It was a strange experience, as a Remainer, to participate in a debate with a pro-European icon and take an opposing position on Brexit. But there I was, in April 2016, two months before the referendum, at a public event at Sciences Po in Paris. Across from me on the platform was Michel Rocard, a liberal socialist who had served as France’s prime minister under François Mitterrand. I argued that Britain leaving the EU would be not just self-harm, but harmful for the bloc, too, depriving it of a member that had played a constructive role in the past and gave it greater geopolitical heft in the present. Rocard countered that, much as he loved Britain as a country, it had long frustrated progress on integration, and the EU would be better off without it.
It is hard to overstate how unusual Rocard’s outspoken position was within the European political mainstream at the time. “Please Don’t Go”, ran the cover of Germany’s Der Spiegel in the week before the referendum. The vote for Brexit was met with dismay on most of the European mainland. In subsequent years, commentary on this side of the Channel has often been couched in terms of mourning. Theresa May’s triggering of Article 50 in March 2017 elicited a “We miss you already!” from both Donald Tusk, the then European Council president, and France’s Libération newspaper (the latter more tongue in cheek than the former). Members of the European Parliament marked their last session before Brexit day in January this year by singing “Auld Lang Syne”. Some had tears in their eyes.
That was little over seven months ago, but the picture is now different. Psychologically, the EU has moved on. Brexit has happened. The choruses of “Will the UK really leave?” that opened many of my meetings in continental capitals from June 2016 to January 2020 have gone quiet. So, too, mercifully, have the paeans to Monty Python, cricket and warm beer from Anglophile politicians and commentators. The stages of grief are behind us; acceptance has been reached. Meanwhile, Europe has been preoccupied with grief in a more literal sense: Covid-19 has displaced other issues and made Brexit look very small. At Angela Merkel’s summer press conference on 28 August, she was asked 47 questions, 12 of them on the pandemic and not one on Britain’s departure.
On 7 September, the Financial Times reported the British government was conniving to break the withdrawal agreement. Such a rupture with diplomatic norms damages the chance of a trade deal being reached, and would have electrified continental media and markets in recent years. But now it barely raised eyebrows. The newspapers that covered it did so with weary resignation: here in Germany, the conservative Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung suggested Boris Johnson was trying to cosplay 19th-century gunboat diplomacy, and the leftist Taz declared London had pre-emptively lost the blame game over any no deal. The DAX stock market index in Frankfurt, the CAC 40 in Paris and the MIB in Milan all registered moderate falls, but these had more to do with concerns about overpriced technology stocks than the theatrics from London. Big European firms worry about a no-deal exit when the UK’s transition period ends on 31 December – but most have contingency plans and are far more concerned about the pandemic’s economic fallout.
All of which reveals much about evolving continental attitudes to Britain now that Brexit is a reality. But it also tells us something about the EU’s self-image. Those sad farewells to Britain in 2016, in 2017 and finally in January were laced with insecurity. Would Brexit trigger a domino series of exits? How to plug the gap left by British contributions? Was this a stepping stone on the road to EU fragmentation and marginalisation?
The domino effect never came. Support for the EU rose and with it so did turnout in the European Parliament elections in 2019. In July this year the EU agreed an economic recovery fund that not only settled the question of post-British budget contributions but also defied the doomsayers and broke its own taboo on common debt (a feat that would have been much harder with the obstreperous Brits still in the room).
Even on the subject of foreign policy, where the EU is weakest and the Europe-wide case against Brexit was strongest, there are signs of new confidence. Yes, the EU is still hopelessly divided on some matters, most notably the ongoing stand-off between Greece and Turkey. But recent weeks have brought promising signs of convergence and joint resolve on relations with major powers that challenge its common interests. Here in Berlin, the consensus in favour of Nord Stream 2, a gas pipeline being built from Germany to Russia that boosts the Kremlin and symbolises EU foreign policy discord, is now edging towards the scepticism of Germany’s eastern neighbours, following the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
The chilly reception that greeted Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi on his recent tour of European capitals was the latest in a series of signs the EU is moving towards a more robust and united stance on Beijing. All of which merges happily with British foreign policy and points to opportunities for EU-UK foreign policy cooperation. But all of which also betokens a tentative new self-confidence in the EU27 about what it can achieve post-Brexit.
That debate in Paris in April 2016 was one of Rocard’s last public appearances. He lived just long enough to see the British referendum result he believed was in Europe’s best interests, and died nine days after the vote. I continue to believe that result was bad for Britain. But when it comes to the rest of the EU, it is hard not to wonder whether the old socialist might have been right after all.