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The messier Brexit gets, the better Europe looks

The threat of populist forces to European cohesion is not over. The EU will remain a convenient boogeyman for populists looking to score political points at home.

By: New York Times | Brussels |
January 31, 2019 10:38:20 am
An anti-Brexit protester demonstrates outside the Houses of Parliament, ahead of a vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, in London, Britain January 15, 2019. (REUTERS)

Written by Steven Erlanger

After Britain voted to leave the European Union in June 2016, its leaders were in a panic. It was mired in a migration crisis, and anti-Europe, populist forces were gaining. Britain’s decision seemed to herald the start of a great unraveling.

Two years later, as Britain’s exit from the bloc, or Brexit, looks increasingly messy and self-destructive, there is a growing sense, even in the populist corners of the continent, that if this is what leaving looks like, no, thank you.

Nothing has brought the European Union together quite as much as Britain’s chaotic breakdown. “A country is leaving and has gotten itself into a right old mess, making itself ridiculous to its European partners,” said Rosa Balfour, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels.

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The challenges facing Europe — low growth, eurozone governance, migration, debt, border security and populism — have by no means gone away. Nor has Europe found consensus on how to deal with them.

The very prospect of losing a country like Britain, considered so pragmatic and important in the world, is deeply wounding. But on the whole, while all parties will suffer with Brexit, particularly in the event of a “no deal” departure, analysts tend to agree that the EU, which will remain the world’s largest market, is likely to fare far better than Britain.

Increasingly, the British experience stands as a cautionary tale, and one that others now seem less eager to embark on for themselves than just a short time ago.

Even successful populists and nationalists like Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio in Italy, Victor Orban in Hungary, Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland and the Alternative for Deutschland have dropped the idea of leaving the euro or the EU and are instead working to alter the functioning of the bloc from within. “Brexiters have done Europe no end of good,” said Denis MacShane, a writer and former minister for Europe in the government of Tony Blair.

“Frexit and Grexit and Italexit and all the rest of it are gone,” he said. “Leaving both the EU and the euro has been dropped like a ton of bricks, by populists from the right and the left, including Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain.”

“Everyone looks on Britain, which was the country of a stable Parliament, with sheer horror and boredom,” he added.

“Europe is still not a happy place, and a lot of people calling membership into question were elected, like Salvini, or done well,” MacShane said. “But Brexit has absolutely killed the idea of leaving.”

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, whose country was considered a possible “Nexit,” said, “For some time, voices were going up in the Netherlands in favor of a possible Nexit, but with Brexit those voices have receded. “All this uncertainty is of course not in our interest, also not in the U.K.’s interest, if you look at the enormous damage already done to the U.K. economy by Brexit,” Rutte said. “So if anybody in political parties still thinks that Nexit would be a good idea, just look at Britain and the enormous damage that it entails.”

Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament, said that “Britain is imploding — we’re seeing the dominance of emotional politics over substance, and now it seems to be spinning out of control.”

The threat of populist forces to European cohesion is not over. The EU will remain a convenient boogeyman for populists looking to score political points at home. Given that, pro-Europe voices and Brussels bureaucrats may still get a drubbing in elections to the European Parliament in May.

“The fear now is not about losing pieces but being hollowed out from within,” said Nathalie Tocci, director of Italy’s Institute of International Affairs and an adviser to Europe’s foreign-policy chief.

As people look at the European Union, she said, “it’s unpleasant in some ways and some don’t like it, but people appreciate that on the positive side they need it and on the negative side, they can’t extricate themselves from it very easily.”

It would be even harder for those, unlike Britain, that uses the euro common currency. If a country like Britain, whose sizable economy and global connections give it a better chance than most of standing on its own, has so much trouble leaving, it is a frightening lesson for less stable countries like Italy, Spain, Greece or those in central Europe, Tocci said.

The increased popularity of the EU in member countries since Brexit is visible in Eurobarometer polls. A large one conducted last April among 27,601 people from all member states showed that on average, 60 percent of citizens believe EU membership is a good thing, and 67 percent believe membership has benefited their country — the highest score since 1983.

Countries like Hungary and Poland benefit hugely from membership in the bloc despite the anti-Europe rhetoric of their leaders, pointed out Stefano Stefanini, a former Italian ambassador and Brussels-based consultant. It is not just the large sums they get from Brussels for regional development, but freedom of movement and labor means huge remittances coming home from citizens working elsewhere.

The Italian case is more complicated, he said, since the euro has become a kind of prison for Italy. “They can’t devalue; they can’t do deficit spending,” Stefanini said. “But they want to be part of the club,” he continued, “and leaving Europe is not popular with the rank and file who vote populist.”

Heading into the European parliamentary elections, there are numerous concerns, including the influence that populist leaders in Italy, Hungary and Poland will have over the next European Commission. “That Britain is in bad shape doesn’t mean that we’re doing well,” said Rem Korteweg, a senior fellow at the Clingendael Institute, a Dutch think tank.

Britain is far more strategically minded than most member states, he said, so it will be a loss for Europe, especially with challenges to the liberal democratic order from Russia, China and President Donald Trump. And Britain was never the reason the EU could not make progress in shoring up the euro, which London never joined, said Simon Tilford, a senior fellow at Chatham House in London.

The British meltdown serves as a deterrent to others, but also makes it clear that “it’s basically impossible to leave the European Union,” he said. “Is that sustainable going forward, even if the EU continues to underperform?”

Brexit continues to be messy. “But Brexit has not permanently strengthened the EU or shored up the integrationist drive within it,” Tilford said. “Britain has been an awkward member, but it didn’t stop the eurozone from doing what it wanted, and it has not been an obstacle to others thinking strategically.” And it has not blunted the desire of the populists to make the European Union — working from within — a less powerful influence over their nations.

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