A former ECJ judge says Britain's departure is a boost for Europeby Franklin Dehousse / August 9, 2018 / Leave a comment
Each time I’m asked by a British friend how Brexit is seen from the continent, I think about my great aunt. Whenever we had a family gathering, she demanded special treatment and special food, posed as the embodiment of tradition and respectability, and gave lessons to everybody. There were various opinions about her, but all agreed that she was certainly hard work.
There are various opinions about Brexit, too, and this is important to remember. For many, who have better things to do than to follow the ins and outs, the perception is quite blurred. They know that the UK had a referendum and went quite peculiar thereafter. Some have a vague feeling of regret, others remember that the British in fact never liked being in Europe. This is the dominant, but very foggy vision. Brexit is no real preoccupation.
This changes with business leaders, who understood at once that trade damage was quite likely (especially in the neighbouring states—Ireland, Belgium, the Netherlands). The British half of the negotiations is seen now as a total mess, thanks to the UK’s pompous politicians, their general absence of understanding of EU matters and bombastic threats. As the economic damage grows, the sympathy diminishes. There is also a rising sense that enterprises must now begin to look to positive aspects. Some UK activity may move to France, while Germany may also benefit from greater market shares.
Politicians have yet another perception. At the beginning, there was a fear of general disruption. This has completely disappeared. On the contrary, after two years of lost time and nonsensical demands by the UK government, the feeling grows that getting the UK back in its present state could be quite destabilising. If this is what the Brits demand from outside, what could they from inside? Negotiating the present difficult EU agenda (policy on immigration, refugees, the euro, the budget, defence) with a hugely polarised country wouldn’t be easy.
Theresa May looks totally weak, and Jeremy Corbyn totally unpredictable. Both look occasionally disingenuous and rather ignorant of EU matters. Brexit has become a drain on the European agenda (especially in a very dangerous period), an economic threat, and frankly a bore. At the beginning, politicians from member states sometimes viewed Michel Barnier with distrust, but now he brings relief.
“Brexit is the least damaging outcome for the EU”
Then there are those in the European political bubble. Those who know the difference between the EU and the Council of Europe, regulations and recommendations, Council and European Council. This is a tiny minority, but they are quite vocal and not without influence. Diplomats, public servants, journalists, professors, think tankers and so on.
In 2016, the UK was often seen as bringing strong added value to the EU, and Brexit was deplored. Now, in spite of the strong cultural added value, there is a mounting feeling of malaise. May and Corbyn are obviously not leaders in the mould of Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee. Recent parliamentary votes reflect cowardice rather than wisdom. British business remains tepid. Racism, xenophobia and intolerance seem to be gaining ground on UK shores. These past two years have turned some Europeans around to the fact that Brexit appears the least damaging outcome not only for the UK, but also for the EU.
People on the continent are not surprised by the Brexit referendum. The UK has never been at ease in the EU. British politicians have criticised it constantly. Opt-outs multiplied. British business was always ambivalent, and the academic world tepid. For many on the continent, it is not surprising that a majority voted to leave. What is strongly surprising is the weak support for soft Brexit.
The economic damage from soft Brexit would be very limited. This is confirmed by many economic studies. On the other hand, hard Brexit would be highly damaging for the UK, and no deal Brexit a sheer nonsense. People cannot understand why there is not more support in the UK for the European Economic Area solution, or something equivalent. After all, this is the fairest outcome from a 52/48 referendum. Even Margaret Thatcher in her final years, when she was most negative towards the EU, was perfectly comfortable with the scenario of a EU/UK association agreement. And the abysmal British preparation for Brexit makes the EEA scenario only more comforting.
There are some people however who can never see reason. This brings me back to my great aunt. She demanded so much that people got fed up, and they said that henceforth she would not receive any privileged treatment at family gatherings. She then vowed never to come back. Family gatherings have been peaceful since. Any reference to Brexit is of course purely incidental here.