Berlin and Washington close together.

Garth McLennan graduated from Arizona State University in 2015, with degrees in Political Science and Criminal Justice. He is based out of Vancouver, where his writing focuses primarily on American foreign policy.

Editor’s Note: The Euro crisis coupled with the Brexit European restructuring is putting pressure on the German system itself; with the Turkish upheaval complicating any partnership with Turkey, and with the Russians ramping up their relationship with Greece, it is clear that new European map is being drawn different from the one written in 1991 and then augmented with EU expansion.

There is political change in Germany and the United States going on at the same time so that any evolving relationship will be affected by the nature of the new US Administration and by the viability of the Merkel government.

A post-Brexit order might well suit a President Trump seeking for both domestic and global restructuring; and German conservatives might well look to the shaping of the post-Brexit Europe as one which rids itself of the burden of supporting the weak sisters in the European system.

The point is simple: the evolving European map as it allows has been in the time of significant historical change is a work in progress.