In ancient Greek mythology, Atlas was the figure who held the weight of the world on his broad shoulders. Germany is playing the role of Atlas. Eastern Europe is still recovering from a human lifetime of being beggared and impoverished by communism. Southern Europe has no real economic strength. The bulk of paying for the EU has fallen on Germany. Back when the EU was set up, there was an implicit deal. France would determine the political direction of the EU, and (West) Germany would do the lion’s share of paying for it all. When Britain joined in the 1970s, some of the weight was taken off Germany’s shoulders by Britain, weight that will go right back on once Brexit is completed. Britain pays vast sums in to the EU budget. I always believed that the beginning of the end for the EU would be when Britain left and someone else would have to find £50 million a day to plug the gap Britain left behind. Once Britain left, the EU would be faced with one of three options.
The first would be to simply cut the EU budget to take in to account they could no longer afford certain things now Britain was not around to pay for it. However, this is unlikely to happen. For starters, the Eurocrats rather like having a vast budget to pay for their perks and to buy compliance and agreement from think tanks, pressure groups, NGOs and industrial interests. Furthermore, once these groups have their funding cut, their support for the EU will fall. Even in good times, farmers and fishermen regularly descend on Brussels for protests, many of them extremely bad tempered. Imagine how bad they would be if their budget was cut? Imagine how critical think tanks and university departments would become if the EU was no longer buying their compliance.
The second option is to ask all the EU members to pay a share of Britain’s contribution. This has the advantage of keeping the funding levels as they are. However, there would be little support for spreading the costs. Many EU countries simply do not have the money, and some of those that do would not want to empower growing Euro-sceptic movements in their own countries by boosting their already large contributions. In rich net contributors like the Netherlands and Sweden, there are large and growing movements that openly call for EU withdrawal. To further squeeze the taxpayers there would simply drive voters in to the grateful arms of the Dutch PVV or Swedish Sweden Democrats. Having lost one member, could the EU afford to lose more rich members?
The final option, and the one that looks the most likely to happen is for Germany to ‘take one for the team’. That is, Germany will cover Britain’s share of the EU budget. Germany’s ruling class have been raised to believe the EU is their national redemption, and that the EU must succeed, whatever burdens and pains Germany must endure to keep it alive. Already, Germany has hinted it would cover Britain’s share of the budget. This has the advantage of keeping the budget at its current levels. It also has the advantage of not inflaming insurgent Eurosceptic movements in Sweden, Austria or the Netherlands by squeezing their taxpayers to cover the costs. However, it massively burdens Germany’s taxpayers. Despite its economic strength, even Germany would strain very hard to support this. Germany has a rapidly ageing population, even by the well-publicised standards of the EU. There are 150,000 more deaths than births in Germany each year. In addition, as more and more Germans reach retirement age, the strain will fall even more painfully on Germany’s shrinking working-age population.
To try and keep the German economy alive, Merkel opened the borders. In 2015, she made her careless remarks that essentially said anyone from anywhere could come to Germany in any numbers they wished. The migrants of North Africa and the Middle East promptly obliged and by December 2015, an eye watering 1.5 million men (and it was almost exclusively men) had made their way to Germany. To Merkel, this massive influx of working-age men would solve her economic problems. They would replace the Germans who had died and keep the older Germans in pensions. With a referendum on Brexit due, Merkel suspected Britain may leave and take its budget contributions with it. She realised that Germany would have to bear the post-Brexit burden, and could only do so if there was a large, massive influx of workers.
However, her plan has been poorly thought out. Few migrants will ever reach the middle class professional-level jobs that would make them net contributors to the German treasury. Given that this treasury will have to fill a Britain-sized gap for the EU, this has serious implications for EU survival. Furthermore, the substantial costs of housing, translation and welfare payments for over 1 million people has squeezed German municipal governments to breaking point. With each migrant estimated to bring an average of four dependants to join them, this problem will only get worse.
In short, Britain leaving the EU will present challenges to the EU, and the budget contribution of the remaining members post-Brexit is the biggest and most politically sensitive. For historical reasons Germany feels obliged to step in and work and endure like a latter-day Stakhanov. However, the sharp contraction in working aged Germans in the coming decade and the vast costs associated with the massive waves of migration will squeeze the German taxpayers to breaking point. Even a country as rich and strong as Germany can only take so much. In the legend of Atlas, he was condemned to support the weight of the world for all eternity. Whilst Germany is strong, and only has to support the weight of one continent, even post-Brexit Germany will manage a much shorter amount of time than eternity.