After a damaging Brexit, would the EU have us back? We take the temperature in the continent’s capitals, to gauge how different countries might respond to a British U-turn on Brexit
Most, if not all, readers of this newspaper would like to see Brexit reversed. But, in one sense, even Remain supporters have been infected by Brexit insularity. Our attention is focused on whether the UK electorate will be given an opportunity to change its mind. Little consideration is being given to whether other Europeans would still welcome the UK staying in the EU after the damage it has already done.
There was some disgruntlement across Europe after the Brexit referendum. That was an inevitable consequence of the Leave campaign’s jingoism. Nobody likes to be lied about and gratuitously insulted. Many of our fellow Europeans also saw Brexit as a self-indulgent distraction at a time when Europe has many other serious and less-avoidable issues to deal with.
Despite the ongoing maladroit sabre-rattling of the May government and its cheerleaders, the mood in Europe has long since settled down. There remains some bafflement at what Britain is doing to itself. This confusion is akin to that of passengers wondering what to do about a disruptive drunk on a bus. They are unsure whether to laugh nervously at our antics, try to reason with and help us in some way or just give us a wide berth to ensure their own safety.
Official EU policy has coalesced around the latter approach, with an impressive unity of purpose across the EU Institutions and 27 remaining member states. But whilst the determination to put their interests first is clear, the tone regarding Britain’s departure is one of sorrow rather than anger.
EU Council President Donald Tusk gracefully expressed the widespread sadness about the UK leaving the EU after he received Theresa May’s Article 50 letter. Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission, expressed this feeling equally eloquently in the Financial Times, writing that ‘the mind tells me this is our new reality, the heart aches for it to be just a bad dream’.
This sentiment is based upon the positive role Britain at its best has played in the EU. Amongst other achievements, it was a driving force behind the creation of the single market and the EU’s warm post-Cold War embrace of Eastern and Central Europe. Many Europeans, including senior figures like Timmermans, also have a strong personal fondness for aspects of British culture.
Whilst most official sources are reluctant to comment directly on the still hypothetical possibility of the British voters changing their minds, their near universal openness to it is clear.
Germany’s minister for Europe Michael Roth told The New European he would ‘naturally’ welcome a change of heart. ‘Britain belongs in the EU like Buckingham Palace belongs in London! Most young Brits see it the same way. They are amongst the biggest losers from Brexit – what a tragedy! The response to an increasingly unpredictable world cannot be that individual nation states raise their boundaries and become self-contained. Instead, nations must meet globalisation eye-to-eye and shape it together through solidarity.’
There is ‘no punitive mindset anywhere in the French system’ either, according to Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Paris. France is focused on ‘the need to keep relations strong both bilaterally and between the EU and UK. It is particularly interested in doing so on foreign policy, security and a variety of other topics. We need to work together anyway. It would be better to do it within the framework of the EU but otherwise it will be done in whatever way necessary’.
Rapnouil sounds a note of caution about how any British return comes about, saying ‘it would need an indisputable mandate directly from the British voters. Anything less would be used by French Eurosceptics such as Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélenchon to say ‘they are changing course again, even though the voters have spoken”. The perception that the government adopted the Lisbon Treaty to override its voters’ 2005 rejection of the proposed EU Constitution is still a sensitive subject in France.
There would also be questions raised in France about the UK’s previous objections ‘to important developments in the EU, especially progress on defence and eurozone integration’. But, even so, ‘most EU supporters here believe Brexit is bad for the EU. If Britain did change its mind, they would probably rationalise the differences between the British and French visions and say, ok, you can come back’.
The message is equally clear elsewhere in Europe, not least in those countries that have traditionally been amongst Britain’s closest EU allies.
The Danish Foreign Ministry emphasised their sorrow at seeing the UK go. Their respect for the voters’ wishes ‘would probably be the same position we would take if the voters changed their minds’.
In a similar vein, Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade noted how ‘Ireland and the UK began their journey to EU membership together 44 years ago. Whilst we regret the British decision to leave the EU, we fully respect the outcome of the referendum. Our objective now is to work hard through the forthcoming negotiations to achieve the closest possible future relationship between the UK and the EU’.
Those outside the Irish government are able to go further in expressing their country’s viewpoint. Brendan Halligan, director of the Institute of International and European Affairs, is sure that a British change of heart on Brexit would receive ‘a very strong welcome indeed in Dublin because of Northern Ireland and the substantial trade and movement of people between Britain and Ireland. There would be a huge sigh of relief!’
Halligan did highlight some potential misgivings that might be held in some quarters about Britain’s history as the ‘awkward partner’ in Europe. There would be issues to be overcome if Britain ended up having to reapply as a new EU member, such as the requirement to adopt the euro. But, ultimately, ‘the strong pragmatic reasons for it would mean Britain would be welcomed back’.
Ireland’s relief at a British change of heart would be replicated in Poland. Iwona Reichardt, deputy editor of Kraków-based political magazine New Eastern Europe said Brexit was a cause of ‘increasing anxiety’ for Poland. ‘What would be welcome is the decision to leave the EU not being as final as it appears. Poles tend to believe in miracles and would see the current course being reversed as one such wonder’.
The message from across the EU is that they will continue to scrupulously avoid interfering in the decision of British voters. Any change of mind would have to come clearly and directly from the British people alone. But, for all the misgivings and complications, if we did decide to overturn Brexit, we would be pushing at an open door back into Europe.
Paul Knott is a Swiss-based writer on international politics. He served as a British diplomat for 20 years