Rise of Germany the great unintended consequence of Brexit

Posted By: March 25, 2019

The British are creating, in reality, the thing they feared in their paranoid fantasies

Fintan O’Toole. Irish Times. Dublin. Saturday, March 23, 2019

   As we take our seats yet again on the great Brexit merry-go-round, I have been thinking of the elegant, high-backed chairs in a dining room 15 miles south of Belfast. They are in Mount Stewart, the big house on Strangford Lough.

But you can see them in paintings of the Congress of Vienna of 1815 – the posteriors of the men who redrew the map of Europe after the defeat of Napoleon graced their seats. One of the men in the pictures is Robert Stewart, Lord Castlereagh, the British foreign secretary who was one of the dominant figures in deciding Europe’s future. Though he was born in Henry Street in Dublin, Mount Stewart was the family pile. So he took the chairs home from Vienna to Co Down as a memento.

What they bring to mind now is unintended consequences. They remind us that revolutions can leave legacies for the long term that no one imagined. What is the long-term legacy of the Russian Revolution? Not so much contemporary Russia as contemporary China and its strange mixture of Leninism and hyper-capitalism.

And what is the long-term legacy of the French Revolution? A place called Germany. There was no such place in the 18th century, just hundreds of independent city-states and principalities whose people were Germanic in culture but had no sense of belonging to a single political nation.

The French Revolution created Napoleon who realized that these micro-states were easy pickings and invaded them.

Here we have the most consequential of unintended consequences. France was the dominant power in Europe, and Germany did not exist. Napoleon invaded the Germanic states and accidentally summoned Germany into existence. He reorganized the statelets into confederations. Resistance to him created a pan-German nationalism.


After Napoleon’s defeat, at the Congress of Vienna, the men sitting on those Mount Stewart chairs created the German Confederation, which would eventually lead to German unification in 1871. France’s position as the dominant western European continental power was thus ended by Napoleon.

And Britain, which encouraged the creation of a strong Germany, went to war with it twice in the 20th century. 

So, what will be the unintended consequences of Brexit? This may be a particularly foolish question when we don’t really know what the intended consequences are, never mind the unintended ones. The absence of a clear and realistic set of goals has characterized the project from the beginning.

• Fintan O’Toole: Are the English ready for self-government?
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Not foreseen?

Since so little has been planned, so much left to chance, is there even a difference in this case between effects that were and were not foreseen? Perhaps not. Perhaps none of Brexit’s consequences will have been fully intended.

But we can guess at some of the ones that run directly counter to the aspirations of those who have created Brexit. One of them will be a strange echo of the French Revolution’s accidental creation of Germany. And this will be doubly ironic.

In the first place, the anti-EU sentiment that would fuel Brexit really began to gather in England in the wake of German reunification in 1990. The fear that the Germany that had so aggressively pursued dominance of Europe in the 20th century was now reborn and would return to its old ways revived the paranoid suspicion that the EU itself was really a German front.

The notion that Germany was in effect reversing by stealth the result of two world wars and achieving by economic means the dominance it had been denied on the battlefield had long been there. But its rise as a potent political myth in England was itself an unintended consequence of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The irony here is that Brexit will help to create the very thing its political proponents feared. When Boris Johnson told voters a month before the referendum in 2016 that the EU was “pursuing a similar goal to Hitler in trying to create a powerful superstate”, he was manipulating English anxieties about the dark Teutonic truth behind the EU’s tediously consensual deal-making.

Yet, while Brexit will not actually turn this conspiracy theory into a reality, it will unquestionably create a much greater degree of German dominance on the continent.

Disperse power

One of the reasons most small EU countries are especially unhappy about Brexit is that having the British at the European table has helped to disperse power among a larger number of big players. It is easier for smaller countries to use their diplomatic skills to create coalitions on questions of vital interest to themselves when they can play on rivalries and disagreements between the major states, including the UK.

We can see this most clearly from a negative example: without the UK in the eurozone, Ireland was much more vulnerable in the banking crisis to bullying by the ECB.

If and when Britain leaves, Germany will, merely by default, become much more dominant. The balance of power that Castlereagh did so much to create at the Congress of Vienna will have tilted towards Berlin.

But there is another irony too: the Germans don’t really want this dominance. Scarred by the experience of defeat, they don’t trust themselves with it. This unintended consequence is also, even for its apparent beneficiary, an unwanted one.

It is weirdly apt that British influence on the continent was largely the creation of two Irishmen: the Duke of Wellington and Castlereagh. For the collapse of that influence as a result of Brexit will also have unintended consequences for Ireland.

Those chairs in Mount Stewart represent in tangible form an immensely important intangible: the prestige of Britishness. That prestige once came from hard power – military prowess and industrial strength. In our time, it has been maintained by soft power – the notion that Britain still cuts a great figure in the world, maintained through popular culture, an image of vibrancy and openness and a reputation for competence and reliability.

British prestige

We have to keep in mind that for us in Ireland this soft British power is a domestic matter. The allegiance of a very substantial minority on our island has been shaped by history, culture and economic interests. But it has been maintained, even as Britain ceased to be a world power, by a sense of British prestige.

However Brexit now turns out, this prestige has melted before our eyes. Britain will no longer be a player on the continent, and the fantasy that it will therefore emerge again as a global power will be cruelly exposed.

What glamor will attach to Britain then, and what will the British identity of so many people on the island of Ireland then mean?

When Britain is no longer taken seriously at the table, are they just left with the old chairs?