Hovering over Brexit was Angela Merkel, goddess of common sense. We were told that the implacable Michel Barnier in Brussels was always “waiting for the nod from Berlin”. Autocratic German bankers might screw the eurozone. But there was always Minerva Merkel, the rock, pragmatic towards Russia, tough towards Greece, welcoming to refugees, tightfisted with money.
The rock has crumbled. The allies’ postwar crafting of Germany’s constitution, to nobble it with coalitions, has turned sour. Overnight, Merkel makes Britain’s Theresa May seem positively secure. We have no idea what leadership may ensue in Berlin, and so no idea what may lie in store for the EU. There couldn’t be a worse time for Britain to upset the apple-cart.
Britons are cursed to remember too much, but sometimes they do not remember enough. Throughout history, peace in Europe has relied on equilibrium, on a balance of power between the many member states. Every great conflict in the continent’s history has resulted from an upsetting of this equilibrium – for the past 150 years by Germany.
Britain was never part of this balance. It is an island, sufficient unto itself. When, during the hundred years war, it tried to become a European power, it made a mess of it, and never tried again. Henry VIII oversaw the first Brexit in 1534, detaching Britain from the authority of Roman Catholic Europe. Tudors, Stuarts and Hanoverians carefully absented themselves from Europe’s vicious wars of religion and succession. Through the settlements of Westphalia, Utrecht and Vienna, Britain notionally supported the balance of power, but her chief interest lay in a trading empire.
Hence Robert Walpole’s proud boast in 1734: “There are 50,000 men slain this year in Europe, and not one an Englishman.” Lord John Russell disbanded most of the British army after Waterloo, to avoid “turning a naval into a military nation, a mighty island into a petty continental state”. After the rise of Bismarck, the Tory Lord Salisbury in the 1890s preached “splendid isolation”, with Britain “drifting lazily downstream, putting out a boat-hook occasionally to avoid collision”.
In other words, Britain has been Brexiting since the 16th century. But sometimes the Brexit did not last. Salisbury’s boat-hook soon became a mighty army. Britain’s wars against Germany in the 20th century were to redress an upset in the balance of power. It was in this pan-European spirit that Britain joined Nato and later the Common Market. It accepted that geography meant a commitment to Europe’s strategic and economic space – albeit rarely as a full-hearted member of the EU. It seems to have been content to leave Germany in charge.
Now Germany wobbles and it is dangerous. A month before the Brexit referendum, I attended a conference in Berlin of German politicians and commentators. They pleaded with us not to vote Brexit, for a surprising reason: “Don’t leave us in charge.” Germany, they said, was not yet a mature democracy. It was already too powerful. German politicians had fashioned the eurozone to benefit their banks and blight poor countries. Nationalists on the far right were resurgent everywhere.
I usually discount such short-term histrionics, but not now. Like any chancellor, Merkel has been walking on eggshells. She has been weak on the EU and on eurozone reform. She has headed an EU that has become so unpopular that no other European leader would dare ask Britain’s referendum question. Now Merkel herself seems on the way out.
As a result, in the clouds beyond we can see only the surging identity politics of nationalism, whether in Spain, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic or north Italy. War was once politics by other means. Now the converse may be the case, and thank goodness. But there is such a thing as dangerous politics. The centre is not holding. Leaders are digging into their national subconscious to unearth, if not guns, then a means to populist power.
The times when Britain has been summoned to “come to the aid of Europe” have been few. But they have been preceded by British blindness towards a sudden shift in politics on the continent. When the Catholic church, Louis XIV or Napoleon threatened the peace of Europe, Britain hesitated. It might send a Marlborough or a Wellington to fly the flag for British soldiering, but its heart was rarely in it.
The same casualness infuses the present Brussels negotiations. It may be dismaying to see the EU’s Barnier treat David Davis as might a counter-reformation cardinal some pesky Lutheran princeling. Barnier clearly cares nothing for Europe, only for the Holy Brussels Church and its budget. But in response Britain seems devoid of interest. It shows no vision of an endgame, as if it did not mind about Brexit either way. This is precisely how Europe slithered to war in centuries past.
Europe is not going to war. But its internal-government relations are ever more brittle. The prospect is of another credit crunch, the crippling of the Greek economy, mass unemployment in Italy and Spain, and a critical need for a deal with Russia.
Europe needs a leader. If Merkel is not to be one, then who? Surely not the egotistical Emmanuel Macron? It would have been a golden opportunity for Britain to seize the helm, if only it had not abandoned ship.
Britain has clearly to proceed with Brexit. But it must get the item off the negotiating table as soon as possible. It should seek a quickie divorce: pay the money and marry Norway. It could then hurl itself into a revived “concert of Europe”, and convince the EU’s council of ministers to convene a conference on reform. There could then be a fresh start, a new treaty for a future Europe of sovereign states. That is the treaty Britain can help to write and join, starting now.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist