"The costs inflicted upon the British economy and the British brand are beyond all predictions"by Christine Ockrent / July 12, 2016 / Leave a comment
At first the temptation was to say: good riddance. After 43 years of hassling, bickering and constant bargaining, the British will no longer try and twist the European process to get a better deal at the expense of other EU members.
After the shock, the grief—we, on the continent, would not be family anymore?—there was also irritation. With insular arrogance, whether they lamented or rejoiced over the referendum result, most British commentators immediately predicted the disintegration of the European Union. Really? Isn’t it the UK which is about to disintegrate if Scotland and Northern Ireland have it their way? Isn’t it the UK’s admirable system of government, a model of stability for hundreds of years that contrasts with the French mania of always changing our Constitution, which is now in total disarray? After all, Britain’s two main political parties are divided and a majority of MPs think Brexit would be a mistake.
The European Union should fast-track Britain’s exit wherever possible. It should not have to accommodate their timing and conditions. Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, immediately appointed a seasoned Belgian diplomat to run a Brexit task force. Francois Hollande declared that there had to be a strong, decisive and common reaction to Brexit.
Revenge? Not exactly: politics. In France, domestic issues so dominate the agenda that Brexit has become an ingredient of the domestic political debate. The most unpopular leader in the history of the 5th Republic, Hollande has seen Brexit as a window of opportunity to restore his status over political parties at home—he spent a whole Saturday summoning them to the Elysée for consultations. It has also given him an opportunity to try and revamp the “French-German engine” of historical fame which propelled so much of the EU’s processes in the past. The problem is that France has been so passive during his tenure that its voice does not resonate as much as it should.
Our next presidential election will take place in less than a year. Marine Le Pen, glowing from Brexit and praying for Frexit, has immediately called for a referendum on France’s EU membership. The major difference between the UK and France is that the French government has no intention of shooting itself in the foot, even in order to rein in its rebellious socialist fringe and mend its own divisions over Europe. On the conservative side Nicolas Sarkozy, who cannot wait to be back in power, said that the Brexit debate created an “opportunity to re-found Europe.” He also went to Berlin before Brexit to tell Angela Merkel he wants a new EU treaty (so that Europe can better manage its borders). He knows she does not, but he doesn’t care: at this stage he just needs the headlines.
Berlin is the capital of Europe. Merkel is its only leader, and a lonely one. She disagrees with the French who want to strengthen the eurozone without coming to terms with their own structural reforms. She is suspicious when it comes to her Social Democratic coalition partners conspiring with Paris over more lax economic policies.
True to her scientific method and political interests, she wants to take her time when preparing for Brexit. But after her first post-Brexit meeting with the French and Italian leaders—a tête-à-tête with Hollande was not deemed appropriate—the common language was firm. No rush, but no undue delays and no informal discussions with London either. Merkel hates to be pushed around. She was even more outspoken in Brussels at David Cameron’s last European Council meeting. Blaming his partners for Britain’s lack of control on immigration is an easy way to forget how much Britain pushed for enlargement in the past at the expense of further integration for migrants—now many Eastern Europeans have to face daily racism. There was emotion in Brussels—even the British PM looked as if he had come to realize his own doing—but no consideration would have been given to British afterthoughts.
In France as elsewhere, there is bewilderment over the total lack of preparation on the other side of the Channel. The costs inflicted upon the British economy and the British brand are beyond all predictions. They are so scary that they are bound to deter any contagion on the Continent and discredit any populist scenario that might follow suit. The only solace is to see the anger of your young generation, who feel ripped off.
In France as well as in the UK, the far right has prospered on lies and fear over globalization, over immigration and loss of identity. There is as much concern as elsewhere in Europe and the United States about the rise of angry nativism against cosmopolitan elites—a major threat to our representative democracies. Traditional political parties are at a loss. People who vote for far-right parties must not just be dismissed. But we have practiced referenda long enough to know they are not as democratic as they seem: asking people to give a simple answer to a complex issue is a way for politicians to hide their own shortcomings.
There is also much disillusion about European institutions in France. The EU is an imperfect institution, tangled up in conflicting national interests and technocratic regulations. We know how much our politicians, left and right, hide behind Brussels for their own comfort.
The French believe, in their majority, that a united Europe remains the best and only way to confront difficult times. Whatever the shock Brexit has inflicted, the EU is here to stay, as long as we work together at reinventing it.