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And shut the door behind you

Posted by hkarner - 2. Juli 2016

Date: 01-07-2016
Source: The Economist: Charlemagne
Everyone feels the pain of Britons in Brussels. But the sympathy won’t last

IN THE prelapsarian days before Britain kicked itself out of the European Union, a charming campaign called “Hug-a-Brit” was waged in Brussels. Designed to convince wavering British voters that they were wanted in Europe, it was only after the referendum that the idea took hold. Since that difficult day Brits in Brussels have been love-bombed by their European counterparts. Colleagues from countries with long histories of bloody tyranny have showered sympathy upon British friends for their country’s self-inflicted wound. Thoughtful Romanians stand ready to adopt British “Remainians”. Greeks, who endured their own referendum-related traumas one year ago, have been especially understanding. Rarely has your columnist felt so appreciated.

Yet if Britain’s citizens are now the subject of pity abroad, its government has become a target for contempt. There is a hint of steel to comments from some officials, particularly French or Italians. We feel your pain, they say, but if you’re leaving do not linger. Such sentiments have slipped into the speeches of hawkish EU officials. When Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, slams David Cameron, Britain’s departing prime minister, for reaping the fruits of years of Euroscepticism, his words find a ready audience across Europe.Perhaps, then, it is no surprise that it has not taken long for Brussels to be bleached of British influence. A day after the referendum result Jonathan Hill, Britain’s commissioner, resigned. Mr Cameron says he will appoint a replacement, but Mr Hill’s financial-services portfolio has already been reshuffled; his successor can perhaps look forward to a temporary job managing paperclip distribution. MEPs warn that English may no longer be the lingua franca of European business. The thousands of Britons who work for EU institutions fear for their futures; even if they are allowed to stay on beyond Brexit, they can wave goodbye to promotions.

Eurosceptics will shrug all this off. Britain is a bit-player in Brussels, they say. Its ministers are always on the wrong side of votes, the euro zone can gang up on everyone else and the EU is turning into a federal superstate with a power-crazed Germany bossing everyone else around. And as for those British Eurocrats, it’s about time they got proper jobs.

In recent years Britain’s influence in Brussels has indeed diminished. This is partly the work of the euro and refugee crises, neither of which touched Britain directly but which consumed vast amounts of everyone else’s political energy. It is also the result of bad decisions by Mr Cameron, including an ill-chosen battle over Mr Juncker’s appointment, and a general diplomatic disengagement. The steady dwindling of Britons in the upper ranks of the commission, the institutional heart of the EU, has reduced British reach; Brexit will accelerate the decline.

But draw the camera back and a different picture emerges. The EU may have been formed to bind France and Germany together but in its later decades it has been shaped at least as much by British values, ideas and vigour. Its ambitious expansion eastward, the steady construction of an integrated single market, the focus on international trade—all EU projects that improved the lives of millions and were made in Britain. And yet during the referendum the Remain camp never fully advanced this case, perhaps because it was felt that Brussels-boosting was not a vote-winner.

At their Brussels summit this week the EU’s leaders quickly arrived at a common line: Brexit must be Britain’s problem, not Europe’s. It is the British economy that will suffer, its currency that will slide, its politics that have already been turned upside-down. (The grisly sight might also help deter Eurosceptics elsewhere.) Some Europeans are even starting to dream again: Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister, told his parliament this week that Brexit offers the beleaguered EU a chance to reset itself. Without the Brits blocking the tracks, the European train can puff back into gear.

Perhaps. But there is another side to the story. A Europe with the Britain sucked out of it will take a distinctly dirigiste turn, warns Toomas Hendrik Ilves, Estonia’s president. Its ambitions on trade, the digital single market and energy—precisely the sorts of programmes the low-growth EU ought to be focusing on—will shrink without their largest champion, and the band of smaller liberal northern countries who have traditionally looked to Britain for a political steer will find themselves exposed to the protectionist instincts of the southerners. Add to that the time, resources and energy that will be poured into the extraordinarily complex task of disentangling the two partners of this 43-year-old relationship, and it becomes clear that Brexit is good for no one.

Brexit on ice
It may be for this reason that Project Denial is in full swing throughout Europe. When the moment comes, say some, no British prime minister will pull the trigger pointing towards his or her head. Others wonder if a lifeline might be thrown to Britain in a year or two; perhaps a concession on migration could be sold to voters in a second referendum. Meanwhile Brexiteers such as Boris Johnson, a possible successor to Mr Cameron, persist in the illusion that they can secure an exit deal for Britain that contains everything they want, including access to the single market, and nothing they dislike, such as free movement for EU workers.

Europe’s other leaders laugh at that idea. Perhaps they suffer from ideological rigidity; perhaps they are defending core European values. Either way, it illustrates the gulf of mutual incomprehension that has finally doomed this gainful but troubled relationship. Alas, there will be lots more misunderstanding in the years ahead, as Britain attempts to extract the maximum advantages from its withdrawal and the remaining countries close ranks. The best hope for both sides is that they can reach an arrangement that resembles but falls well short of what they have left behind. That will be a sad requiem for a partnership that once promised, and delivered, so much. So don’t forget to hug a Brit.

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