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Memo from Brussels: Brexit

June 24th 2016

In Brussels this morning the sun came up, obscured as always by clouds, and the roads were clogged as usual – even more so because of a general strike that has paralysed the entire country. In short, life continues as normal in the Belgian capital, even if the mood in the EU institutions is subdued and pensive.

The sense of keeping calm and carrying on – oddly, a rather British trait – could be symptomatic of a sense of latent confidence that the EU project will survive without Britain. On the other hand, it could be indicative of the ostrich mentality and lack of political empathy that has characterised the EU institutions for so long, and which has led to the bloc’s biggest schism in its 59-year history. Only in the past two weeks did the Brussels cognoscenti begin to accept that a vote to leave the EU was even a possibility.

Leaders of the European Parliament’s mainstream political groups have been quick to declare their positions. The centre-right EPP Group, from whose federalist grip David Cameron tore his MEPs in 2009, honouring an earlier ill-judged promise, says Brexit negotiations should be concluded within two years and should start immediately. The EPP leader, Manfred Weber, is a Bavarian and will be reflecting the views of many in Germany conservative firmament, which needs to keep Alternative for Germany – a eurosceptic sister party of the Tories – at bay in next year’s election.


Meanwhile, for Guy Verhofstadt, a eurofederalist to his bootstraps and leader of the European Parliament’s liberals, the answer is reform: not of the kind that might have kept Britain in the EU, but a renewed emphasis on ‘more Europe’. Enthusiasts for political integration can sound off freely now without having to worry about offending British public opinion and newspapers. It’s not just independence day for the UK. Europe’s fragility suggests a sensible response would be more flexibility and focus, not a renewed push for centralisation. Alas, even if this vision of a looser, two-speed Europe – for which Britain has been an avant garde advocate – comes to pass, it will be too late for the EU’s second-largest economy.

It remains to be seen when and to what extent EU leaders finally grasp the truth that the British vote was symptomatic of a deep malaise and resentment across Europe towards establishment politics, and towards Brussels. Will Brexit convince them of the need to start listening to the ever stronger undercurrents of unease, on the left and right of the political spectrum? Britain is unlikely to be punished instantly for its perfidy. However, institutional leaders have already said today that they want to crack on quickly with the divorce settlement, the initial framework of which may well take shape next week at the EU summit of heads of government.

Boris Johnson is seen largely as a buffoon in these parts – many people remember his irreverent and troublemaking stint as Telegraph correspondent in the 1990s. He will not be treated with kid gloves if he is Prime Minister. He will never be allowed to get away with a deeper renegotiation and a second referendum, as some Leavers had advocated.

If anything, the British decision vindicates Cameron’s decision to resist the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as president of the European Commission. It was one of the few decisions on Europe he got right, and one of the few he was not able to win in Brussels. Juncker is increasingly peripheral as rumours of ill-health swirl. A more dynamic Commission leader from a member state more sympathetic to Britain – someone like Donald Tusk, for example – could possibly have engineered more concessions for the British, and even pushed through treaty changes in time for Cameron’s self-imposed deadline of December 2017. But Tusk was instead chosen to lead the European Council, whose principal job will be finalising the deal with Britain. Juncker, meanwhile, still leads what he called a ‘last chance’ Commission. Brussels is watching carefully to see whether other member states have the temerity to challenge the status quo. This depends largely on national elections, especially in France and Germany, but also on how the post-Brexit void left by Britain is filled – perhaps by the stroppy Polish government, or weary Spaniards, who vote this weekend in a general election, or perhaps the ‘illiberal democracy’ of Viktor Orban’s Hungary.

Clearly Brexit will not be the end of efforts to carve out special treatment for some member states, or for a much looser union. But the chances of that happening are actually diminished, not enhanced, by Britain leaving, because many member states – especially among the newer entrants – looked to Britain as a bulwark against the EU’s centralising and domineering tendencies. Britain inside the EU could have deployed a Remain vote as a springboard for reform and leadership, using its EU presidency in the latter half of 2017 to spark treaty reform. Instead, Britain’s supporters in the Council are bereft, and possibly secretly a bit envious.

The Brussels institutions think the project will survive. They may get to indulge in schadenfreude later down the line if Britain limps pitifully along while the eurozone prospers. Or they may look on in admiration as Britain flourishes outside the EU. Who knows? The only positive for Remain voters is that Article 50 works both ways: while it sets out the rules for Britain’s exit, it also holds open the possibility that an errant member state could rejoin the Union. But the question that the EU institutions should be asking themselves today is whether the EU can do what it takes to refloat the holed ship, or whether it will be dashed against the rocks by the stormy waters this vote provokes.