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The Internationalist
  August 2016

Brexit Vote Intensifies Inter-Imperialist Rivalries

“Willkommen in der Festung Europa”

Euro sign sculpture in front of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt, Germany: the dictatorship of finance capital.   (Bloomberg)

Hitler tried but failed to consolidate a German-dominated Festung Europa (Fortress Europe) by blitzkrieg in World War II. Kaiser Wilhelm tried the same gambit in World War I (the ill-fated Schlieffen Plan). Particularly since the capitalist reunification of Germany in 1990, the “democratic” imperialist rulers in Berlin and the bankers in Frankfurt have sought to achieve suzerainty on the continent by economic domination of the European Union. Yet what emperors, fascists and financiers couldn’t achieve could now be the result of a British exit from the EU, should it occur.

How long German imperialist ascendency in Europe would last is another matter – certainly no “Thousand-Year Fourth Reich.” Already the day after the Brexit vote, the Rome (Italy) daily Il Messaggero (claiming to speak on behalf of “all European citizens”) editorialized: “Europe doesn’t deserve to be at Germany’s beck and call.” And surveying the opinions of Eastern European politicians, Spiegel online (24 June) reported: “Not least, Great Britain was valued in the East as a counterweight to the hegemonic power, Germany.”

After laying Greece low with brutal austerity policies, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble issued diktat to British voters: “In is in, and out is out.” (AFP)

Already, German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble runs the Eurogroup of finance ministers which controls economic affairs in the EU, issuing diktats to bring weaker members to heel – most recently Greece, but also Ireland, Portugal, Spain and even Italy – forcing pension cutbacks, mass layoffs, slashing social services and cutting wages. The European Central Bank, which controls the common currency (the euro), is headquartered in the German banking center of Frankfurt. France alone, with its ailing economy, is too weak to constitute a countervailing force resisting orders from Berlin. The result could be a shift of European foreign policy away from the U.S./British axis that has dominated Western Europe since the end of World War II.

From left: German foreign minister Steinmeier, EU parliament president Schulz and deputy chancellor Gabriel. Social Democratic heavyweights called for Britain out now, and expanding EU repressive forces. (dpa)

Immediately after the Brexit vote, leading German political figures demanded a hard line against perfides Albion. Christian Democrat hardliner Schäuble repeated his warning to Britain made before the referendum, that “drin heißt drin, und raus heißt raus” (In is in, and out is out). The same signal from Social Democratic (SPD) leaders in the coalition government: deputy chancellor Sigmar Gabriel and foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (along with European Parliament president Martin Schulz) demanded a quick Brexit: to avoid splitting Europe as the referendum split Britain, “the heads of state and government must provide clarity, and soon.” For now, chancellor Angela Merkel’s “soft” line prevailed, but pressure is building.

The very day after the Brexit vote, a slew of plans started appearing to reorder the Fortress. The German finance ministry’s contingency plan, “German Strategy Re: Brexit,” foresees “difficult divorce negotiations” with Britain, and “no automatic access to the European single market.” Schäuble has long flirted with calling for a European finance ministry that could directly order other countries to cut expenditures, eliminate deficits and impose even more brutal austerity on the working class. SPD bigwigs Gabriel and Schulz, in contrast, immediately issued a prepared-in-advance paper, “Refounding Europe,” calling for “more growth-friendly” economic policies and turning the European Commission into “a real European government.”

The European Union of repression. The EU’s multinational Frontex border police has been dispatched to round up refugees in Greece. In addition to a beefed up Euro border guard and coast guard, German social democrats want a European FBI. (Frontex)

That won’t happen since the EU is an imperialist bloc, and cannot supplant the national imperialisms under capitalism. Meanwhile, the more operational elements of these plans focus on military and police measures. Social Democrats Gabriel and Schulz call for a “European FBI,” the “effective securing of the EU’s external borders” with “corresponding structures,” a “common European immigration law” and a single foreign policy so that the EU can act as a “single regional force for order.” In the same vein, the Berlin government’s White Paper on Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr (July 2016) calls for “strengthening national and regional capacity for autonomous security preparations” in “common action by the EU.” In particular it seeks to control immigration policy, for which the “effective protection of European external borders is of central importance.”

In view of Germany’s history, its imperialist rulers repeatedly stress the importance of NATO and “partnership” with the U.S. But a different tone is coming post-Brexit from the Eurocrats. A document on “European Union Global Strategy,” Shared Vision, Common Action, A Stronger Europe (June 2016) issued after the British vote by European Commission vice president and foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini stressed that, beyond NATO, Europe must be prepared “to act autonomously if and when necessary,” with an “appropriate level of ambition and strategic autonomy” to “safeguard security within and beyond its borders.” The paper calls for operations involving a new European Border and Coast Guard “to enhance border protection and maritime security.”

German weekly Der Spiegel headlined following the Brexit vote, “Europe Is Dead.” But the immediate effect of the British referendum has been to strengthen German domination of the EU.

Following the Brexit vote, various media and politicians wring their hands, moaning that “Europe Is Dead,” as Der Spiegel (25 June) headlined on its front page (above a smaller subhead “Long Live Europe?”). Before this there was the Netherlands referendum in April in which almost two-thirds of voters rejected a Ukraine-EU association treaty, leading to talk of “Nexit.” Some pundits are saying that next up is “Quitaly,” as Italian banks wobble, mass unemployment persists, the Democratic Party government in Rome grows more unpopular and the populist Five Star Movement advances in the polls. A break-up of the EU could be an eventual outcome, but the immediate effect of the British referendum has been to strengthen German imperialist domination of Europe.

For sure, British departure from the European Union, if it actually takes place, could screw up the longstanding U.S. policy of dominating Europe through NATO and via  its “special relationship” with Britain. Barack Obama was quite frank in pushing for a “Remain” vote, saying “your powerful voice in Europe ensures that Europe takes a strong stance in the world … closely linked to its allies on the other side of the Atlantic” (Guardian [London], 22 April). But the U.S. still has Ireland (where IT giants have their European operations) as an English-speaking back-up channel to the EU, and can use East European allies to undercut any move to détente with Russia. Rather  than being a blow against imperialism, Brexit will increase inter-imperialist rivalries. What’s needed is a struggle to overthrow imperialism, and bring down the imperialist EU by the revolutionary struggle of workers throughout Europe. ■