18 March 2016

The EU continues to muddle through amidst Brexit panic


From the descriptions of British columnists, in Brussels one might expect to find legions of grey suited Commission officials, intricately plotting paperwork assaults on the fledgling British Spring, to bring the country back behind the bureaucratic curtain.

Despite this hype, for the most part, the mood in Brussels remains remarkably calm. Things are going on much as usual. The general attitude seems to be interested disengagement. Brexit is an issue on people’s lips, but not one landing work on most people’s desks as of yet.

That said no one is sure how a Brexit would play out in practice. While pundits make claims of “Canada” or “Norway” models for future relations, in reality, little practical thought has been put to this issue within the Commission itself.

That isn’t to say there are no angry voices. One left-wing Italian Member of European Parliament vocally criticised British brinkmanship.

“It is a scandal that a single European government was able to blackmail all others and impose on them negative solutions and policies using the referendum as a threat.

This is a very dangerous precedent, already taken up by Hungary which will run a referendum on migrant quotas.

And this is all to help a Conservative government overcome its internal contradictions.”

The attitudes of British MEP’s have also been the subject of criticism. One former Commission staffer recalled a recent parliamentary working group meeting, attended by Foreign Affairs High Commissioner Federica Mogherini, being hijacked by British members. They barracked the Commissioner with questions on Brexit, rather than discussing the Libyan and Syrian crises which the meeting was intended to discuss.

British MEPs are also simply spending less time at the European Parliament itself. As one British assistant to a Green MEP put it:

“British MEP’s are often not in Brussels, but engaging in shuttle diplomacy back home to campaign for an in vote.”

While senior EU figures have tended not to vent such frustration in public, behind the scenes there are clear concerns. Rumours permeate the Commission that figures such as Herman Van Rompuy, former President of the European Council and Viviane Reding former Commissioner for Justice, are convinced that Britain will leave.

Benjamin Bodson, a research assistant at Université Catholique de Louvain, recalls Van Rompuy, visiting professor at the same institution, being slightly less absolutist in conversation.

“I asked him, well, do you think that the deal of 18th – 19th February marks a really big turning point in European History.

He said, well, no. He said we shouldn’t worry; the British have always been a bit apart, and with their own thinking.”

However, other EU staffers were less diplomatic. One staffer at the European Defence Agency explained the concerns of some of her colleagues:

“There is some anger towards the British leadership. The idea that two men, David Cameron and Boris Johnson, would put the stability of Europe at risk for personal political gain back home has not gone down well.”

She made clear that some of her colleagues would bear such frustration into the future, and that this institutional bad feeling could impact the sort of deal Britain could get if there was indeed a vote for Brexit.

“EU bureaucrats feel that a Brexit would be making a lot of extra work for them with very little gain for either side.”

Her colleagues also questioned the security logic of Brexit. She recalls her boss at the agency’s view that for Britain to leave “would just please Russia”.

Even for those parts of the EU that are more engaged directly with membership issues, according to one staffer, Brexit “is seen as a possibility, but along the same lines as Le Pen coming to power in France in 2017. Unlikely but possible.”

Both sides are simply not preparing for Brexit.  As one researcher at a Brussels non-governmental organisation and former Commission intern put it:

“We had an event at the UK Permanent Representation, last year, when we started our jobs. I met the third in the command at the Representation. He said, basically, the government is not working on a plan B. They are working on the assumption that we are staying in.

The higher levers of the EU are purposely not planning on any contingency a plan B as they felt this would play into the Brexit campaign. Because everyone wants Britain to stay, there is no official talk about a plan B.”

Perhaps the group facing the biggest problems are those Brits who make up four per cent of staff in the Commission, and who have no way to plan their next steps before June. As another former Commission trainee described, this lack of clarity reached up to the highest levels.

“When the new intake of trainees was met by British Commissioner, Baron Hill of Oareford, he was asked by one newcomer, what would happen to us if we are taking EPSO exams (required to progress to higher echelons of the Commission).

He responded to say ‘I’d really like to encourage you to be a part of the institutions, it’s really important we get a British voice in the Commission’.

When someone then said to him, well, what happens if we leave?

His response was, ‘err, I don’t know’. It was embarrassing.”

For many Brits in EU institutions, their careers have had to take a three month break. The same former trainee noted:

“People in the Commission were encouraging me to take the EU Commission exam. I really don’t want to spend a year preparing for an exam not knowing whether we would still be members.”

It was not a fear of being fired that concerned her, but the chance of proper advancement. As “orphan” members of staff without member nation support, there would be little chance of high office.

“National politicking does determine who gets the bigger positions.”

That said the Brexit campaign at home does not seem to have affected Britain’s role within the Commission. All those contacted said that behind the scenes, the UK continues to act as a full member, and throws its weight around as if nothing was going on at home. One staffer formerly with the neighbourhood policy team gives the example of the recent deal with Turkey over migrants.

“Britain was fully behind and rallying smaller countries with the Turkey deal. On enlargement, trade and other issues, every time a decision comes to the council the UK is a totally functional player. We are not blocking things. We get stuck in.”

They were keen to point out the idea that we are somehow and aloof and apart from this, propagated by the Cameron government to sooth the Conservative backbenches, is completely false.

Both the British Government and the institutions of the EU seem to see the chance of Brexit as an academic possibility than a serious practical concern. While the polls support this view for now, trouble could be brewing on June 24th if they turn out to be incorrect once again.

It is clear from conversations with staff members that the EU believes it will continue to muddle through as it always has done more generally. Brexit is seen in the same way as other critical issues from the migration crisis to the rise of the European far right. It is just one more hurdle ahead that will somehow be overcome.

And Brexit or not, there does not yet seem to be an existential fear that the loss of a core member could spell the end of the union.

George Greenwood is a freelance political journalist, published in the New Statesman, The Independent and The International Business Times.