Talking points

Europe's ruling class wants an orderly Brexit

Simon Kuper, a Paris-based columnist for the Financial Times, provides Cazenove Capital with his personal take on how Brexit is being viewed by those on the Continent

17/10/2018

Simon Kuper

Simon Kuper

Columnist

“We don’t trust the British anymore,” a veteran European political fixer, counsellor to his country’s prime minister, told me over lunch in his city centre mansion. He accepted Brexit. What bothered him was the deceit: the falsehoods Brexiters told in the referendum, and later the way former Brexit secretary David Davis would backtrack at Westminster on promises he had made in Brussels. Crucially, too, the fixer said Europe’s ruling political class no longer identified with Britain’s two main parties. The Conservatives had embraced a nineteenth-century nationalism unparalleled among continental Western Europe’s governments, while Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour reminded him of fringe 1970s’ European leftist movements. The fixer found it all very sad.

I’m a British journalist living in Paris. Brexit has changed my life. Like many Brits in France, I now spend my leisure time collecting the endless documents needed to acquire French citizenship. Meanwhile I travel around Europe talking to continental politicians, diplomats and business people about Brexit. So how does this class see Brexit unfolding from here?

The UK tabloids say Anglophobe “Eurocrats” relish the chance to hurt Britain. That’s not my impression. Elite Europeans tend to be instinctive Anglophiles, raised on Arsenal, or George Orwell, or The Smiths. I met one continental minister who takes annual walking holidays in the Midlands with friends from his old British university. His sister lives in Manchester, his daughter in London. These people saw Britain as a friend. But now they feel that friend has succumbed to its demons, taken off its clothes and stormed out of the party.

European elites won’t give Theresa May anything much in this autumn’s crunch talks. In part, that’s personal. Neither she nor her senior Cabinet members have done what past British politicians did: spend decades building relationships with their continental peers. Today’s Tories lack old European friends.

Elite Europeans tend to be instinctive Anglophiles, raised on Arsenal, or George Orwell, or The Smiths.

More importantly, if Europeans toss May something – for instance, restricting movement of EU citizens – then tomorrow morning 27 EU members will want their own tailor-made concessions and chaos will ensue. Europe’s ruling classes do want Brexit to hurt Britain – but chiefly so as to shut up the continent’s anti-European populists. The strategy is working. Just before Britain’s referendum, the Dutch populist leader Geert Wilders, sitting beneath his portrait of Churchill in his poky Hague office, told me he hoped to follow Brexit with “Nexit”. As Britons argue about stockpiling medicines in case of a no-deal, he has piped down. Marine Le Pen, France’s far-right leader, has quietly abandoned “Frexit”. The EU remains disunited and unloved, but since Brexit, most Europeans now consider it necessary. That pleases Europe’s elites. Their position isn’t anti-British. It’s pro-themselves.

They aren’t very worried about suffering economic damage from a hard Brexit. Their forecasts show that most continental economies would scarcely be affected. The Netherlands would be hurt, but only Ireland would suffer as badly as the UK itself. Meanwhile, if Britain’s economy wobbles, the French in particular hope to poach bits of its finance, tech and car industries. Note Normandy’s recent ads in the London Tube beckoning companies across the Channel.

Still, most continentals expect an autumn deal. As one politician who monitors Brexit for his country’s parliament explains, the European Commission’s experience is that in the end the UK always caves in to Brussels’ demands. Britain caved in on the sequence of negotiations and payments to the EU. It will eventually concede anything to stay in the single market and customs union, he predicts. Two weeks of planes not flying and oranges not reaching British shops could sink May’s government – remember the “Winter of Discontent” of 1979.

Pascal Lamy, former head of the World Trade Organization, says “the most likely outcome” is “BRINO”: Brexit In Name Only. That would leave the UK obeying every EU rule, down to the contents of toothpaste. Emmanuel Macron – who on taking office directed his European team not to waste time on Brexit – may step in this autumn to ensure BRINO rather than no deal.

Like most Europeans, Macron wants an orderly Brexit. Only the Dutch, historically Britain’s closest continental friends, aren’t quite resigned to Brexit happening. If talks collapse this autumn, expect Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to make a last-minute bid to freeze Brexit and keep Britain in. But without trust, it will probably fail.

Author

Simon Kuper

Simon Kuper

Columnist

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