Brussels goes deaf and blind over Brexit

Managing partner Jacob Lund Nielsen shares his views on how Brussels is trying to ignore the risk that the UK will vote to leave the EU

Senior advisor David Gow explains how EU decision-making in Brussels will change, whatever the outcome

Jacob Lund Nielsen, the managing partner of the cabinet DN, quoted by The Independent, highlighted the sense of denial surrounding Brussels on the Brexit debate: “No one is saying anything about what might actually happen to Brussels if the Brits decide to go. It’s very quiet – like the silence you hear just before you get hit by a truck.”

While senior advisor David Gow shared his analysis on Brexit on the MHP referendum insider:

The view from Brussels

 “…whatever its result is going to be, we must take a long, hard look at the future of the Union. We would be foolish if we ignored such a warning signal as the UK referendum. There are more signals of dissatisfaction with the Union coming from all of Europe, not only from the UK.”

These are the words of Donald Tusk, president of the European Council (of heads of state and government), after talks with Antonio Costa, Portugal’s premier, this week. And he added: “Stay with us. We need you. Without you, not only Europe, but the whole Western and transatlantic community will become weaker. Together, we will be able to cope with increasingly difficult challenges of the future. I am absolutely sure about this. If apart, it will be more difficult. And I am also absolutely sure about that.”

Tusk’s views reflect a wider consensus within what Michael Gove, co-leader of the Leave campaign, likes to call the ‘Brussels elite”. Undoubtedly, Commission officials, EU-27 ministers and MEPs of most political colours want the UK’s voters to deliver a Yes to Europe in Thursday’s historic referendum. But there are considerable caveats too.

These were expressed on Monday night by Alexander Lambsdorff, a long-standing German Liberal MEP, who is weary of constant British demands for special favours: “The UK was not in at the beginning and they are just too peripheral for their membership to be the determining factor [in the EU succeeding or not].”

Other voices are even fiercer in their exasperation with the UK’s now formalized refusal to be part of “ever closer union” and demand for opt-outs, concessions and waivers. One senior Berlin official puts it like this: “You Brits are like the guy at the party with one foot in the room and one hand gripping the handle of door marked exit…Always.”

Tusk’s task, as chairman of the summits planned and extraordinary that will kick off on June 28, is to keep the EU intact whatever Thursday’s result and prevent the centrifugal forces stretching it apart – economic instability, refugee crisis, the rise of populist nationalists – from reaching breaking point. That’s true whether it’s the EU-28 with the UK or the EU-27 without it that one is talking about.

Boris Johnson, another Leave co-leader (and Brussels habitué), repeatedly argues that the EU will simply endorse a vote for Remain and carry on as before with no need to change its centralizing course or address its democratic deficit. Here the evidence is that he’s wrong – and it’s not just Tusk saying so.

In public and, especially, in private EU officials acknowledge that the UK’s referendum, however flawed, is a wake-up call. It has already triggered calls in other member states for their own referendum. Voter support for the EU is sagging. Political alienation is profound – witness the recent presidential election in Austria where the anti-EU Far Right candidate almost won. Marine Le Pen’s Front National is still reaping heavy support from voters disillusioned with the effects of globalization. Even Germany, post-war beacon of democratic stability, is not immune to rising populism.

How far this will translate into genuine reform or change is hard to judge. Already, the Commission under its increasingly absent or just absent-minded president, Jean-Claude Juncker, is staying its hand over further legislation; indeed, this is the most directive-light Commission of all time. The much-quoted and little-read “five presidents’ report” on strengthening EMU is gathering dust like those documents in Dickens’ Ministry of Circumlocution.

Of course, “Brussels” wants the UK to remain a member – and to continue to press the case for liberal, flexible markets (preferably with greater equality and social protection). Of course, it knows that the UK will never be a fully enthusiastic member. Of course, some hope it will simply go away while others warn that leaving will seriously damage the UK economy – and Europe’s too.

Whatever Thursday’s result, there is a growing if still inchoate sense that simply muddling through as before is no longer a serious or viable option. The times, they are a’changing…


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