Brussels and Brexit

It’s a strange feeling to be incidentally on the doorsteps of history today. We’re on this diplomatic tour of the European Union and happen to be in town as British Prime Minister Theresa May sent the letter to European Council President Donald Tusk invoking the Article 50 separation. The EU officially received notice today that Britain will exit the union (or Brexit).

In the Press Club over lunch watching Prime Minister Theresa May address the British Parliament

What a day to be here! There were reporters all around Brussels today for this announcement. There was no room for us to join the press conference due to the amount of credentialed press for this historic event. Instead, we stood in the Press Club during lunch to watch May give her speech to parliament, then Tusk hold a press conference addressing what essentially amounts to receiving divorce papers from the U.K.

 

I thought on this historic day I would run through some of the things I have noticed and learned by being here in Brussels.

The remaining 27 countries are at least putting on a brave face that they will stick together. I haven’t personally heard any spite toward the Brits for this vote. (That, of course, doesn’t mean it isn’t out there. I just haven’t heard any so far.) But I have heard an almost wistful sadness. I think some are still stunned. During his press conference following receipt of the letter from the U.K., Tusk stated, “There’s no reason to pretend this is a happy day.”

And nobody really was happy. “Please don’t mention it,” one Brit sighed.

I contacted my expat friend (and former Midwesterner), Liz Wakeman, who currently lives south of London, what the day was like for those in the U.K. “It was just about the one and only topic of discussion on every broadcast station,” she said. “I heard the highlights from Mrs. May’s speech replayed over and over and I think that was what really made it feel more real to me. That Britain is truly positioning itself to leave the EU is a scary unknown. While this country still seems divided on staying or remaining, there has been a strong sense that many more wish to stay and I think that is really adding to the uneasiness of it all.”

They’re watching the French and German Elections. I heard a lot of conflicting ideas of what people thought might happen in these elections, yet every person I spoke with caveated their opinion with, ” I didn’t think Brexit or Trump would happen either.”

The defeat in the Netherlands of populist candidate Geert Wilders seems to have people hesitantly encouraged. Wilders lost, but right-wing parties did gain more seats in parliament. That was concerning to the MP from the Netherlands we spoke with during our tour. I plan on doing a longer piece on her later, but one thing she said resonated with me and I want to mention it here. We were speaking about why people are drawn to these populist candidates. “How come they don’t think we care?” she asked. “Are we listening to them?”

She’s a centrist in her home country and suggested that politicians have to rebuild trust by strengthening core values. She also said the economic concerns need to be acknowledged.

“Work is about more than earning money. It’s about dignity,” she said.

The Brits who live here are sad too. There are quite a few Brits working here, including many who are working for the EU. Some of them are “on loan” from the U.K. and simply will return to their home government. However, questions loom about what this means for the other Brits who are working for other companies. The freedom to work in any of the EU countries was part of the attractiveness of belonging to the EU.

Reporters waiting for liveshots outside the European Commission

The EU is highly bureaucratic so this is likely to take years to develop.  Politico EU is hiring a full-time Brexit reporter so that should tell you everything you need to know. The EU is based on the idea that Europe acts with one voice making it more powerful. So, to that end, the EU is structured so the countries must unanimously agree on a measure before it can be passed. This is both the strength and the weakness of the EU. It’s why those who oppose it can easily point to how long it takes to get things done as reason to leave. “As for now, nothing has changed,” Tusk said in his press conference. Of note, though, Article 50 does say the exit should be concluded in two years

The goal: Minimize damage. Tusk said this in his press conference and from what I understand, meetings have already begun here in Brussels between the 27 remaining countries on exactly how to deal with Britain. Tusk said the focus will be to protect the interests of the remaining countries. “This is about damage control,” Tusk said about minimizing damage from Britain’s exit.

Getting back together would be HARD. Politico has a great interactive piece where the author of the Article 50 clause has annotated it. Of note, if Britain were later to realize it had made a huge mistake and wanted to rejoin they would have to get in the back of the line of applicant countries. Albania, Montenegro, Serbia, The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, and Turkey are all current candidate countries wanting to join the EU. In addition, Britain wouldn’t get the deal it now has of being able to retain its currency. All countries that now join the EU have to adopt the euro as currency.

That’s what I’ve learned on this adventure so far. I hope sharing this has been helpful to you as well. If there’s anything you think I should be asking or you’d like to know about the EU, don’t hesitate to comment here or send me a message!

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