Europe’s unrequited love for Britain

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First published in Spanish-language online magazine esglobal

Britain must be feeling loved. Europeans from all walks of life have been expressing their kinship with the British as they prepare to determine their relationship with the European Union. Hashtags have mushroomed from #hugabrit to #PleaseDontGoUK and European celebrities and leaders have been gushing in their praise for Britain’s role in shaping Europe’s institutions. But the feeling isn’t mutual. Britain’s relationship with the EU has always been strained and within a matter of days it could be severed entirely. Brexit or Bremain, it is unclear whether the relationship will fizzle out or flare up.

According to Pew research, some 70 per cent of Europeans say Britain leaving the UK would be a bad thing, whilst only 16 per cent are in favour of the prospect. It is clear that most Europeans think that Britain is an integral part of the EU and that a Brexit would leave Europe at least culturally much less diverse as a result.

In what was described as a love letter to the British, prominent Europeans, ranging from Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar, to French footballer Frank Laboeuf and German Nobel Prize winner Herta Muller urged Britain to stay.

“It is your decision, and we will all accept it,” they say. Nevertheless, if it will help the undecided to make up their minds, we would like to express how very much we value having the United Kingdom in the European Union.”

Other prominent Europeans – referred to as “Euro luvvies” by the Daily Mail – have also expressed their appreciation of the British. The Spanish author Javier Marías says his love of British films and literature made Britain seem as familiar and European to him as the streets of his hometown of Madrid. Many Europeans cite British cultural icons Monty Python as a reason to love Britain with their deferential sense of humour. But most are probably unaware that John Cleese, its front man, has opted for Brexit and this time, he’s not joking. It is yet another example of Europe’s unrequited love.

In politics, the response to this love bombing from Europe’s leading lights has been muted. Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has been put in the awkward position of campaigning for the EU despite being highly critical of its institutions. He has had to contend with a strong anti-EU element within his own party and was able to exempt the UK from aspiring to an “ever closer union among the peoples of Europe” as part of his pre-referendum negotiations. However, as a backbencher, Cameron was much more vocal in his criticism, accusing the EU of trying “to breaks down national identities”.

The leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn has also only been able to muster lukewarm support for the EU. Much like Cameron, he had a reputation for being a eurosceptic but had to change tack once taking leadership of his party. He is still more likely to speak out against the EU rather than praise its achievements.

Meanwhile, Brexit campaigners have accused the EU of being at the root of all Britain’s problems. Those supporting remain are portrayed as being part of the establishment elite and out of touch with common people despite Pew figures showing that 57 per cent of 18-34 are in favour of the EU. Former London Mayor Boris Johnson even compared the EU to a Nazi superstate. And still, the accolades for the British keep rolling in.

If there is any kind of pro-EU sentiment in Britain, it is most keenly felt in Scotland and amongst Green party supporters. Green Party leader Caroline Lucas said she promised to be “loud and proud” about backing Britain’s membership. But overall, it is difficult to find a passionate European anywhere between Lands End in the south and Scotland’s Orkney Islands in the north.

Meanwhile, the response to the vitriol from Westminster has largely been brushed aside in the conference rooms and corridors of Brussels and until recently it was felt that Britain would ultimately opt to remain. But as the date approaches, Brexit has increasingly become the elephant in the room.

More recently, evidence of a vindictiveness has started to show. The popular French Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron says France’s bi-lateral relationship with Britain will be affected. He said a Brexit could jeopardise the so-called Le Touquet agreement that allows Britain to keep migrants on the French side of the Channel. In an interview with the Financial Times he said Calais’ makeshift immigration camps known as the Jungle could move onto the other side of the Channel. Could this be one of many ways in which European leaders will seek to punish the British?

The correspondent for France’s La Liberation daily Jean Quatremer said the French should have no regrets if Britain leaves. In an editorial, he mocks the stupidity of the British for even contemplating a Brexit when, he says, Europe has already moulded itself around British ideals and where 28 nations already speak its language. He states that Europe would be far better off without the meddling of Britain’s eurosceptics. Revealingly, in the Pew survey, 32 per cent of French people say Brexit would be a good thing, compared to only 8 per cent of Swedes, who are the most positive amongst Europeans about Britain’s role in the EU. In Italy, 23 per cent said a Brexit would be a good thing and in Spain, 16 per cent see it as a positive development. Among the Germans, 16 per cent of those questioned see Brexit as a positive.

Within Berlaymont, the mood has been mostly restrained. Many meetings have been carrying on as usual in an attempt to maintain an atmosphere of business as usual despite fears that a Brexit could be a major blow to the European project.

EU Council President Donald Tusk said it could have far-reaching consequences and even suggested it could destroy Western civilisation. As a Pole, Tusk’s opinion illustrates the view of many Eastern Europeans, who have championed the UK’s role in the EU. For these former Soviet countries, the role of national sovereignty and the importance of an intergovernmental EU, have been specially treasured, much like the UK. The Czechs, the Poles, and other Eastern European countries would grow wary of an EU without the UK where the weight of Germany would proportionately grow – Germany is often Eastern Europe’s closest ally, but World War history has not been forgotten. With France’s economy performing poorly and with the country’s structural problems –and social protests—making reform very difficult, the UK is the only ‘balance’ to Germany.

The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel also made a last-minute intervention, saying Britain could be left with a raw deal if it leaves. Merkel had promised to stay out of the Brexit debate but seems to have changed her mind as the Leave campaign gathers momentum. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble was the only German politician to travel to the UK to campaign for the country to remain in the EU. In an interview with Spiegel he was categoric that a vote for Brexit would rule out remaining in the single market in a deal similar to Switzerland and Norway. “In is in. Out is out,” says Schäuble.
Britain’s closest allies within the EU have been the Dutch and the Scandinavian countries. The Dutch feel they could be sidelined if Britain are to go. Meanwhile the Spanish Prime Minister, Mariano Rajoy, warned that British expats could forfeit their rights to live in Spain if they vote to leave the EU.

“I have no doubt whatsoever, as I have repeatedly stated, that it would be very negative if the United Kingdom left the European Union. Negative for everybody, for the United Kingdom, for Spain, and for the European Union,” Rajoy told the Spanish news agency EFE.

It is only Europe’s far-right parties, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Front in France and Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom in the Netherlands that see Brexit as a positive development. Wilders said that by leaving, Britain could ‘liberate’ Europe for the second time, referring to Britain’s defeat of the Nazis in the Second World War.

Russia’s Vladimir Putin is also thought to favour a Brexit as a means to weakening the EU.

But in general, most foreign leaders seem to have Britain’s best interests at heart as was demonstrated by US President Barack Obama’s surprising intervention strongly in favour of Britain within the EU.

The goodwill shown by European leaders has until now been largely unconditional despite a constant flow of criticism from across the Channel. Whether that goodwill can survive a Brexit is uncertain. European leaders have certainly hinted that things could change for the worse for Britain. Despite its many failings, many of Europe’s leaders feel the EU has achieved its core goal of keeping the peace for the last seventy years. Britain’s attempt to undermine this could alter the status quo. Like any divorce – if Brexit is to go ahead – the best you can hope for is that it’s amicable.

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