As the Brexit debate continues and the referendum looms about six weeks away there is plenty of talk about what the European Union represents. For the pro-Europeans it is the only way they can imagine the countries of Europe working together, a means to achieve current and future prosperity, and a way for the economies of Europe to punch above their weight internationally. For those opposed to the EU they see over-regulation, a destruction of national sovereignty, and unaccountable bureaucracies.

But I think both sides of the debate are perhaps missing the point here. There is a fundamental reasons why the EU has been created and whether it is maintained or whether it is destroyed, the fundamental reason for the founding of the Union in the first place needs to be addressed.

That reason is Germany.

Strip away all of the economics, agricultural policies, freedoms of movement and international courts and the European Union is simply the latest answer to one of the most pressing problems for European powers: how do you keep Germany contained?

You’ll recall that there have been various ways in which the grand power of Central Europe has been contained in the past, sometimes with success and sometimes not. In the nineteenth century it was relatively easy. Germany was split into a number of states and city states, principalities and kingdoms and, divided against itself, it was no great challenge to its neighbors.

Of course, this would eventually end, Germany would unite, and the First World War followed. Germany would go close to winning that war but eventually succumbed to the Allied forces and surrendered. Europe sought a solution to the German threat and decided – rightly or wrongly, though mainly wrongly – to deny the country more than the minimum armed forces and cripple its economy.

And it worked…for about 20 years.

Then the Second World War arrived and Germany once again threatened the continent. Playing it far smarter at the outset, Germany quickly conquered most of Europe and showed the world that its plan to deny it resources and armed forces was weak. Of course, Germany would lose this war, too, and the plan that the successful powers came up with to deny it yet another comeback was better this time: split the country in two.

This worked…for about 40 years.

German reunification was welcomed when it arrived because Europe had, by then, discovered another way to keep the central European power down: the European Union. If Germany’s success could be tied to the success of its neighbors and if its economic power could be limited by tying it to the economic success or failure of other European states then Germany could only become powerful again if its neighbors did, too. And this would mean, at least in relative terms, that Germany would not be able to once again wreck havoc on the continent in pursuit of its national interest.

This worked…but it is close to falling apart once again.

If Britain cuts ties with the European Union and if, in the wake of that decision, other states decide to follow suit, Germany will see little interest in continuing to hold its economy back to suit the interests of its weaker neighbors. Germany will rise once again and, believe it or not, will once again be a security threat to its neighbors. With Russia waiting on the right flank and the US increasingly focused elsewhere, these will be scary times for the states trapped between the German state and the Russian border.

The reason for Europe, then, needs to be recognized. I don’t think it is a bad thing that the European Union falls, but there needs to be some thought given to how next to keep Germany contained. With no war to blame them for in an international guilt trip, and little motivation for Germany to voluntarily hobble themselves, the thinking will have to be creative as well as effective.

Are European leaders capable and willing of addressing this question? Sadly, I think they are not.

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