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BPR Interviews: Werner Weidenfeld

Werner Weidenfeld is a German political scientist and served as the director of German-US relations for the German government. A sought-after commentator on current affairs, he has written extensively on the politics of the European Union and transatlantic issues. He currently heads the Center for Applied Policy Research, a Munich-based think tank.


The Brexit vote has sparked a lot of commentary on the state of the EU. What does the vote mean for the European idea? Is there a need for reform at the institutional level of the EU?


There is a need for development in terms of European integration with or without the Brexit. Granted, the Brexit vote has made this situation more visible in the eyes of the public, but even if the UK had voted to remain, this need for reform would have existed. The first important point is that that the vote was sparked by a domestic calculation: It was not so much a vote on European politics as it was an attempt by Prime Minister David Cameron to create an outlet for the domestic pressure he was facing at the time. Back when Cameron first announced the referendum, he was convinced it would produce a “yes” for the EU – he was wrong. Hence the whole thing was first and foremost a domestic miscalculation, which we have to keep in mind before rushing to ask what this means for the fate of the EU.


The second point is that the UK never really belonged to Europe. When a number of states were articulating a vision leaning towards a kind of “United States of Europe” after World War Two, the UK favored a more restrictive approach and it was British intervention that scaled down these great ambitions somewhat. When more efforts for a united Europe followed in the 1950s, there were two detractors: Moscow and London. It was only in the 1970s that the British expressed an interest in joining, but overall, no major impulses for European integration ever originated in London. Thus, in terms of European integration, this is not a huge loss. No doubt, the EU is losing 12 percent of its population and 18 percent of its GDP, so it’s not irrelevant, but it is not of existential importance.


What about the effect of the Brexit vote on Euro-sceptics in other countries? In the past, you have been rather skeptical about the idea of a potential ‘domino effect’ throughout the EU – why?


First of all, a domino effect could only be conceivable if the EU were to now make concessions and allow the UK a ‘special deal’, but they won’t do that, in their own interest they’re going to remain tough.


Second, and this is interesting, most of the media coverage in the wake of the vote has been negative – even in the UK, there were many regretful voices, calls for another round and so on, and throughout the EU it’s been the same. This has actually led to a slight surge in pro-EU opinion across the continent. If you look at Germany, recent polls suggest the EU is more popular now than it was before the Brexit vote. What the EU has to deliver now is structural reforms. It needs to be capable of acting quickly and if people notice that Brussels is not able to solve problems they get frustrated – that’s where the real challenge lies.


A prominent feature of the Brexit campaign was a sense of disillusionment or cynicism towards untrustworthy ‘experts’ or ‘elites.’ Is this comparable to the widespread skepticism against the press and other public institutions in Germany and other EU countries?


No doubt, you can see the expression of this attitude not only in the UK, or in Germany with the rise of a new far-right party, but also in similar form in France, the Netherlands, Hungary, and Poland. And it’s taking on particularly dramatic features in Austria, where the presidential candidate of a far-right party is polling at nearly 50 percent. Many people are distancing themselves from established political actors and parties because they feel disillusioned, left alone and frightened. They either decide to either withdraw from politics altogether or to look for some outlet for their frustration.


However, if you look at Germany’s new far-right AfD party, it is utterly chaotic. Its founder left to found a new party, saying he was embarrassed by the “monster” he had created. Meanwhile, there is tremendous infighting within the party. In the old days of traditional party politics, these would have been harbingers of doom. Now, the party remains more or less on course because it doesn’t really matter to voters who are mainly looking for a way to express their frustration.


And how do you address this as a moderate party?


Those who talk of moderate parties having to move more “to the right” or “to the left” are missing the point for two reasons. First, the voters flocking to right-wing populist parties often do so because they feel like they no longer understand developments around them. Moderate parties must offer a viable and compelling narrative as to where their society is going in order to help citizens orientate themselves. Instead most of them are currently caught in ad-hoc crisis management – the refugee crisis is one example.


Second, people want politicians to care about them and to take care of them, so establishment parties have to expand on that theme of caring. When asked about their support for right-wing populists, people often cite as their number one reason that “they know our concerns.” So moderate parties have to be better at presenting and explaining their analytical take on society and they have to give people the sense that they care about them.


But doesn’t the voters’ skepticism also reflect their real-life experiences? The places that were most in favor of Brexit tended to be ones that had also felt left behind economically over the past decades.


Certainly, but you cannot solve this problem by declaring Brexit. In fact, you’re worsening it, since the very regions that voted for Brexit will suffer the hardest from the economic shock caused by the vote. If there is one region that will suffer least it is London, where people didn’t vote for Brexit. So this dynamic will be exacerbated.


Let’s take a look at the United States. Your statement that disaffected voters often care less about concrete solutions than about the feeling that their concerns are being acknowledged seems to apply here, too. To what extent are comparisons between the populism of Donald Trump and that of leading Brexiters like Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson in order?


There are definitely some parallels. There is a dramatic degree of social polarization in the US, partly because it is simply no longer a big melting pot where a ‘rags-to-riches’ path is open to everyone. A candidate like Trump wouldn’t have stood a chance in a more harmonized social atmosphere, but he has made his way to the Republican nomination because he is able to portray himself as a champion of the common man in opposition to the Washington elite. His rabble-rousing appearances distract from the fact that he is, to some degree, part of that elite himself. But his ability to do so is an expression of this polarization in the US. It’s not identical to the European phenomenon, but there are indeed some clear parallels.


If, despite everything, Clinton is victorious in November, what will her victory mean for US relations with Europe?


In my opinion, we would see a slightly smarter version of Obama’s policies. She would carry on the main features of Obama’s policies but she would likely engage with the Europeans in a more strategic manner. Obama was polite, but Europe simply was not part of his global strategy.


Which key issues will shape transatlantic relations the most in the coming years?


One of the challenges is building a transatlantic strategic elite which can rebuild strategic networks and pursue a shared global political agenda. That kind of cooperation has suffered since Obama’s “pivot to Asia” and under his predecessor. In my opinion, this is something that would be quite possible with Hillary Clinton as president, and it would change the world’s political architecture somewhat.