BERLIN (Reuters) - Describing Brexit as “nonsense”, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble warned on Monday against allowing Europe to divide further along east-west lines, saying this would be a “catastrophe”.
Speaking at his 75th birthday party in the southwestern town of Offenburg, Schaeuble paused after mentioning Britain in the context of Europe. Laughter broke out among the guests and, in an aside, he said Britons were probably unhappy now with their vote last year to leave the EU.
“If we were now to get new divisions between east and west after the British — it was nonsense to take such a decision and they are probably no longer happy with it — that would be a catastrophe,” he said.
“We must be clear: we will only have a good future, history shows this, if we hold Europe together, and that means all of Europe,” he added.
Schaeuble appeared to be referring to a deepening divide between eastern countries like Poland and Hungary and their EU partners to the west over democratic values, acceptance of refugees and further European integration.
French President Emmanuel Macron has been especially critical of governments in Warsaw and Budapest, which the EU says are distancing themselves from core European values like free speech and rule of law.
Germany, in part because of its history with Poland, has been less openly critical of its eastern neighbours, but it has tacitly supported Macron and steps by the EU to ratchet up pressure on governments in the east.
Many Poles, especially rightwing supporters of the ruling Law and Justice party, are animated by a hatred of Germans dating to World War Two, though relations have warmed up since the end of communism when Germany backed Polish EU membership.
Last week, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker stressed his wish to heal divisions between eastern and western states. Juncker also attended Schaeuble’s party on Monday and praised him for working to unify the EU.
Schaeuble said those EU states that want to press ahead with closer integration must do so.
“But we must also be careful that not only the big states decide. I learned that from Kohl,” he said with reference to late Chancellor Helmut Kohl, with whom he worked on the reunification of Germany.
Writing by Paul Carrel; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg