Britain rejected the EU, and the EU is loving its new life

Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel looks up as she arrives at an emergency euro zone summit in Brussels, Belgium.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel looks up as she arrives at an emergency euro zone summit in Brussels, Belgium.
Image: Reuters/Francois Lenoir
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Brussels, Belgium

The day after Britain voted to leave the European Union, people were weeping in the European Commission’s headquarters. Brussels, the EU’s capital, spent weeks in a state of shock and anxiety. But 18 months on, the city seems cheerier than ever. 

“The wind is back in Europe’s sails,” cheered Jean-Claude Juncker, the normally dour president of the European Commission, in his state-of-the-union speech in September. “People tell me I should not rock the boat—but now is not the time to err on the side of caution… we must complete the European house now that the sun is shining.”

The blend of nautical and construction metaphors may not have been pretty, but the message was clear: Britain’s departure, once seen as a potentially crippling blow to the European project, is in fact starting to look like an exciting opportunity.  

How did Brussels get so cheery?

The weeks after the UK referendum were nervy times for Brussels. Europe’s refugee crisis was raging, European economies were stagnant, and there were fears that Brexit-like referendums would spread across the continent. Far-right candidates threatened to win power in elections in France, Germany, and the Netherlands.

But none of those fears quite came to fruition. A series of polls showing renewed support for the EU began easing Europhiles’ nerves. The continent appeared shocked not only by the Brexit referendum, but also by the way Britain and its government seemed to come apart at the seams in the aftermath. At the same time, the numbers of refugees coming to Europe slowed, and the pressures of shocking news coverage eased along with them.

Then came three big elections. In the Netherlands, Mark Rutte’s center-right government held off the extremist Geert Wilders. In France, the young, pro-European centrist Emmanuel Macron wiped the floor with the National Front’s Marine Le Pen. And in Germany, Angela Merkel scraped her way to the finish line despite a strong showing from the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD). (Merkel’s struggles to form a coalition have brought back some familiar instability, however.)

Just as pleasing were 2017’s economic figures. “This year is the first time forecasts have been revised upwards, not downwards,” says Guntram Wolff, director of Bruegel, a think tank. “Interestingly,” he adds, “the IMF showed UK numbers were revised downwards.” It’s hard not to see a hint of schadenfreude in even the most sympathetic Anglophile’s eyes when commenting on how the euro zone has outstripped Britain’s growth since the referendum.

Bored of Brexit

Their optimism has also made the EU’s mandarins truly fed up with Brexit. While they want to move forward, London’s mixture of arrogance and incompetence in negotiating its departure is a constant irritant.

When Wolff wrote that Brexit is a “great British bore” in the Guardian, he received thousands of comments within a few hours. “It was basically just Brits commenting and arguing between themselves and proving my point: it’s an act of self-obsession,” he says. “On the Europe side, frankly the debate has moved on.”

The British government’s insistence that the EU needs Britain and is desperate to strike a deal particularly riles. “I personally am desperate if Britain leaves,” says Pierre Vimont, former secretary general of the EEAS, the EU’s diplomatic service. “It’s definitely a loss and everyone is very sad about that, but the state of mind here is that, ‘Well, we’ll go on because we’ll lose the UK but we’ll still be a market of something like 450 million Europeans.'”

The 27 remaining member states are all showing that mindset. “There’s been a huge sea-change; you think of the 27 and I’ve never seen them so united as in the last year,” says Tony Gardner, who was the US ambassador to the EU under Obama and now lives in London. “They’ve moved on… they’re thinking about what can they do as a 27 rather than as a 28.”

It’s not just the chattering classes who have had enough of Brexit, but the politicians too. “The heads of state and government don’t talk about it any more; they have given the task to [chief negotiator Michel] Barnier and have given him instructions… that’s it,” says Vimont, who was also French ambassador to the EU and chief of staff to three French foreign ministers. “When he feels the need to ask for more instructions or different instructions, that’s for him. To some extent, it’s out of their minds, they’re discussing other things.”

People across the continent don’t seem overly concerned about the effects of Britain leaving, either. Citizens across nine EU countries polled (pdf, p.31) for a recent Chatham House study found only 18% thought Brexit had “greatly weakened” the bloc.

Other priorities

Brussels has awoken from the initial turmoil filled with creativity. “When you have something traumatic happen, [it] opens up new possibilities and makes things possible that weren’t before,” says Tomas Valasek, director of the Carnegie Europe think tank. “Brexit has unleashed forces or ideas that never would have had a snowball’s chance in hell of being taken seriously before.”

Look no further than Emmanuel Macron. In September, in front of a packed hall of students at the Sorbonne, the 39-year-old French president set out ambitious plans to reform the EU institutions and put forward fresh, and occasionally radical, ideas. These included (pdf) calls for a euro-zone finance minister, a financial transaction tax to fund overseas development, and deeper security integration including a joint defense budget and a European Intelligence Academy to fight terrorism.

Levels of confidence in Brussels have occasionally tipped into “irrational exuberance” in recent months, says Valasek. “So much so, that we felt the need to publish a paper saying, ‘We’re not out of the woods yet—slow down.'”

But Macron’s speech didn’t overlook the problems the EU is facing. Citing the AfD’s success in Germany’s elections, he warned that, “we forgot to defend Europe. The Europe we know is too slow, too weak, too ineffective.” Today’s leaders must earn future generations’ gratitude and “if not, we deserve their contempt,” he said (link in French).

While losing Europe’s second biggest economy—and a net contributor to the EU budget—isn’t going to be easy for the bloc, it’s far from its only problem. The refugee crisis is not over. Spain has been knocked sideways by Catalonia’s attempted secession. Anti-establishment billionaire Andrej Babis’ recent general election win threatens to make the Czech Republic part of a populist trifecta with Poland and Hungary. Economies may be growing, but wages are stagnant, unemployment remains high, and inequality is rampant. While Greece hasn’t veered back into disaster, its problems with debt are still far from solved.

In a city that deals with all of Europe’s future, Brexit-related squabbles don’t trouble most bigwigs’ sleep.

This is the second story in Brussels after Brexit, a four-part series exploring how the EU is preparing for life without Britain. 

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