Brexit was meant to light a fire under Europe and spark populist revolts across the continent. In fact, it has united it as never before – and reduced the UK to being the butt of jokes
After June’s British vote to leave the EU the mood music across Europe seemed inescapable: emboldened by the UK’s decision, euroscepticism across the continent would receive a boost, as discontent came to the fore and established institutions started to buckle. Parties of left and right alike would rewrite the political rulebook, tearing out the chapters on a common currency, freedom of movement, and perhaps even the single market. The European Union was on the back foot. Brexit Britain was leading a charge.
Seven months later, with Article 50 still not triggered, the picture is decidedly murkier. The British vote certainly turned heads, but it has not had the domino effect that many predicted.
Indeed, as Europeans watch Brexit haphazardly unfold, the mood on the continent has changed once again. As farce has followed farce, from the British side, and the lack of a coherent exit plan has become ever clearer, it is the EU, and politicians friendly towards it, who have become invigorated. And in these circles, the opinion of the UK, and where it is headed, has moved from alarm towards something approaching ridicule.
Nowhere has this change in mood been clearer than in France, easily the most euroscepetical of the EU’s major economic powers. Yet even National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen, who hailed the Brexit result, has toned down her rhetoric in recent months, and now says she is not seeking a Frexit.
Her move is shrewd. Going into the presidential elections promising a Gallic version of Brexit ‘plus, plus, plus’ would not be wise, when voters can look across the Channel at the inertia, confusion and paralysis that the referendum has wrought.
Le Pen’s referendum plans are much more modest than what David Cameron put to the British public. ‘I think we need to renegotiate with the EU to bring back sovereignty to France, backed by a referendum,’ she told RMC radio.
In common with other continental eurosceptics, Le Pen’s desires now extend little further than dismantling the euro and withdrawing from the Schengen agreement for free movement. Such talk may still cause alarm in Brussels, but this is a major walk-back for a party which, under the authority of one of its mayors, recently named a street (fittingly, a dead-end road) ‘Rue de Brexit’.
A recent editorial in Le Monde – ‘In Europe, Brexit is not envied’ – summed up the changing mood. The article described how last summer’s UK referendum had caused ‘fear’ in Europe and unleashed waves of despondency.
Now, though, British voters are thanked for helping to ‘strengthen the attachment’ to the EU in Europe, ahead of major elections this year in France, as well as the Netherlands and Germany. Brexit is credited with awakening a sense of the importance of the EU, of ending complacency that might have existed on the continent.
Because events in the UK, as the country moves towards the exit, are being closely scrutinised across Europe. The lack of a plan is painfully apparent, and is tamping down enthusiasm for a break with the EU, wherever it existed.
The legal case which put paid to Theresa May’s attempts to push forward in a high-handed presidential manner, has been followed in detail. So too the have-cake-and-eat-it memo, revealed by an aide outside Number 10 (the German newspaper Bild was particularly amused that the note suggested the French would be especially awkward customers in negotiations) and the departure of Sir Ivan Rogers.
The picture all this conjured up is a simple one: chaos. The view from Europe is that the British government has little idea how to proceed with Brexit and less still about how to deal with the uncertainties that will follow. Polls show that European voters understand this, hence the manoeuvring of Le Pen, and others.
Even in Italy, usually considered Europe’s weakest link, the eurosceptics are shifting their position. An analysis in the Corriere della Sera of Theresa May’s recent pronouncements predicted a ‘dangerous journey’ for the UK this year, warning, with some dramatically mixed metaphors, that Britain might ‘derail… without a parachute’.
Here, the Five Star movement led by former comedian Beppe Grillo is still riding high. Grillo has been severely critical of EU monetary policy and received a boost when prime minister Mateo Renzi put his job on the line in a referendum on constitutional reform and lost.
But the party surprised many this week by withdrawing from the UKIP-led Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group in the EU parliament.
Members voted by an overwhelming 78.5% to quit the eurosceptic group and instead join the pro-EU Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE). The ALDE rebuffed the Five Star’s overtures, sending it back to the UKIP alliance. But the attempted divorce is a sign of the times.
The Five Star movement which has grown to become the dominant opposition force in Italy following the 2008 economic crisis is now in an awkward position, but it does not propose a full-blown Italian EU-withdrawal. Rather, Grillo has promised a referendum on Italy leaving the euro currency.
Germany has also seen the growth of an anti-establishment party in the form of the Alternative for Germany (AfD), but even is this is not a result of unalloyed support for quitting the EU. In fact the AfD was founded as an anti-euro currency party and met with only limited success. Since then, it has shifted scapegoats: its growth today is not so much due to euroscepticism but growing discontent about migration from the Middle East.
While the AfD’s success is certainly causing concern in Berlin, it is also creating its own reaction: having grown by threatening to undermine Germany’s entire post-war political culture, it, in truth, horrifies many Germans who hold strongly anti-nationalist views.
With Germany’s federal election due in the second half of this year, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union is still topping the polls and she is expected to continue as chancellor, presiding over a grand coalition with the Social Democratic Party.
While each country’s national politics differ, the same pattern can be seen again and again: appetite for breaking-up the EU, or even breaking out of it, has not been boosted by Brexit.
The Visegrád group, an alliance comprised of Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, has sought to slow EU integration, but the push has been for reform, not exit or breakup. Poland and Hungary in particular have volubly complained about the EU and the region as a whole has seen a growth in concern following the refugee crisis, but it has also benefitted greatly from both access to the EU market and the ability to travel and work across Europe.
Indeed, a 2016 statement by the group sounds like a call for caution, not revolution: ‘We need to bring the European idea closer to the citizens and narrow the existing gap between the European institutions and the expectation of the people. We need to conduct a deeper reflection on current challenges the Union is facing.’
The Netherlands may be one of the few cases where it can be said without reservations that euroscepticism is riding high. The country is facing an election on March 15 and the Party for Freedom (PVV) led by Geert Wilders is currently topping the polls with 23%. However, the PVV’s growth is more about specific national concerns about Muslim migration than the EU per se. And Wilders’ plans, insofar as he would be able to implement them in a coalition government, are for an end to Schengen, not a withdrawal from the EU. Once again, Brexit is not a path that many want to follow.
In Ireland, battered and only now recovering after a decade of austerity that followed the European Central Bank and European Commission demand that a failing bank not be left to die, euroscepticism has not grown. All of the governing parties are pro-EU while opposition Sinn Féin has in recent decades moves from the position of wanting out of the EU to one of friendly critique. Small far-left groups have grown in parliament following the introduction of unpopular property and water taxes, as well as pension reform and the housing crisis, but they concentrate on local and national issues, keeping their euroscepticism hidden under a bushel.
The country has benefitted enormously from inward migration – a reversal of Ireland’s longstanding problem of population loss through emigration – and while the cost of living, particularly housing, is now widely considered out of control this is viewed as a domestic issue and laid at the feet of the government. Meanwhile, Ireland’s industrial strategy depends on EU market access: why would the likes of Google, Facebook or the pharmaceutical industry base themselves in this small county without access to the EU?
It is true that Ireland’s tussle with the European Commission over Apple’s tiny tax payments has caused some concern, but, conversely, there is also a sense that multinational should pay more tax. When Nigel Farage said on Irish radio in early January that Ireland could follow the UK out of the EU the general feeling was one of an imperious Brit trying to suck Ireland back into his country’s political orbit.
Irish EU commissioner Phil Hogan rounded on Farage, calling him akin to ‘a juvenile delinquent’ and saying he ‘completely underestimates Irish people’s deep and longstanding links with the peoples of mainland Europe’.
It is still possible that the dam could break and the EU come crashing down. But the likely outcome is much more banal: some retrenchment, some renegotiation – and perhaps even some of the reform that Britain was seeking in the first place.
Jason Walsh is a reporter based in Paris