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How Europe views the Brexit endgame

Life & Arts

How Europe views the Brexit endgame

The EU’s decision makers have lost patience with Britain and want it out — fast

© Harry Haysom

How do European decision makers see Brexit now? I’ve asked politicians, diplomats and business groups across the EU and found them remarkably united around a tough stance towards Britain.

They won’t give in to Boris Johnson’s demands to renegotiate a deal, but nor do they want Britain’s anti-no-deal forces to delay Brexit.

Very few Europeans are still open to the UK’s staying in the EU, and most dread a potential second British referendum. Here are my conclusions:

European decision makers have lost patience with Britain and want it out, fast. Anne Mulder, the Dutch parliament’s rapporteur on Brexit, speaks for many: “We thought the Brits were rational pragmatists. Well, they aren’t.”

For years, Angela Merkel and many in Brussels hoped Britain would eventually ditch Brexit. In March, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, argued for giving the UK a long extension, saying Europe shouldn’t betray “the increasing majority of [British] people who want to remain”. That view has lost favour in Brussels.

Europeans distrust Johnson, but they also despair of Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn, who prioritises getting into Downing Street over shaping sensible Brexit policy, and they are close to giving up on Britain’s squabbling Remainers. Even if Remain won a second referendum, Brexiters would become a Trojan horse inside the EU.

But Europeans will keep sounding friendly and open to negotiations. They don’t want to humiliate “proud” Britain, nor be blamed for the pain that Brexit inflicts. They hope to maintain close security ties after Brexit (but they worry that a poorer UK with a plummeting pound will cut military spending even further).

On the ground in Europe, Brexit is already happening. European governments are replacing the UK with new alliances, notably the Hanseatic League of northern countries.

Many businesses are acting similarly: North Rhine-Westphalia, a German region that trades intensively with Britain, has been relieved to discover that some European companies have anticipated Brexit by shifting from British suppliers to German ones. Britain is becoming yesterday’s problem.


But what if Johnson, the bookmakers’ favourite in an election, wins the British power struggle?

Europeans would rather have a no-deal Brexit than accept Johnson’s demands that they drop the planned Irish “backstop”. Both the EU and the British government keep making the same mistake about each other, notes Douglas Webber of Insead business school, author of European Disintegration? (2016): each side thinks the other will cave to avoid an economically damaging no-deal Brexit.

In fact, says Webber, both sides regard short-term economics as secondary. Johnson’s government prioritises achieving Brexit. Europeans prioritise preserving the rules of the single market and standing by Ireland.

The EU’s support for Ireland — the country insisting on the backstop, because it fears renewed conflict on its border — is non-negotiable because of the EU’s core mission. The EU sees itself as a peace project, and as a club of mostly small states that seek strength in numbers — two points that even most British Remainers miss.

Two-thirds of the EU27 have 10 million inhabitants or fewer. Alone, these states could be bullied: Denmark by Donald Trump over Greenland, the Baltics by Russia, everyone by China. The EU must now be seen to protect little Ireland. “It’s not about Ireland, in a way,” says Noelle O’Connell, executive director of the European Movement Ireland, an independent not-for-profit organisation.

European big business isn’t lobbying against no deal. EU companies have had three years to prepare. And the last thing they want is Johnson turning Britain into a low-regulation trade zone that undercuts them. If British companies aren’t following European rules, their European rivals want them out of the single market.

Europeans foresee only moderate economic damage from no deal. No deal would cost EU27 citizens €40bn in income a year, estimates the Bertelsmann Stiftung, an independent foundation. On average, that’s a manageable €90 per person. Only Ireland expects short-term agony, and it’s the firmest opponent of renegotiation.

Many southern and eastern European economies would barely notice no deal. These countries are expending little more thought on Brexit than British policymakers are expending on Italy’s political crisis.

Most European leaders (especially French president Emmanuel Macron) want Britain to suffer from Brexit, not because they are anti-British but because they are pro-themselves. If in a year Johnson could say, “We’ve made a success of Brexit,” it would encourage Leavers across Europe.

No European government — not even Hungary — wants that. Whatever their rhetoric, they are all now objectively pro-EU in that they want to remain.

Brussels expects Britain to reopen talks within a week of no deal. In the first days, the EU would allow the Irish border to remain porous, but continental ports would already be checking goods, causing delays and shortages in Britain. Brussels wouldn’t grant any longer-term fixes until London agreed to honour the backstop, pay its exit bill of £39bn and guarantee rights of European citizens in Britain.

But the risk is that by then, Johnson will have won an election with a hard-Brexit party. If he blames Europe, refuses to pay up and fantasises about shifting Britain into the US’s low-regulation zone through a trade deal with Trump, no deal could metastatize.

Follow Simon on @KuperSimon or email him at simon.kuper@ft.com

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Letter in response to this article:

Insistence on backstop is counterproductive / From Ralph Timms, Lincoln, UK

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