Published: Financial Times, 20 June 2017
The UK’s departure creates new chances for Madrid, as well as Paris and Berlin
How will power shift in Europe as the reality of Brexit starts to sink in?
Much depends on how Brexit is handled. Overall, the EU capitals want a constructive partnership with a constructive UK in the future. But if the confrontational rhetoric of “no deal is better than a bad deal” actually drives the process towards a real breakdown — which is by no means excluded — all bets are off.
Provided more time is given to the process, and more thought too, this should be avoidable. And then the question must be: how the partnership will work out on the multitude of issues the future is going to throw at the European nations.
The essential and unavoidable fact is that Britain will not be in the room when EU summits are called on all the different issues that are certain to emerge in these increasingly uncertain times. It could be on a major financial crisis, a new Russian aggression, an accelerated Middle East meltdown or on something completely out of the blue. We have been there before.
If there is a smooth and soft Brexit, it should be possible to set up the mechanisms of a “special partnership” tighter than the one Britain claims to enjoy with the US. But if there is a brutal Brexit, the political scars will last for years.
For all its public ambivalence, there is little doubt that on the inside Britain has been very powerful in shaping the evolution of the EU. It has been in the vanguard of the single market, free trade, competitiveness and enlargement drives during the past few decades. It has given weight to the efforts to build a common EU foreign policy.
Many have seen the UK as a necessary counterweight to other countries keen on a more closed approach, both political and economic.
Nervousness has mounted in numerous capitals over how this will develop, and much depends on how a reinvigorated Paris-Berlin relationship will evolve during the coming years.
But while Paris is talking about reforms in Brussels, Berlin is anxiously awaiting reforms in Paris. For Europe to be “En Marche”, France under Emmanuel Macron, its new president, must show that its words can be translated into deeds.
For the time being there is no doubt that Berlin is even more dominant within the EU. It is not only that Angela Merkel is the true adult around the table, but also the fact that German nationals are to be found in key positions in the EU nearly everywhere. As long as Ms Merkel is there, the politics of Europe revolves around the German chancellery rather than around the European Commission.
But Berlin is aware of the risk of overplaying its hand. The lessons of history are a constant influence on every German politician. And this is of critical importance to other EU nations — there is tacit acceptance in other EU capitals of a situation in which Paris might propose, but in the end it is Berlin that decides.
Over time this might change. If Paris really moves forward on structural economic reforms, while Germany stagnates in complicated coalition politics after the election, the magnetism of the Élysée will grow.
How Paris will play its role on the wider EU scene remains to be seen. During the final years of the François Hollande presidency there have been a series of “EU South” summit gatherings, reflecting French efforts to take a leadership role in these regions. And the Macron aura might well, at least initially, make Madrid and Rome more receptive to accelerated attempts along these lines.
Over time, I would expect the appetite of Madrid for a larger EU role on its own to grow, based on its successful economic transformation.
While Paris might well be ready to sidestep and marginalise the problematic countries of central Europe, and favour a “core Europe”, Germany is acutely aware of being situated in the very heart of the EU, having more neighbouring countries than anyone else, and bound to continue to favour a more inclusive approach. Bonn was close to the border with France, but Berlin is even closer to the border with Poland.
It remains to be seen how the countries of the north will be able to work together. On the issue of EU defence co-operation Finland is distinctly forward-leaning, Sweden split and hesitant, Denmark out of the picture and the Baltic countries focused on Nato. There is certainly scope for improvement.
The post-Brexit EU will certainly be different. Let us hope it preserves the policy gains that Britain’s membership provided.
Carl Bildt was elected leader of the Moderate Party in 1986 which, through a four-party coalition, went on to defeat the Social Democrats in 1991. As Sweden's first conservative prime minister in 61 years, Bildt led a government focused on liberalizing and reforming the economy and making Sweden a member of the European Union. Bildt signed the accession treaty at the European Union summit of Corfu on 23 June 1994 and economic reforms were enacted paving the way for the successful growth in the decades that followed.
Carl Bildt became a Member of the Global Leadership Foundation in 2016.