The United Kingdom left the European Union at the end of January — an outcome that had been made certain when Prime Minister Boris Johnson led the Conservative Party to a resounding victory in the December general election. Brexit will influence the future direction of not only the U.K. but Europe as well, and it seems likely that it will alter the power balance between Germany and France in particular.

In a geopolitical power shift, Germany rapidly achieved economic ascendancy over France in the post-Cold War period.

German industries were powered by cheap labor from the former East Germany. Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder’s labor reforms capped wage increases, which enabled Germany to meet the rise of China with a dramatic increase in exports to the country and, after the introduction of the euro, achieve trade surpluses within and outside of the EU. Between 1997 and 2007, the euro became Germany’s “magic mallet” as it quadrupled trade surpluses with other European countries. German share prices increased sevenfold in value in the 30 years following the end of the Cold War.

The Lehman shock of 2008 put an end to Germany’s “winner take all” game. Germany’s steadfast insistence on austerity in response to the Greek debt crisis fueled anti-German sentiment in Greece and across southern Europe. Its obstinate stance created a divide that pitted northern countries like Germany and the Netherlands against Greece, Spain, Italy and other southern European states.

Germany also became involved in a fierce dispute with the Visegrad Group (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia) over the allocation of quotas for accepting Syrian refugees. The refugee crisis has fueled illiberal populism in the countries of central and Eastern Europe, and has hardened the divide between Eastern and Western Europe.

It has been said that Cold War Europe’s adherence to the golden rule of “keeping the United States in, Russia out and Germany down” resulted in a long period of peace. Through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the U.S. became the cornerstone of Western European defense, providing deterrence against Soviet aggression. Divided into East and West, Germany struggled under the heavy burden of its wartime past.

Although Germany gained significant economic clout during the Cold War, at the geopolitical level it remained a “civilian power.” Germany’s geopolitical influence increased in the post-Cold War era, but it remains a “reluctant warrior.”

However, the advent of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump and the Brexit vote shook Germany to the core. In May 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced: “The times in which we could completely depend on others are on the way out. … We Europeans have to take our destiny into our own hands.”

What Merkel meant was that it was time for Germany to extend its leadership role to the realm of European security. A strong Germany is not only in its national interest; it would benefit all of Europe. Nevertheless, the majority of Germans are still reluctant to assume such a role.

France is growing impatient with this “reluctant Germany.” In a recent interview with The Economist, French President Emmanuel Macron said, “What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO.” Macron seemed to suggest that Germany’s military incompetence, lack of enthusiasm for the region’s fiscal and economic integration and indifference to assuming European leadership vis-a-vis the outside world has rendered Europe geopolitically insignificant.

Macron’s provocative comments angered Merkel. A possible rejoinder from Germany? If France is so earnest about European integration, why not cede its permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council to the EU?

France’s biggest miscalculation involves Brexit. The postwar stability of Western Europe was rooted in the perfect balance of power between the U.K., France and Germany. At the time of Germany’s reunification, French President Francois Mitterrand used the “threat” of British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s opposition to reunification as leverage against Germany, thereby securing German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s firm commitment to a European common currency. France may no longer be able to count on the U.K. to join its efforts to balance against Germany in this way.

Another major geopolitical question for Europe concerns how Germany, France and the U.K. will respond to China as an emerging world power. Can Germany and France remain on the same page? Will the U.K. attempt to develop a “special economic relationship” with China?

In “The Paradox of German Power,” Hans Kundnani observes that Europe is threatened when Germany becomes “too big for a balance of power in Europe and too small for hegemony.” The period between German unification in 1871 and 1945 was just such a dangerous time, which witnessed the emergence of the fateful “German question.”

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia Pacific Initiative and a former editor-in-chief of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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