Germany has economic and political dominance in Europe, said Atlantic Council board member R. Nicholas Burns
In light of the British decision to leave the European Union, US President Barack Obama and his successor must forge a closer bond with Germany and shore up the “special relationship” with the United Kingdom, said R. Nicholas Burns, an Atlantic Council board director who served as under secretary of state for political affairs in the George W. Bush administration.
In a June 23 referendum, British voters favored the UK leaving the EU by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent. The UK’s departure from the EU will open a dominant role for Germany in the bloc. Once the process of leaving is initiated, it may take up to two years for the UK to actually leave the EU.
“There is no question that Germany has become, and we all know it and see it, the dominant country in Europe economically and politically,” said Burns.
“President Obama has had a very good relationship with [German] Chancellor [Angela] Merkel, but we have not always seen eye to eye on how and when we use the military, we have not always seen eye to eye on homeland security and counterterrorism. There is a lot more we can do—the Obama team as well as the next administration—to deepen further that structural strategic link with Berlin and it will be very important with Britain outside [the EU],” he added.
Burns, along with retired Gen. James L. Jones, Jr., a former national security advisor and current chairman of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, is the author of a new Council report titled “Restoring the Power and Purpose of the NATO Alliance.”
After the vote
British financial markets remained in turmoil on June 27. The pound sterling plunged to a thirty-one-year low against the US dollar. British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, sought to calm the markets saying the UK was prepared to face the future “from a position of strength.”
The results of the so-called Brexit referendum are not legally binding. An exit from the EU is only triggered once the prime minister informs the European Council of the UK’s intention to leave— thereby invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which governs such exits. Following this, the European Commission will negotiate the terms of the exit with the UK, which will only come into force once the European Council and the European Parliament both agree on the exit terms.
British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has said he will step down in October, wants to leave the task of invoking Article 50 to his successor. (The UK on June 27 brought forward the timeline for selecting a new prime minister to September.) Cameron’s main rival in the Conservative Party and possibly the next prime minister—former London Mayor Boris Johnson who had campaigned for the UK to leave the EU—has also been reluctant to rush the invocation.
On June 27, the leaders of Germany, France, and Italy insisted that they wouldn’t start Brexit talks until the UK formally applies to leave the EU.
Supporters in the UK remain camp have accused the so-called Brexiteers of basing their campaign on lies. The Leave camp’s arguments have begun to unravel in post-referendum sentiment and analysis. For instance, Johnson’s claim that the UK sends £350 million a week to the EU—a claim that he had emblazoned on his bus—now turns out to be a “mistake,” admitted fellow Brexiteer Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).
Brexiteers who had sold the idea of the UK leaving as a way to end immigration to the isle are now backpedaling on that claim in the face of facts. Dan Hannan, a Conservative Member of the European Parliament who campaigned for the UK to leave the EU, acknowledged that a Brexit would not dramatically cut the number of immigrants coming to the UK. This is because the UK seeks to retain access to the European single market and the conditions under which the EU has agreed to grant such access to nonmember states, like Norway, include the right to free movement of workers.
Burns said the immediate fallout of the British referendum could serve as “a very sobering wake up call for the people of Europe” who may have second thoughts about their country’s EU membership.
Is a Brexit inevitable?
An actual Brexit, while highly likely, is not inevitable. There are some scenarios in which the UK could still remain in the EU.
1) The Scottish Parliament has to agree to measures that eliminate the application of EU laws in Scotland. A vast majority Scots voted for Remain. Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has said the Scottish Parliament could block a Brexit. Such a decision would, however, prove counterintuitive as it would diminish the Scots’ prospects of seeking another referendum seeking independence from the UK.
2) Since the result of the referendum was so close and with post-referendum reports suggesting that many of those who voted Leave now regret their decision, the prime minister could call for another referendum. Such a move would be politically risky. Ironically, Cameron, who precipitated this crisis in the first place by promising to hold the June 23 referendum, is best placed to bear the consequences since he intends to resign in October.
3) A general election could be called. If Brexit opponents—the Labour Party and some Conservatives—win they could claim the result to be a mandate against Brexit and cancel the results of the referendum.
The “special relationship” and NATO
A Brexit will not affect the UK’s defense commitments—including spending two percent of its GDP on defense as required by NATO. Nor will it affect defense, security, and counterterrorism relationships with the United States. Nevertheless, a Brexit would have a negative impact on the US-UK special relationship.
“Britain has been our most trusted partner and ally inside the EU,” said Burns. “There were times when we would ask the British to help translate the EU to Washington and translate Washington to the EU.”
Retired Adm. James Stavridis wrote in a Foreign Policy column that the UK would be able to devote greater attention to its commitments to NATO in the event of a Brexit.
Burns, who is a former US ambassador to NATO, worried about the consequences of the UK breaking apart as a result of post-Brexit pressure from Scotland and Ireland.
“If Britain began to fracture, it would not be as focused on its global strategy as it should be. It may not have the resources as a smaller country to support the kind of military it has had for the last several decades,” said Burns.
“I worry about the impact that might produce a smaller, less secure, less self-confident, less globally oriented Britain,” he added.
R. Nicholas Burns spoke in an interview with the New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Here are excerpts from the interview.
Q: How should the United States be dealing with the now very real prospect of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union—both in terms of building stronger relationships with Germany as well as in terms of shoring up its relationship with the UK?
Burns: We don’t know where the Brexit vote is going to lead the British people. There are already challenges to leadership of both major parties—the Conservatives and Labour. Millions of Brits have regrets; there could be another referendum. If it does lead to a British departure from the European Union, it is an exceedingly negative development for the United States.
Britain has been our most trusted partner and ally inside the EU. I can say as a working diplomat in the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations there were countless times when the British sense of pragmatism and toughmindedness, and the globally oriented outlook that the British had made a big positive difference within the EU. There were times when we would ask the British to help translate the EU to Washington and translate Washington to the EU. Britain played that big role in this very important special relationship that we still have with them.
Should they leave, it will be very important for President Obama, but really the next American president, to continue the closest possible defense and strategic relationship in all realms. The UK will remain a member of NATO; they are, along with France, the second- and third-most powerful militaries in the Alliance after the United States; Britain still has the capacity to think and act globally as well as regionally, which very few European countries have. I think strengthening the bond between the United States and Britain is going to be very important.
Strengthening economic ties is equally important. The Wall Street Journal has already suggested in an editorial that the United States think of a free trade agreement [with Britain] if Britain is out of the EU. Britain is the key country that makes the European Union our largest investor into the American economy and our largest trade partner.
We need to strengthen the economic side of the relationship and the military side, but we can’t just rest there. There is no question that Germany has become, and we all know it and see it, the dominant country in Europe economically and politically. If Britain leaves the EU, the United States is going to have to have a deeper relationship strategically with Germany than it already has.
We work well with the Germans. President Obama has had a very good relationship with [German] Chancellor [Angela] Merkel, but we have not always seen eye to eye on how and when we use the military, we have not always seen eye to eye on homeland security and counterterrorism. There is a lot more we can do—the Obama team as well as the next administration—to deepen further that structural strategic link with Berlin and it will be very important with Britain outside [the EU].
Q: What must the United States do to balance the task of building a special relationship with Germany while avoiding the negative implications this and a more dominant Germany could have on its relationships with other EU countries, particularly France?
Burns: We are seventy-one years past the Second World War and as an American I feel very comfortable in saying we need a stronger Germany in the world, not a weaker Germany. Seventy-one years later I think there is great trust in the German people and the German government.
The German question should disappear and we shouldn’t be inhibited in our ties with Germany out of some concern that German power is a negative force. It is not. It is a positive force. In fact, when I was in government and now as a professor when I look at the balance of power in Europe, Germany has held itself back. There is an ethic of equality in the European Union where they all listen to each other and make decisions together and that is a very positive part of the EU, but you do have to have a leader and Germany has to lead. It is the natural country to lead given its economic size and given the strength of its chancellor.
The Germans are going to have to work this out. I saw on my trip to Germany last week real divisions in Germany between the chancellor and the foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, on the question of whether or not Germany should support the NATO exercises in the Baltics. Foreign Minister Steinmeier said inexplicably that the NATO exercises in the Baltic States were saber rattling. Chancellor Merkel came out a few days later and said the NATO exercises are important and that she supported them.
The Germans are going into an election season in 2017. I think that was the opening round of the election. Steinmeier is from the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany), the chancellor is from the CDU (Christian Democratic Union). Germany has to find its way toward a collective sense of its own leadership role in Europe and its own leadership with Washington.
Q: Adm. Stavridis has written that a UK out of the EU will ultimately benefit NATO as the UK will devote more resources to the alliance. Do you agree?
Burns: I worry about Britain fracturing. If Britain does file the papers under Article 50 to leave the European Union, I take the Scottish threat to have another referendum for independence very seriously. You saw that Sinn Fein put the Irish question back on the table. As an Irish American, the last thing that we want to see is a resumption of the struggle between the Protestants and Catholics in Ireland. The Act of Union that put the United Kingdom together in 1707 could come apart.
If Britain began to fracture, it would not be as focused on its global strategy as it should be. It may not have the resources as a smaller country to support the kind of military it has had for the last several decades. It is hard for me to see the silver lining. I worry about the impact that might produce a smaller, less secure, less self-confident, less globally oriented Britain.
Q: Do you believe that the immediate consequences of the Brexit vote—especially the fact that the experts were right about the economic fallout and backtracking by Brexit leaders—could actually prevent a domino effect of similar referenda in other European states?
Burns: What has happened in Britain in the first three days— the pound has fallen to its lowest level ever, the capital flight from Britain, investment projects being put on hold—I think it is going to be a very sobering wake-up call for the people of Europe.
We saw an early indication in the rather surprising strength of the Spanish government in the elections this past Sunday. That was good to see. There are nationalist parties in the Netherlands, in Belgium, in France, in Germany and they are challenging the status quo. I am not sure that they are going to succeed.
At the end of the day, in Germany, I think they will stay with a stable leadership of either the CDU or the SPD, but not of some rightwing nationalist party. I would bet that would be the result in France. Marine Le Pen is riding high, but can she be elected in the second round of a French election where it is one to one against a conservative leader like Alain Juppé or Nicolas Sarkozy? If you see a Britain in crisis that will be a sobering reminder to European publics of all they have. This is the wealthiest part of the world; it is the largest single market in the world; the largest economy in the world; some of the highest per capita income. This is not a continent without some hope for the future and to choose rightwing nationalism is not a sound future. I am not sure that the European people en masse will choose that future.
Q: NATO will host its summit in Warsaw next month. What are the main recommendations in the report you have co-authored with Gen. Jones?
Burns: Gen. Jones and I worked very closely with Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council, and with Jeff Lightfoot. This report is a very important reminder that the United States has vital stakes in Europe.
We believe that the United States and European countries face our greatest set of challenges since the end of the Cold War twenty-five years ago. It is the Putin redivision of Europe; it is Europe’s weaknesses that we have been talking about—Brexit; it is the impact of the Middle East crises on Europe; and it is the need for stronger leadership in Europe and America that has motivated us. That is why we have recommended the series of actions that we have, that is: NATO should station troops permanently in the Baltic States, Poland, and the Black Sea to deter [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin from further expansion and adventurism; NATO countries and the EU should maintain sanctions on Russia until Russia meets the conditions on Ukraine that Chancellor Merkel and [French] President [François] Hollande negotiated with Putin; the NATO countries have to raise their defense spending. The threat is there and they have to do more to help the United States. There is great frustration in Congress and the American public that Europe is not pulling its weight.
Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.