Britain is leaving the EU – just as Europe is on the up

That Helmut Kohl, the man who oversaw the reunification of Germany and was for so long a giant on the European stage, should die on the eve of negotiations leading to Britain’s withdrawal from the EU seems symbolic. The former German chancellor made the best of the extraordinary circumstances and public mood that followed the collapse of communism and the opening up of eastern Europe.

Today’s European leaders are, by contrast, confronted with an especially adverse set of circumstances. Trump, Putin, Erdoğan, terrorism, unprecedented flows of migration, unemployment, the rise of populism and, of course, Brexit. But, just as Kohl and his French contemporary François Mitterrand relaunched the European project in the early 1990s, Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron are, as Britain prepares to leave, readying their ambitions and vision for the continent.

At stake is no less than Europe’s role in defending liberal democratic values and a rules-based international order at a time when – as one former Obama administration official put it to me recently – Trump’s America is “missing in action and the UK is disappearing into oblivion”. The words may be harsh, but they underscore that Britain’s central weakness lies not only in its internal political confusion – but also with a dangerous ignorance of what its European neighbours are setting their sights on.

The Franco-German engine is not focusing on Brexit but rather on consolidating the 60-year-old European project through further integration and cooperation. At the heart of this stands an emerging Macron-Merkel deal, intended to act as Europe’s new powerhouse. On 15 May, the French and German leaders met and spoke of a new “roadmap” for the EU. The thinking goes like this: in the next two to three years, as France carries out structural economic reforms to boost its credibility, Germany will step up much-needed European financial solidarity and investment mechanisms, and embrace a new role on foreign policy, security and defence.

For Britain, being aware of the wider European context should be an important part of assessing options. The sobering fact, from Britain’s perspective, is that however important a challenge Brexit may represent, it is hardly the sole topic other Europeans are focused on. Brexit is not their obsession, but a British one. Continentals mostly see it as a tedious burden whose outcome can only be bad for everyone so the task is about limiting damage.

Outside Britain, the mood in the EU is on the upswing. Europe’s economic situation has improved. Unemployment in the eurozone is at its lowest since 2009 (but still at 9.5%). Growth has returned. Mario Draghi, the head of the European Central Bank, speaks of “a solid and broad recovery”. Populist forces have suffered political defeats, in Austria, the Netherlands, France, Italy and Finland.

Across the continent, citizens’ support for the EU is on the rise, according to Eurobarometer surveys. Polls show Europeans are increasingly in favour of a “multiple speed” or “flexible” EU, in which ad hoc groups of member states would forge ahead with new projects. For all the headlines about a populist movement eating away at the EU’s foundations, it seems all the shockwaves the continent has felt in recent years have brought a renewed sense of belonging, and an appetite for better, if not more, integration.

To be clear: this is not thanks to Brexit, but despite it. Strengthening the EU project and opening up horizons is what Germany, France and the European commission are intensely working on. To believe that Europeans are gloating, or cynically happy to capitalise on Brexit, is to fall into a Trump-like vision of a zero-sum world in which one side’s gain is the other’s loss. When occasional continental voices claim they relish the thought of Brexit, be sure there is more provocation at play than sound appreciation of the meaning of the process, or of its consequences.

The point is that the EU has turned a corner, and feels more confident. It wants to develop its capacities to act internationally beyond its borders – not just perpetually fix its internal problems. It has no other choice, because of its geopolitical environment. Some of this predates the Brexit referendum.

A European defence fund is now being discussed, notably for joint procurement efforts (but don’t expect a European army to emerge). Also, there is talk of setting up a European Monetary Fund, and increasing investments for job creation.

One German official told me his country was undergoing “a sea change” because public opinion had come around to the view that “Europe should take on more responsibility” if the US retreated. This was not to say, he quickly added, that Merkel should be seen as the leader of the west or a new embodiment of the Statue of Liberty – she herself has called that “absurd”. But in recent discussions with European experts and officials, I heard the following comment: “A golden decade may be dawning for Europe.” A new narrative is in the air.

There are many caveats, no doubt. Anxieties are rife about Italian banks, for example. Resistance in Germany’s finance ministry about anything that may weigh on German taxpayers has by no means gone away. Germany’s role in security and defence still stirs gruelling domestic debates – even as the country deploys troops in Lithuania as part of Nato’s deterrence of Russia. Much will depend on the outcome of German elections in September. The populist wave in Europe may have ebbed, but it hasn’t disappeared, nor all the factors that fuelled it. Brexit will be time consuming and will take up huge amounts of energy.

Still, the scenario of a European reawakening shouldn’t be discarded – especially not in Britain, as it heads for a wrenching exit. With Trump and Brexit, Europe now has a role in defending values and international institutions in a way that was “unprecedented”, insists a former Obama official. “Europe needs to hold the fort, as long as Trump remains in office. It’s Europe’s moment.”

A Luxembourg foreign minister once infamously proclaimed that 1992 would be “the hour of Europe”. The expression drew bitter irony as Europe dismally failed to put an end to the human catastrophe in the former Yugoslavia. But 1992 was also the year when, under Kohl and Mitterrand’s guidance, the Maastricht treaty transformed the European Economic Community into a formal union. The real emphasis in Europe, 25 years on, is not on Brexit or breakups, but on how, in a shifting world, the EU can acquire new, indispensable significance.

Just as Kohl and Mitterrand seized the opportunities that history presented to them, Merkel and Macron are, in different circumstances, identifying their path towards a common European endeavour. After a decade of crisis, Europe may now be pulling out of it. More British awareness of this might help avert bad choices.