David Cameron’s plan for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union leaves the UK’s EU status more precarious that at any point for 40 years.
But what do continental powers feel about the possibility of Brexit – a British EU exit? Five prominent writers from leading European newspapers in France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland reflect the view from their country.
The German government is by now well used to the fact that the big questions of Europe will, sooner or later, end up in Angela Merkel’s in-tray.
Euro crisis, Grexit, Russia-Ukraine … Germany attracts these problems like a magnet. That’s what you get when you’re the first among equals. Not that the German authorities are always happy about it.
So it is that even on the subject of the British referendum, all eyes are once again turning to Germany. Britain and the other EU members are waiting for a signal: how ready is Berlin to meet David Cameron halfway?
In these crunch moments, Merkel likes to do what she does best: she waits it out. It’s not as if the Brexit alarm came out of the blue after Cameron’s re-election. Over the past two years, no meeting between Merkel and the British prime minister went by without the pair discussing EU reform – and German resistance to it.
Merkel wants to keep Britain in the EU. She has made no secret of this. She belongs to the German group of politicians that tend towards anglophilia, not francophilia. She respects the British political system, admires the system of parliamentary debate and values the calmness with which the democratic system has always operated. Anyone wanting to understand her sympathy for Britain need only read the speech she made in February last year to both houses of parliament in which she outlined all the reasons why Britain really belongs in the EU.
For Merkel it is essentially a question of the political heft and power of the EU, which would be hugely damaged if not destroyed if such a significant power as Britain were to withdraw. Her political message to Cameron is: pull out, and your country will find its position in the world reduced. But below the surface, she is equally worried about the balance in Europe where Britain is often seen as a German ally in matters that pit the north against the south.
Merkel cannot understand how through the last UK parliament Cameron let himself be pushed into ever deeper commitments on Europe by the anti-EU factions in his party, only to find that his opponents would raise the bar still further. She admires Cameron as a speaker – but certainly not as a tactician.
That could all change if the prime minister sticks to the rules of the game which have been negotiated by Berlin and London over the past six months. The most important of which is: keep your mouth shut while you’re preparing reform, so as not to give your critics any ammunition.
The bottom line in all this is that the Germany government assumes that the British prime minister also really wants to keep Britain in the EU. And so the question arises: what is the price that Cameron believes he must ask? Berlin has already made perfectly clear that any changes to European treaties would be too risky. The crushing rejection of the constitution in referenda in France and the Netherlands taught Germany’s political class that the delicate theme of Europe should never simply be put to a yes-no vote.
On the other hand, ever since the euro crisis, Merkel’s principal goal is to immunise Europe’s economic union against further currency shocks. To do that, treaties will probably have to be changed. And yet: there is as yet no real appetite for a big reform project in Europe, and in the middle of the Greek crisis it is more than improbable that the other European nations are suddenly going to want to take on the next big European project.
And so Merkel will try to reduce the British aims to digestible chunks which she can then make appear palatable to the rest of Europe. It’s clear she lends a sympathetic ear to many reformist ideas; in London last year she said: “We must constantly renew Europe’s political shape so that it keeps up with the times.”
Beyond the platitudes, Merkel is open to reforms to the internal market, to competitiveness, to the bureaucracy and even to some of the institutions.
Cameron’s central theme – freedom of movement, and above all economic migration within the EU – will be the biggest problem. But even here, Merkel and Cameron have made some provisions. Cameron’s big freedom of movement speech last year was closely agreed with Berlin and was then promptly praised by Merkel. Both are firmly agreed that there should be no incentives for economic migrants, such as out-of-work benefits. But Merkel will not agree to quotas or special rules for Britain on this.
Merkel will now repeat two messages in the coming months, which she has borrowed from a 30-year-old speech by the late former president Richard von Weizsäcker: Britain belongs to Europe, because without Britain we would not have a democratic Europe. And Europe will only evolve by degrees, not in leaps and bounds.
Merkel gets spooked by the radical – and that’s why this referendum idea is an abomination. She would never stake all her political capital on one small question. Stefan Kornelius, of Süddeutsche Zeitung in Munich
The last time London broke away from Europe it was because of a fight with Rome. Henry VIII wanted to marry Anne Boleyn so broke off relations with the Pope, who opposed it. Just like today, many advisers of the king were worried, but for England in the 16th century, it was a happy choice: it discovered that there were more dynamic countries with which it could do business, and lay the foundation of its empire.
Relations with Rome are now decidedly better. As British ambassador Christopher Prentice said, in very British way: “It’s not just bread and butter, but also jam.” Until just a few years ago, an Italian in London was invariably greeted by giggles and jokes about “bunga-bunga”, but since Mario Monti has been in government, we’ve been considered rather more serious and reliable by Downing Street and in the City (thus creating the widespread impression that things can even get better if Italians do not actually vote for who governs them).
Business relations are optimal and dozens of Italian companies, from Finmeccanica to Eni, from Merloni to Calzedonia, from Pirelli to Ferrero, are well established in Britain. The British want from us what they believe we do well: clothing, food, sports cars, furniture, domestic appliances, and beer (yes, even that), and collaboration with Italy in the fields of energy, defence and aerospace research. We import drugs, cars, hi-tech, whisky, financial services and technology for renewable energy from them. If Britain leaves Europe, all of the rules that made this possible and mutually convenient would have to be revisited – and what happens then would depend on new rules, and especially new tariffs.
The separation would not be painless. There are maybe 200,000 Italians living in Britain, about half of them in London. If, as expected, Brexit causes the loss of many jobs (the optimists predict one million, the pessimists three), tens of thousands of Italians will return home. Those who remain will have to apply for a residence permit and work permit, and the same will have to be done by 20,000 British people living in Italy. London won’t be the destination of choice anymore for young people with two degrees who are looking for a job at Caffè Nero to pay for a master’s degree: they will face queues at passport control and have to undergo a bureaucratic rigmarole similar to the one that exists in the United States.
The link between Italy and Great Britain will not die easily. The bread and butter is business, but the jam is made of a true mutual love, which began centuries ago with the Roman travels of Browning and Shelley, and Byron and Keats, who were staying in hotels that were called de Londres and de l’Angleterre, Brighton and Victoria. It was their ecstatic stories that convinced everyone that you could not become a true gentleman without having visited Rome.
The British are now more in love with Italy than the Italians are: they appreciate the food, the language, the tastes, the gestures of the people, the Tuscan landscape, the climate that renders indolence a little bit inevitable. It’s a love that is reciprocated: the Italians adore London, they colonised South Kensington and Chelsea when Russian oligarchs were still putting aside their first roubles; they have learned English manners; they look to Prince Charles to understand male elegance; and they are grateful to have got their slice of the Beatles, David Beckham, James Bond and royal gossip. Even if politics divide them, Italy and Great Britain will never leave one another. Vittorio Sabadin, of La Stampa in Turin
François Hollande wasted no time in congratulating David Cameron on his re-election this month, inviting him to a prompt tête-à-tête in Paris – but a British referendum on leaving Europe raises a number of reservations in France.
Only a few isolated voices – such as former cabinet ministers Laurent Wauquiez and Michel Rocard – argue in favour of a Brexit, the latter considering that Britain is principally to blame for the paralysis in European decision-making.
Officially, French leaders intone how they want to see London stay in the European club, but not at the expense of giving away lots of concessions to help Cameron. They insist there can be no question of opening up European treaties for reform, as Cameron demands, nor of any fundamental change to EU migration rules – Ukip’s main hobby horse. “The functioning of the European Union can be improved, but we cannot go back on its founding principles,” France’s secretary of state for European affairs , Harlem Désir, warned shortly after Cameron’s re-election. “One country alone cannot call into question the desire of the others to continue to advance together.”
Seen from Paris, the debates on Britain’s EU membership, and certainly a British exit following Cameron’s promised referendum, risk having a knock-on effect on French public opinion: a Brexit, if it actually happened, could hardly fail to encourage France’s sovereigntists or the far right. Marine Le Pen is already demanding that France leave the euro, or that the Schengen free circulation area be suspended.
This preoccupation is all stronger because Cameron initially promised to hold his referendum in 2017, a difficult time for the French government because of presidential and parliamentary elections that year. The prime minister’s entourage is now mulling a vote before the end of 2016. “It would be better if this uncertainty did not go on too long,” a senior French official commented, “but whatever happens that would not leave time to start a process of treaty reform.”
In the meantime, what French officials fear most is an alliance between Cameron and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who is intent on keeping Britain on board the European boat. The chancellor has often, along with her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, flirted with the idea of European treaty reform to consolidate monetary union – something the British rarely fail to mention when they demand (despite having refused to join the euro) such a debate, with a view to obtaining new exemptions from EU standards.
Facing what they consider contradictory pressures on two fronts, the French government plays them off against each other: the repatriation of powers from Brussels to national governments (as sought by Cameron) and increased integration – particularly budgetary integration of which the Germans dream in order to consolidate the eurozone – are, for France, “incompatible”. It would be better all round, Paris reckons, not to disturb Europe’s present fragile equilibrium by opening Pandora’s box.
A new reform of the European treaties would be highly likely to fuel an intense public debate in France, perhaps even to be rejected if it were also put to a referendum. Ten years after France’s “non” to the European constitution, on 29 May 2005, François Hollande, who was then leader of the French Socialist party, still harbours memories of the stinging defeat of the “oui” for which he had campaigned against the advice of a sizeable chunk of his party. An unpleasant experience of which he will doubtless remind Cameron in the months to come. Philippe Ricard, of Le Monde in Paris
It’s difficult to think of two countries whose paths into the EU could have been as different as those of Spain and the United Kingdom.
In Spain’s case, our adherence to what was then the European Community was the culmination of a yearning by successive generations cut off from the possibility of joining the broader current of peace, democracy and progress that was flowing north of the Pyrenean border.
Hence the intense, proud and enthusiastic process of Europeanisation on which Spanish society, its politicians, businesses, intellectuals and unions embarked, first in 1978 with the adoption of the constitution, and then from 1986 with the formalisation of European accession.
In the UK, on the other hand, finally joining the EU was not a historic achievement around which to build a story of national pride but a double defeat: firstly, that of an empire saying goodbye to its territories overseas, and secondly, a failure to organise European affairs around a rival model launched by the Treaty of Rome in association with the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
All of which explains how, from countries such as Spain, it’s not easy to understand why the desire to be members of the EU – something which to us is so simple and intuitive, even despite the recent crisis and the implementation of tough austerity policies and agreements – can cause so many complications for the British.
This incomprehension does not necessarily mean that Spain would represent an obstacle for David Cameron as he negotiates a better agreement with the EU. Unlike in other European capitals, where one can perceive a degree of animosity and frustration with Cameron’s tricks and tactics, Spain has no special interest in making things hard for the British prime minister.
That’s not to say, however, that he will have it easy. In Madrid, as in other capitals, there will be a certain flexibility to negotiate the exceptions that may eventually accommodate the UK. The British are specialists at this and the rest are already used to it, so technically there is no reason why it should be difficult to come to an agreement.
Spain, however, is not simply going to accept Britain’s desire to force all of its partners to negotiate a treaty which requires parliamentary ratification or referendums across the member states. That would open a public opinion can of worms which, over the past decade, has taken so much to close.
Spain also has no sympathy with the idea of distorting the fundamental principles, such as free movement of people, until they become unrecognisable, purely so as to give ammunition to Cameron again the xenophobic Ukip.
So in the coming months, Cameron will try to convince his European partners that the British are willing to leave if their demands are not met. Meanwhile, they will try to convince him that they can’t give him what he’s asking for.
The question is, who will British voters believe in when the moment of truth arrives? Cameron, who will say that he has won a historic agreement, or the European leaders, who will say that they haven’t given him anything important? José Ignacio-Torreblanca, for El País in Madrid
Have the British gone mad? That was the Polish reaction to the news that David Cameron intended to call a referendum on his country’s future membership of the European Union.
To Polish ears, the notion sounded like blasphemy. Poles are the biggest enthusiasts in Europe. And among the new members, they are the champions at spending money from structural funds.
We spend every cent the EU gives. And thanks to that, in the course of 10 years of membership, our country has changed out of all recognition. We have motorways, fast trains, airports, schools, libraries and swimming pools.
(Still, at the beginning of the 21st century, a leading European economic magazine doggedly insisted on illustrating a piece about Poland with a peasant riding on a cart. Today, carts are to be seen in museums.)
Polish farmers, who before accession were tearing their shirts and warning that the evil Germans and French would buy up Polish land for nothing, are emerging as the biggest beneficiaries of the EU. Of course, they still complain about their fate, but at home they have plasma televisions, and they drive out on their fields on tractors worth tens of thousands of euros.
How, then, can you quibble with such a union? It would be biting the hand that feeds you so generously. Brexit fans in the British Isles will find few allies on the Polish political scene.
In the Polish debate, the issue of the Brussels diktat or loss of sovereignty has surfaced only very rarely of late. Britain’s dilemma over whether to stay in the EU is not a subject that newspapers write about every day in Poland. But we fear some evil spirit might take hold of the British, and that in the referendum they will say “bye” to the EU.
Our history is full of bad decisions that led to dramatic changes. With that in mind, Polish experts say that the impact of Brexit would be felt equally in Britain and in the EU. And as goes the EU, so go we.
It is not just an economic question. Without Britain, European unity will be weaker. And beyond our eastern border, Vladimir Putin is calculating his next move after the Crimean Anschluss and setting fire to eastern Ukraine. A European Union weakened by Brexit might encourage him to light another blaze in our neighbourhood.
If London says no on behalf of Britain, then almost certainly pro–EU Scotland would declare independence. We Poles look on border changes in Europe with unease: Poland’s border has been shifted too often without asking Poles for their opinion, but at our cost.
The very word Brexit is negative for us: something we have no means to resist. Even the European council president, Donald Tusk, can do little about it.
The British discussion has, however, a Polish dimension. One of the main slogans used by Cameron and the British anti-EU critics is the fight against immigration and social benefit scams by foreigners.
Poles are now the third biggest immigrant group in Britain after the Irish and Indians. Some estimates talk of a half million, or even 800,000, Polish immigrants who settled in the British Isles after Poland’s entry into the EU.
They made use of the right of the free movement of people. In most cases they worked hard, strengthening the British economy. Anti-EU politicians have turned them into cheats and thieves.
Recently Prince Jan Żyliński, the richest Pole in Britain, decided not to stand for Ukip’s witch-hunt. He publicly challenged Nigel Farage, who aimed his sharpest barbs at Poles, to a duel by sword in Hyde Park.
But Farage chickened out. He didn’t even want a duel of words. He was ignominiously defeated in the May elections for the House of Commons. Now Żyliński should challenge Cameron to combat.
Maybe that would change something. Bartosz T Wieliński, of Gazeta Wyborcza in Warsaw
- EU 27 leaders expected to grant Brexit delay if May's deal passes
- Third defeat for May will lead to no deal Brexit, warns Macron
- Michael Gove: EU is refusing to negotiate new Brexit deal
- Backstop trouble: First cracks in the EU's solidarity with Ireland on Brexit
- European Union Referendum: BREXIT – A View From Asia Pacific
- UK Cabinet to Meet After Britain, EU Reach Draft Brexit Deal
- May writes to EU leaders and begs for 'short' Brexit extension
- Collateralized Loan Obligations: What Does Brexit Mean for European CLO Market?
- EU to warn of no deal Brexit risk as Dominic Raab meets Michel Barnier for the first time as UK's chief negotiator
- Britain's Johnson seeks to salvage his Brexit plan
- Sir Andrew Cook: A path to Britain becoming a leading power in Europe again after Brexit if we stop the defeatism
- EU official expresses bewilderment at Westminster Brexit process
- EU moving to "make best" of Brexit deal
- EU Antitrust Continuity Potentially Threatened by Brexit
- Merkel wants close Britain-EU partnership after Brexit
- Britain has until mid-March to seal Brexit deal
- EU agrees to extend deadline for Brexit negotiations
- Law keeping UK in EU will continue to apply after Brexit
- Brits fear Theresa May's Brexit will make them worse off, damning poll reveals
- Exclusive: Former British Afghan Commander Warns on ‘Terrible, Highly Political’ EU Defence Fund
What Britain in the EU means to us: five leading European writers on the threat of Brexit have 3553 words, post on www.theguardian.com at May 26, 2015. This is cached page on Asean News. If you want remove this page, please contact us.