Can Franco-Germany Handle Becoming a Vanguard of Democracy after Brexit?
Franco-Germany seems like the only candidate capable of filling the Western leadership gap opened up by Trump and Brexit.
Brexit, the already extremely boring, cliché, and insipid but still high conspicuous departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, seems as if it is going to happen some time.
Despite the UK and EU leadership’s failure so far to execute the will of the majority of the British people declared nearly 3.5 years ago in the Brexit referendum, eventually even those who are truly scared of a “no-deal” Brexit will become eager to just get it over with, rather than let the haggling, extensions, and uncertainty linger on endlessly.
Once Brexit goes through, the European Union will be “devoid” of Britain, still one of the world’s top powers, which has been punching way above its weight for centuries, and, on top of that, the cradle of modern-day representative democracy.
It is these two dimensions of British power that bode some of the most significant ramifications of Brexit that many overlook.
The first dimension has to do with the fact that Britain’s departure will severely upset the functioning “balance of power” and “balance of interests” inside the European Union. That is, the balance among the “big” EU member states (not to mention the even more complicated balance among “big” and “small” member states).
Presently, the pre-Brexit EU has the “Big Six”, i.e. all member states with nearly or more than 40 million people (Germany, France, the UK, Italy, Spain, Poland); the “Big Five” (the “old” ones from the Big Six from before the arrival of the Eastern European newcomers, that is, the six minus Poland); the “the Big Four” – all member states with nearly or more than 60 million people and a GDP of nearly or above USD 2 billion (Germany, France, the UK, and Italy); and then there are the “Big Three” – the Big Four minus Italy. (Italy has been faltering in terms of both economic and population growth for the past two decades, and is now even seen as declining to a competition with Spain for the spot it used to occupy unconditionally).
The Big Three – Germany, France, and the UK – have been a very intriguing bunch, the top powers of the European Union, a troika that has been taking over the EU’s foreign policy (most prominently, in the Iranian nuclear program talks, where the three have been doing the heavy lifting on behalf of the EU, while representatives of the EU institutions in Brussels have been allowed to “tag along”).
The elusive balance between the Big Three involves everything: from soft power and the economy to high politics and historical tradition. (It dates back at least to the Third Crusade in the 12th century, which, its historical context aside, has a very intriguing history of interactions among their respective three monarchs, English King Richard the Lionheart, French King Philip Augustus, and German (Holy Roman) Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa).
Inside the EU, the Big Three balance has been an exciting nearly isosceles triangle of French statism, British liberalism, and German… pragmatism.
With the UK soon to be out of the EU picture, the post-Brexit European Union will be left with just its historic top-power core: namely, Franco-Germany, the extremely tight, close, and often truly honest and cordial alliance of modern-day France and Germany.
In its heyday, Franco-Germany (France + Germany) used to be very big thing, a very real deal, especially a few years back, at the time of Merkozy (German Chancellor Angela Merkel + then French President Nicolas Sarkozy). It has become a bit shaky at present, now that their leaders, Merkel (who is serving the remainder of her last term) and current French President Emanuel Macron, don’t see eye to eye nearly as much. “Mercron” is a political neologism that never really stuck.
The leaders’ very close relations are a crucial prerequisite for the smooth and mutually beneficial operation of Franco-Germany: before Merkozy, remember Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterand, all the way back to Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer.
Yet, even with some disagreements at the top, Franco-Germany will continue to exist – what else are France and Germany going to do? Go back to their previous “arrangement” of shared enmity averaging a large-scale European or World War every 20 to 40 years?
In that sense, as in so many others, Brexit is a real paradigm shift, a tectonic one at that. Franco-Germany will be left as the almighty, unchallenged leader of the European Union.
Sure, it will have to balance its interests with everybody else in the EU (North vs. South, West vs. East, Big vs. Small, and so on, and so forth), but it will most of all have to find the right way to balance itself.
Close as France and Germany may have been for decades, the UK was also an important balance player in their own equation. With Brexit, the Brits won’t be around anymore to side with the Germans against French promotion of statist policies, or to side with the French against German economic and financial might.
Enter the second top high politics dimension of Brexit, whose significance is even more tremendous than the first one about the disruption of the existing balance of power and interests inside the EU.
Assuming that Franco-Germany can handle itself (remain a tight bilateral alliance and establish a new balance inside the EU without abusing its dominant position in the Union), can Franco-Germany handle becoming a vanguard of democracy?
Can Franco-Germany be a power that acts out on moral principles and international political ethics, rather than in favor of big business and state or private corporate interests, when it comes to the need to defend freedom?
Can it prioritize human rights over sweet economic deals and other trade-offs with murderous dictators, mean oligarchs, totalitarian party machines, and radical extremists in Europe’s neighborhood and around the globe?
Can it at least protect what the nations of the European Union have already achieved in terms of liberty and civil society?
Lots of clarifications are in order here. The protection and promotion of democracy and freedom have been abused a lot as a justification for foreign policy moves, perhaps most prominently by George W. Bush and his bunch of neocons in the US invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003.
Yet, if the West wants not just to survive but also to thrive, it should be prepared to defend liberty and human rights at least on its own soil. It should have both the means and the will as well as the credibility to stand up to brutal international bullies when they try to blackmail, threaten, or even encroach upon the European Union and Europe, and their immediate neighborhood.
Regime change has been highly discredited already, and its notion has little to do with what’s in question here. However, Europe, the European Union, as part of the West, have got to stand out as a beacon of hope for all countries around the world who desire to go up the ladder of empowering their own people with rights, freedoms, and responsibilities for the sake of their own good and the greater common good.
With Franco-Germany left as the indisputable leader of the European Union, would it be up to that role?
In all fairness, it isn’t as though the presence of the UK in the EU in itself made it an unconditional champion of defending freedom and democracy all around the world, and that is not the point. However, Britain has had probably the most powerful humanitarian, democratic tradition in the entire world. (The United States and the French Republic might disagree, and it is indeed arguable).
Combined with its diplomatic clout and military capabilities as well as its special relationship alliance with the United States, Britain certainly brought a lot more credibility to the existing big power troika with France and Germany when it came to defending real Western values in international affairs. Not just not because of its own “weight” but precisely because of its impressive democratic and humanitarian tradition which has been spilling over into diplomacy since at least the second half of the 19th century.
Despite both France and Germany being notable for combining major power status with being exemplary democracies, both seem to have exhibited essential limitations when it comes to their ability and willingness to stand for freedom and democracy in the world just out of principle.
Both France and Germany have been willing to do business with some rather nasty types in international relations.
Sure, so has the United States of America, so has the United Kingdom, but in the case of France and Germany any such dealings and arrangements with foreign powers often blatantly hostile of the European Union are even more discrediting because they tend to involve hunting other EU nations.
Then comes Germany’s unwillingness to commit in any tangible manner to action abroad, especially militarily, a direct legacy from its role in World War II. Many in Germany still fail to comprehend that realities have changed so much since the second half of the 20th century that now doing the right thing entails being capable and willing to act in favor of freedom and democracy, rather than sticking to an overly pacifist, non-intervention stance.
The implications of Britain’s leaving the European Union with respect to the need to defend the greatest achievements of the Western civilization – human liberty, rights, and democracy – has been complicated further by the ever more questionable stance of the United States under President Donald Trump, a development which began in the administration of George W. Bush.
The combined effects of Trump and Brexit are opening up new space in Western leadership on those issues but are also shifting a very heavy burden. Franco-Germany, albeit seemingly unprepared, seems the only candidate capable of taking it up.
For a while now, after Trump’s election, some political commentators, their ideological affiliations aside, have been referring to German Chancellor Merkel as “the leader of the free world”. Merkel is reported to feel really good about getting that title. Just “feeling good” about it, however, won’t do the trick.
There is simply no way around it. France and Germany, Franco-Germany, must somehow rise to the challenge.
First, the challenge of “balancing them-/itself” and “pacing themselves” as the internal EU leader.
Second, the challenge of rising as a new vanguard of freedom and democracy, leading the European Union towards the unconditional ability to defend itself, and towards the willingness to support those nations and societies around the globe who are struggling to go down the same path. (All the while ruling out highly questionable and compromised doctrines such as “regime change”.)
For the time being, Franco-Germany has neither the means, nor the will, nor the credibility to take up that post-Brexit role on behalf of the EU. Yet, it must do its best to do so if it wants to protect itself and the European Union, and help make the world a better place. For there are a lot of powers out there that need some fending off.
(Banner image: Wikipedia)