Tuesday, 28 June 2016

What the UK is leaving behind

The so-called Brexit situation is fast moving. Many things remain unclear, including when the UK will begin formal exit procedures, or even whether the EU will allow its departure.

Yet one question not often asked is about the EU’s purpose. Most journalists call it a trading bloc or a political union, but in truth the supranational organisation is far more. It is important to unpack this to know what exactly the UK is leaving behind.

As I have written before, the central question governing the 20th century was: what can be done about Germany? This was a dynamic in the prior century as well, but with the advent of advanced industrialisation the sheer power of the German state lifted it to the top of world concerns.

Germany’s heft is a result not necessarily of its people but of geography. The country sits in the middle of the North European Plain, which stretches from central Belgium to the Belarussian border. Elevations vary between zero and 200m of mostly flat farmland. It is also the basin for the Rhine, Ems, Weser, Elbe, Oder and Vistula rivers.

Those rivers cut a patchwork across Europe offering states trade routes that are magnitudes cheaper than road or rail. This efficiency creates massive profit for traders and tends to make the surrounding geography disproportionately wealthy.

But the plain is also a ready-made tank and infantry highway. Over the last few hundred years, the geography of modern Germany has suffered attacks along the plain both from its east and west many times. This vulnerability, coupled with an immense wealth, has moulded Germany’s strategic imperatives in two crucial ways.

First, the country cannot avoid becoming rich, but building impenetrable defences would crush that growth and would be largely impossible anyway given the border distances. Second, powers to Germany’s east and west represent a threat to Germany it cannot assume will remain benign forever. The important lesson of Europe’s history is that friendly politics always change eventually.

Despite popular opinion, no country goes to war because it wants to. It goes to war because it has to. In the 20th century, a vulnerable but rich Germany did the only thing it could and struck at its surrounding states twice in 40 years. In both instances its downfall was in opening a war on two fronts, but it couldn’t afford not to. Europe burned because of Germany’s geography.

The result of the second strike in 1939 was utter defeat and partition. Germany lost its geography to both the United States and the Soviet Union, both powers continuing to position troops there because the geography had not changed. If major aggression were to reoccur, it was theorised, it would reoccur along the North European Plain.

Germany was returned to a contiguous state after the fall of the Soviet Union, under the condition it would not build an offensive military and must join the European Union. Binding European states together in an economic alliance, it was thought, would cancel the vulnerability of Germany as it increased its overwhelming industrial power once again.

The North European Plain
The point of the European Union, strictly speaking, was to bind France with Germany to avoid Germany having to worry about its western borders. There was no chance of binding Russia with Germany, but Berlin knew it could withstand a threat from one point of the compass so it wasn’t immediately important.

Since its inception, France and Germany have aligned their interests for the EU relatively well. German interests focus on maintaining its extremely high levels of exports (48% of GDP) to other EU countries. Meanwhile France, foremost a northern European country, is also a Mediterranean country and shares interests with the south of Europe which are different to Germany’s.

In 2008, after US financial markets collapsed and spread to Europe, the disparities between Germany’s power and France’s diverging interests began to show more clearly. The political union remained strong, but the economic rational connecting the two has never been fully restored.

Diverging French and German interests since that time has been a slow motion explosion of the EU structure itself. That it has taken eight years for the first member to disentangle does not mean the bloc is only having trouble now. The rationale for the EU was never about improving the economic well-being of member states, and that reality is getting difficult to paper over with platitudes.

Spain and Italy are experiencing serious problems – 20% unemployment and 20% non-performing loans respectively. Greece avoids bankruptcy, but with every tranche from the EU central bank pulls further from economic health. Eastern Europe is developing its own defence and economic structure because it cannot trust that the EU will exist in years to come.

The UK is leaving behind not only a political and economic union, but a project built to deal once and for all with the German question. It is clear the project is not working and will need repairing. But when painting only what one sees, the obvious response id: if it could be fixed, wouldn’t it already be fixed? So the question returns to the basic: what can be done about Germany in the 21st century?

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