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While Britain Obsesses Over Europe, Europe Turns Away

Though Brexit no longer dominates the headlines in Europe, Europeans view it with a mixture of pity and concern, and look forward to the UK returning to its senses soon – if not to the EU

Photo: Roy Conchie/Alamy

While Britain Obsesses Over Europe,Europe Turns Away

Though Brexit no longer dominates the headlines in Europe, Europeans view it with a mixture of pity and concern, and look forward to the UK returning to its senses soon – if not to the EU

One of the unexpected results of Brexit, is how much more the UK talks about the EU than vice versa. In Britain, the EU is a daily source of news. Brexit-induced harms and the lack of benefits are sources of both comment and gallows humour. 

Commentators regularly discuss whether the UK will rejoin the EU. The right-wing press still portrays the EU as a bogeyman – its every move is somehow ‘revenge’ for Brexit or part of a grand scheme to bring Britain down. 

One reason is political. Boris Johnson still believes that he can wring political capital out of the Brexit narrative, ‘plucky Britain’ sticking it to the EU super-state he so bravely freed us from. 

At the moment this is most clearly seen in Johnson’s refusal to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol, a key part of his 2019 Withdrawal Agreement. What ought to be a simple process of Johnson doing what he agreed to – and at the time celebrated as a ‘great deal for Britain’ – is instead his latest excuse to keep Brexit in the headlines and his Vote Leave electoral coalition intact. 

That this stokes political instability and violence in Northern Ireland, endangering the Good Friday Agreement, is to Johnson of no consequence. If the Protocol is resolved Johnson will doubtless start a new fight with the EU, all the more as the next election approaches. If all else fails there is the renegotiation of the Brexit deal planned for 2024, a date apparently reached at Johnson’s request. 

In a way, Britain’s obsession with its relationship with Europe is all too predictable. Many warned that Johnson’s bid for ‘freedom’ would merely result in never-ending negotiations with the EU, much like Switzerland before us. 

Refusal to take part in the economic and political structures of the EU has consequences. The UK’s choice to raise trade barriers with its largest trading partner makes once commonplace activities – like sending a parcel or selling services into the Single Market – expensive or impossible. Negotiating ways around the myriad problems created will take up government time until the day a wiser administration chooses to rejoin. Until then the arguments, negotiations and search for workarounds will continue. 

Strange Neighbour but Still Missed

For some in Europe Brexit is past tense. “The EU has moved on from Brexit and Europeans have moved on from Britain,” wrote commentator Sonia Delesalle-Stolper on the fifth anniversary of the Brexit vote. “Britain was once seen as a place of dynamism, excitement and promise” but is now viewed as a “strange neighbour who has decided to try a new kind of adventure: making everything more difficult and complicated.” 

Many Europeans view the UK with sympathy, a result of the belief that we have made a mistake and will rue the consequences. Brexit has increased support for the EU in member states. In polls majorities say that the UK made the wrong decision and would welcome us back should we apply to rejoin. Far from seeing Brexit as a courageous bid for freedom most see Britain as isolated, divided and on the wrong side of history. 

Politically too the EU has moved on. “After the referendum, Brexit quickly disappeared from our collective imagining and political goal setting,” says Erwin van der Putte, Foreign Affairs and Defence Advisor to the Belgian government. 

“We in Europe are busy imagining and realising our own future irrespective of whether the Brits are in or out,” he says. “There are in particular two challenges in shaping this future: socio-economic recovery post-Covid and a functioning asylum and migration policy. These are two areas where the Brits didn’t participate anyway. It’s on us on the Continent to shape our future.”

In part political lack of interest in Britain follows from a belief that “there is only one dominant and permanently visible force” in British politics – the Conservatives and “in particular Boris Johnson” says van der Putte. “There doesn’t seem to be a rivalling political force when you look at the daily news here. This adds to the feeling of ‘otherness’.” 

Others suggest the EU is being patient with the UK, but that patience will not last forever. Johannes de Jong of the European political foundation, Sallux, believes the EU will eventually enforce full compliance with the Northern Ireland Protocol. “With Johnson, it will be endless grace periods,” he says. “The only way is to draw a line under it – the EU will give up on the UK.” 

He believes the UK will eventually rejoin the EU but that first there needs to be “a generational shift.” That generational shift is coming – over 70% of under 25s voted Remain in 2016, and over 50% of under 50s. 

Most EU politicians would welcome the UK back, says de Jong. “It was a bad outcome not just for the UK but also for the EU. The political class would love to see the UK come back,” he says. They “have sympathy for the British people – they know they were lied to.” 

Many national politicians, particularly in northern Europe, he says, believe the UK helped to “keep the EU accountable”, a job that has become more difficult without a British presence. There is a hope, he says, that Labour will do more to expose and oppose problems created by Brexit. “At some point, Labour will have to connect the dots.” 

A Lesson in Vulnerablity

There is however a belief that Britain’s political crisis is deep and will not be easily resolved. “The UK has always been seen as economically progressive, politically stable, [with] respect for the rule of law – a beacon of western liberal democracy,” said Rem Korteweg of the Clingendael Institute think tank in the Netherlands.

“That’s been seriously hit. Brexit is an exercise in emotion, not rationality; in choosing your own facts. And it’s not clear how it will end.”

For Europe the worst case scenario has been avoided, says van der Putte. Brexit did not spark a wave of nationalism and Euroscepticism. There was no domino effect. The relief that followed gave a new sense of purpose to the EU, emboldening politicians who want the EU to succeed. 

“I think it’s taught us all just how vulnerable our political processes are,” said Korteweg. “Just eight years ago, leaving the EU was a seriously fringe proposition in British politics, and now look where you are. So we’ve seen how fragile it all is, what we’ve built – and how worth defending.”

Some see reversing Brexit as part of that defence. Former Austrian MEP Josef Weidenholzer, a former Vice President of the Socialist and Democrats Group in the European Parliament, argues that Brexit is merely one example of the right-wing populist and nationalist politics present elsewhere in Europe. 

“Nationalism won’t go away by closing your eyes,” he says. Reversing Brexit is “part of the anti-nationalism movement.” 

Europe, he believes, is poorer without the UK. “People aren’t angry with the Brits, they believe you have a bad government. We need to find a solution. We can’t abandon Britain, you are part of us.” 

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