Europe’s biggest Brexit fear? That we’ll flourish outside the EU

6 January 2018

9:00 AM

6 January 2018

9:00 AM

What do Europeans really think about Brexit? Do they secretly admire our unexpected decision to walk away from all those pesky regulations and sub-committees? Or are our former ‘European friends’ relieved the arrogant, entitled Brits are leaving them alone?

The official response of the European political class is one of regret combined with studied indifference and a determination not to let Brexit weaken the project.

That, broadly, seems to be the unofficial response too. The EU, after a couple of decades of declining popularity and a rising populist challenge, has actually seen a small up-tick in popularity since Brexit, according to the Eurobarometer polling organisation.

Trust in the EU stands at 42 per cent, ten points up since 2015 and the highest level since 2010. A majority of Europeans (56 per cent) are now optimistic about the future of the EU, with the biggest increases in France, Denmark and Portugal. The wagons are circling in the face of a threat.

Not even EU populist parties are talking much about Brexit or recommending their countries emulate us — at least not yet. Marine Le Pen’s Front National has pulled back from its previous commitment to leave the euro.

Anyone foolish enough to vote for Brexit in the hope that it might shake up the EU and set it on a different course has, so far, been revealed as a hopeless idealist. In neither the French nor the German national elections last year did Brexit attract much attention. ‘In France, after the initial shock, Brexit has become a non-subject… and most French people now swing between complete indifference and bewilderment,’ says Sonia Delesalle-Stolper of Libération.

Nevertheless, the regret at Brexit is genuine enough in many places. It has several layers. It is a self-interested regret for the status of the EU itself and an acknowledgement that it is a blow to the club’s prestige — and its funding — that an important net-payer country like Britain should want to leave.

It is also a political regret on the part of countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and the Nordics, which shared some of our approach but were happy to allow us to take a front-of-house role in thwarting the more extreme plans for integration. As the unofficial leader of the non-eurozone countries, Britain was able to protect the interests of the mainly smaller countries not in the euro, which may now be more vulnerable.

There is, moreover, the genuine sadness of friends and admirers of Britain who really will miss us. I have found this on visits to both the Netherlands and Sweden since the Brexit vote. As one former Swedish politician put it to me: ‘We Nordics have always felt an affinity to the self-deprecating Brits, in contrast to the pompous Germans and haughty French.’

The most moving and, to the British ego, most flattering expression of regret I have received came from a Swedish friend who wrote this a few days after the referendum: ‘We Swedes think of you British as our kin folk. We admire you and emulate you — you are people we have learnt so much from… Brexit, to us, is rather like a family, where the eldest son goes off to university — and the little ones still at home are left wondering how the family will change, and what their admired big brother will be up to.’

But from my unscientific sample of friends and journalists across several large and small EU states that warm response is the exception. The regret in most countries is combined with bafflement and irritation, as noted in France, and even some anger.

It is common to find articles in publications such as Le Soir and Le Point which declare that Britain is over. ‘In some parts of the French elite Brexit is seen as a catastrophic mistake that will make you the new sick man of Europe,’ says Marc Roche, Le Monde’s former correspondent in London.

The European press tends to have a leftish bias — my Swedish politician estimates that 75 per cent of Swedish journalists support parties of the left — and likes to see Britain through Downton Abbey class stereotypes: Etonians leading a deluded working class.

Progressive Germans are among the most offended by Brexit as, more than most Europeans, they have transferred feelings of national pride from Germany to the EU. The two German public service broadcasters, ZDF and ARD, are obsessed by Brexit and resolutely negative about it.

Unsurprisingly, there has been a great deal of attention on the hate crime ‘spike’ after the Brexit vote, especially in the east European media. The new British xenophobia has been the subject of countless pieces of newspaper reportage and television documentaries across the continent, much of it exaggerated and ill-informed.

One might even detect a return of the Anglophobia of the imperial era with its stress on English or British hypocrisy: the domineering bully of a country congratulating itself on its gentlemanly liberalism.

In some cases Anglophobia emerged almost overnight after Brexit as the flipside of a jilted Anglophilia. Consider this charming analysis of Brexit from Diana Zimmermann, the correspondent for the German ZDF channel in London: ‘It is difficult to see Brexit as anything other than an expression of [British] superiority. We’re better off without you because we are better.’

But more often expressed is the less rancorous, and largely justified belief, that we Brits simply never ‘got’ the European project and it may be best for everyone concerned if we have a close relationship on the outside. Europe is a system of power and an economic mechanism but it is also a secular religion and the British have always been agnostics (we are now full-blown atheists).

For Britain the EU has been a cost-benefit calculation and, as a result of our different history and interests, we have never felt the emotional commitment to the EU that has come naturally to continental politicians and voters. As Angela Merkel said to David Cameron at a bilateral meeting in Berlin in 2012: ‘But your vision of the EU is so cold, David.’

The lack of much regret or sympathy across the former communist countries of central and eastern Europe is perhaps the most surprising aspect of the response. After all, these are the countries with the strongest suspicion of interference from Brussels or Berlin, as we saw in the refugee crisis. And, notwithstanding our Yalta betrayal, Britain has generally been held in high esteem both for leading the drive to bring these countries into the EU and then for opening our labour market, and country, to them earlier than any other big EU state.

It is a measure of Britain’s strategic failure to shape and lead an ‘outer ring’ for countries more concerned about national sovereignty that our leaving has caused so little concern on Europe’s eastern flank. Indeed it has not escaped notice there that we are leaving the EU precisely because they have joined it, bringing new waves of immigration and higher net payments.

A Romanian friend says that the view in his country is actually a complicated mixture of admiration and resentment, a bit like our own historic view of the US.

Still, the British decision to end freedom of movement is being taken rather personally in eastern Europe — despite the largely happy experience of eastern Europeans in this country — and we should not expect any quarter in the Brexit negotiations from the Visegrád countries.

The final word should go to my friend Jochen Buchsteiner of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Like most reasonable Germans, he is saddened by our exit and thinks it unnecessary given the ‘semi-detached’ status we already enjoyed. ‘Brexit does matter and it will weaken Britain, it will weaken the European Union and it will weaken Germany and make it harder to resist an eventual transfer union most Germans don’t want.’

But, he says, there is also a fear stalking the corridors of power in Germany and elsewhere. What if we flourish outside the EU? The Swedish politician I quoted told me that the editor of a top Swedish newspaper had said to her that if in five to ten years’ time Britain is doing fine, Sweden will probably leave, too. The EU will become the eurozone plus an outer ring of associated countries.

Maybe Britain is the canary in the mine, says Buchsteiner. ‘You have often been right in the past from Henry VIII to the decision to challenge Hitler. Perhaps, once again, you are seeing the future more clearly.’

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