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4 October 2016

Boris Johnson is testing the patience of Britain’s European allies – here’s why

Friendly centre-right MEPs want to make one thing clear. 

By Julia Rampen

The British public’s decision to vote for Brexit may have shocked most politicians on the Continent, but Theresa May’s government does have some allies left.

Centre-right MEPs in northern European countries, and some in central Europe, sympathise with the desire to control borders and keep more national autonomy.

But one Brexit sympathiser, the Belgian MEP Sander Loones, had a warning as well.

He told a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference that “a lot of relatively small countries” in the EU are also fed up with the slow pace of reform: “We’re up for deal making.” The Netherlands, Denmark, Scandinavia, Poland and Hungary could be sympathetic, he suggested.

Nevertheless, this support won’t come for free.

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During the EU referendum, Leave campaigners made much of the idea that Turkey could join the EU, even warning that Turkish citizens were more likely to be criminals and gun owners. 

But at the end of September, one such Leave campaigner, Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson, visited Turkey and promised to support the country’s bid for membership to the EU

Loones was not amused. “Building stronger relationships means respecting each other’s views,” he told Conservative party members. “One important view in the north [of Europe] is Turkey will never become a member of the EU. Never.

“This is something to keep in mind if you are building a relationship. Be aware to this sensitivity.”

The Dutch Parliament recently requested the suspension of EU aid to Turkey, while Denmark’s ruling party has demanded an end to accession talks.

European politicians who sympathise with the Brexit vote nevertheless fear that Britain’s exit will destabilise existing alliances, and tilt power further towards Germany.

They are braced for an attempt by the leaders of “hard core” of EU member states such as Germany and France to push for further integration in response to Brexit. 

Loones said: “I feel like I’m at a boring party with my best friend, and my best friend says he wants to go home, and I understand.

“But at the same time, I can’t leave, I have to stay a little longer. And you know what? The party will be a lot less fun.”

Timo Sioni, the Finnish foreign minister, joked that the EU without Britain would be “Snow White with 27 dwarves”.

He said an attempt to inflict a hard Brexit could be counter-productive: “What if we realised the British economy was growing much faster than in the EU? It could lead to a domino effect.”