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18 March 2015updated 08 Jun 2021 11:12am

For continental Europeans, Britain’s election was the day Brexit became a reality

By Jeremy Cliffe

For many in continental Europe, British politics since the Brexit referendum has been a contest between two visions of the country. On the one hand is the Britain many thought they knew: eccentric, yes, but also a hard-nosed, pragmatic, “muddling through” sort of place. On the other was the Britain with which they seemed now to be confronted: impetuous, unstable and capable of rupture.

Events – even ones with little bearing on Brexit – have typically been seen in the context of this contest between the two pictures of the country. This bias tended towards the optimistic belief that Britain had not in fact changed, and that it would eventually muddle its way back to normality. The standard reaction in Berlin to the news that Theresa May had lost her majority in 2017 was: “This means Brexit is off, right?”

The result of yesterday’s election finally settles this contest in the minds of continental European observers. It shows that Brexit is not an anomaly, and that the country will not wend its way back; that Britain really has, in European terms at least, changed fundamentally. As I write this the German news channel in the background has a strap across the screen reading “Goodbye Grossbritannien.” Brexit is on, in other words.

This is not to say that continental European observers think Britain’s choice is wise. Writing in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Stefan Kornelius, Angela Merkel’s biographer, writes: “The Brits did not really have a choice. No-one showed them the path that would have led them out of the deep undergrowth of Brexit. No-one separated truth from lie. No-one offered an alternative to populism, whether the right- or the left-wing sort.” He describes the Tory manifesto as a “fantasy”.

Many on the continent conflate Boris Johnson with Trump (the equation of Brexit, seen as the prime minister’s creation, and the American president is so systematic that “Trumpandbrexit” is used almost as one word). This is wrong: one does not need to admire Johnson to acknowledge that his character and that of his political wins are different from those of Trump.

But the prevailing impression will not have been discouraged by the American president’s enthusiastic congratulatory tweet this morning (“Celebrate Boris!”) or the message of congratulations from Germany’s hard-right AfD, whose co-leader Alice Weidel hailed Johnson’s win and wished him “success in leaving the EU”. Mainstream observers on the continent regret this deeply: “I will always love the UK and its people, with or without Brexit”, opined the Finnish centre-right former prime minister Alex Stubb wistfully last night. “Lies can apparently win big majorities. A dark day,” tweeted Terry Reintke, a German Green member of the European Parliament.

Yet there is also relief. The question of Britain’s membership of the EU has hung over the union for years now, from David Cameron’s first renegotiation attempts, through the referendum and its aftermath, to Theresa May’s Article 50 negotiations and the three successive extensions. It has cluttered up summits, filled officials’ in-trays and caused uncertainty for businesses.

Johnson’s big majority generates that rare thing in the Brexit saga: certainty. It means that, barring a massive upset, Britain will leave the EU by the end of January. This relief is particularly strongly felt in France, where Emmanuel Macron has long bridled at the energy consumed by Brexit at a time when he wants to focus on bigger questions about the EU’s future. “One thing is clear: Britain wants to abandon the uncertainty, move on and reject J Corbyn” tweeted Nathalie Loiseau, the president’s top ally in the European Parliament this morning.

Even in more traditionally Anglophile countries like Germany and the Netherlands, where officials once asked earnestly about the prospects of a second referendum, the sense is that the Brexit drama has now dragged on too long. Norbert Röttgen, who leads the foreign-affairs committee on the German Bundestag, said: “I wanted the UK to Remain in the EU. But the British people have decided and we have to accept their choice: with Johnson’s victory Brexit has become inevitable.”

Of course, having left the EU Britain will then have to negotiate its new relationship, which will present its own landscape of deadlines and cliff-edges. The Prime Minister has to decide by the end of June whether to extend a transition period that would otherwise run out in December 2020. In Brussels, officials fret that Johnson has not owned up to his compatriots about the trade-off between regulatory divergence and market access, and that talks will require far more time than a year. But politicians and commentators in various capitals hope that the Prime Minister’s large majority means he will be able to marginalise the Tory hardliners and pursue a softer Brexit.

Sadness, then, greets the British election result on the continent. But also resignation. Once the hopeful chorus in European capitals was, “This means Brexit is off, right?” Now, with that hope conclusively extinguished, the mood on the continent is summed up by a refrain the Prime Minister might recognise: “Get Brexit done.”

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