German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble said the European Union will survive if Britons vote to leave, and the pace of handing over national powers to EU bodies will slow even if the U.K. stays in the 28-nation club.
Schaeuble sketched the vista of a potentially looser bloc in which governments rely more on agreements among each other, saying there’s little appetite for treaty changes that would give the EU institutions such as the European Commission a bigger say.
“Europe’s path toward a union that’s better able to act is the right one, but step by step, not by means of a big leap,” Schaeuble said Wednesday at a business conference in Warsaw. EU members will probably “advance pragmatically” and sometimes “move ahead in groups of states, at different speeds, via coalitions of the willing.”
Schaeuble’s comments eight days before the U.K. referendum on EU membership is the latest public sign that German policy makers, while urging Britons to stay, are considering the possibility of a British exit after a series of polls put the “Leave” campaign ahead. Schaeuble, 73, is Germany’s longest-serving lawmaker, the dean of euro-area finance ministers and a longtime advocate of European unity, having helped negotiate the treaty that unified West and East Germany in 1990 after the Berlin Wall fell.
“With all due respect: may the British make their decision — Europe will survive whichever way the decision goes,” Schaeuble said. Still, he said, the June 23 referendum reflects “growing concern, a fear of the loss of values and bonds because of the rapid pace of change in society.”
While maintaining his and German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s view that the EU needs to stick together to face global economic and social challenges, Schaeuble said it’s “unrealistic” to expect further treaty changes that cede powers to the EU “for the foreseeable future.”
“We need this ever-closer Europe,” Schaeuble said, citing Europe’s refugee crisis and the conflict in eastern Ukraine as crises requiring a joint response.