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US News The European Union Is Going to Miss the U.K. When It’s Gone

12:26  16 january  2020
12:26  16 january  2020 Source:   msn.com

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The European Union ’ s leaders looked anxiously at their watches and asked where the British prime minister was. It was December 2007, and Gordon Brown was the PM. “We need Gordon,” then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy was heard to say in English at one point, but when the leaders

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We're out: Boris Johnson. © Reuters We're out: Boris Johnson.

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- The European Union’s leaders looked anxiously at their watches and asked where the British prime minister was. They’d gathered in a 500-year-old monastery in Lisbon for a special ceremony to sign a landmark treaty, and it wasn’t really the done thing for one of their number not to turn up. It was December 2007, and Gordon Brown was the PM. “We need Gordon,” then-French President Nicolas Sarkozy was heard to say in English at one point, but when the leaders picked up their pens, Gordon was still in London.

If ever you wanted an example of Britain’s not-quite-sure-about-all-this attitude to the EU, that was it. Brown’s no-show wasn’t because he opposed the treaty. In fact, his plan was to get it ratified by Parliament as soon as he could. He just didn’t want TV pictures of him celebrating with European counterparts as they made the bloc more powerful. So he arrived three and a half hours late and awkwardly signed the document in a small room, while on the other side of the door the other 26 EU leaders were already shuffling out of lunch.

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The episode shines a light on the U.K.’s uneasy relationship with the union of countries it joined in 1973. With one foot inside and one foot out, it was never sure which way to turn—and the bloc never seemed to know how to make it more comfortable. Finally, given a chance to have a say in a referendum in 2016, 52% of U.K. voters opted to leave. That triggered three years of complicated, bad-tempered, and at times chaotic negotiations with the EU over the terms of the country’s withdrawal and contortions in Parliament that split parties, ended political careers, and led to two general elections. Finally it will all be over: The U.K. departs on Jan. 31.

Former PM Gordon Brown signs the Treaty of Lisbon in 2008. © Getty Former PM Gordon Brown signs the Treaty of Lisbon in 2008.

In the EU’s corridors of power, people ask where it all went wrong: How did we lose Britain? In Brussels, the home of most EU bodies, some officials think Britain shouldn’t have joined in the first place. (It was let in 15 years after the six founding nations came together, having twice been rebuffed by French President Charles de Gaulle.) Britain saw itself as too culturally apart, it had stronger links to the U.S., and its political and legal systems were too different, many thought then and some think still. When then-Prime Minister Theresa May said in a speech in Florence in 2017 that “perhaps because of our history and geography, the European Union never felt to us like an integral part of our national story in the way it does to so many elsewhere in Europe,” there was more than a flicker of recognition across the Continent.

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The UK joined in 1973 ( when it was known as the European Economic Community). If the UK leaves, it would be the first member state to withdraw from the EU . Why is the UK leaving? A public vote - or referendum - was held on Thursday 23 June 2016, to decide whether the UK should leave or remain.

“ It ’ s not going to happen anymore.” Against this forbidding backdrop, some European leaders are urging their counterparts to recognize that Mr. Trump may represent a truly dire challenge, one “Not only that , but he’s against it and sees the destruction of the European Union as in America’s interest.”

Gallery: The last time Britain was split over the EU (Mirrorpix)

Boris Johnson, Harold Wilson are posing for a picture: Sick of Brexit? In despair about the state of our country? Who isn't? But it's not the first time Britain has been divided about our place in Europe. Let's step back in time to when we first joined the EEC...

Yet the overriding feeling among the EU’s political elite remains one of regret. British people were almost never so told, but the U.K. played an important and influential role as a member. While its politicians badmouthed Brussels and its population became increasingly euroskeptic (a word invented for the purpose), its diplomats played a constructive role. Indeed, Welshman Roy Jenkins, who rose to become European Commission president in 1977, and Arthur Cockfield, the U.K.’s commissioner from 1985, were architects of the monetary union and the single market, respectively. Throughout its membership, Britain served as a counterweight to the competing powers of France and Germany; the U.K.’s rebellious streak gave equally critical countries a troublemaker to hide behind; and its free-trade instincts ensured the bloc wasn’t taken over by the protectionist-minded southern members. Britain shaped European policy and supported new legislation far more regularly than it opposed it.

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What is the European Union and how did the U . K . become a member. The difficulty was that some European countries, France in particular, did not want Britain to join. Polls this weekend were too close to indicate the vote would definitely go one way or the other, but did give a slight edge to the

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Several European officials interviewed for this article speculate that Britain started slipping away—gradually and subtly, yet decisively—about 16 years ago. Paradoxically, this was also a time when the U.K.’s influence in Europe was as strong as at any point in history. In Tony Blair, it had a prime minister desperate for his country to be at Europe’s heart. On May 1, 2004, the EU saw its biggest transformation since its creation when 10 new countries, mainly from the ex-Soviet East, swelled the ranks, something the U.K. had spent years pushing hard for. The impact in Brussels was felt literally overnight. Gone was the cozy club run by the French and Germans, as the EU welcomed nations that were excited by capitalism and that valued their new, unfettered access to a huge trading bloc above any ideas of political or social union. Not only did the U.K. share this priority, the new countries’ diplomats and politicians largely did business in English rather than French.

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It has not gone well. Many lawmakers were outraged over Mr. Johnson’ s insistence that if need be, he would pull Britain from the European Union even without a formal agreement, a When Britons went to the polls on Dec. 12 for parliamentary elections, Brexit was still overshadowing every other issue.

It goes without saying that if France leaves the EU after the UK leaves the EU , the EU project is pretty much finished especially if a Fillon type figure is elected which would basically guarantee a UK -FR union which would suddenly provide a much more attractive option for the other rich

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But amid the giddy celebrations, there was a time bomb. If the EU machine was turning more British, the British people were about to feel less European. Opening up the EU to new countries meant giving whole new populations the right to live and work anywhere in the bloc. From 2003 to 2016, the year of the Brexit referendum, the number of non-British EU citizens living in the U.K. rocketed from 1.5 million to 3.5 million, according to the Office for National Statistics. They came to work on Britain’s farms, set up as manual laborers, and worked in pubs. London was used to immigration, but the sudden transformation of traditional communities proved more unsettling for the local population than politicians expected. Anti-EU campaigners soon seized on the issue, warning of pressures from foreigners on hospitals and schools. When the opportunity finally arose, the people in these areas voted decisively to leave the EU.

Theresa May said Britain never felt European possibly because of 'history and geography. © Reuters Theresa May said Britain never felt European possibly because of 'history and geography. Wind the clock forward seven years from the EU’s eastern expansion, and you come to an episode many European officials consider the pivotal moment in the U.K. relationship. On Dec. 9, 2011, the future of the euro hung in the balance as Europe dealt with its worst economic crisis, a result of the global financial downturn. At a late-night Brussels summit, the EU hoped to draw up an emergency treaty to safeguard the currency. But Prime Minister David Cameron, badly misjudging the moment, demanded it include concessions to protect the U.K. financial-services industry. He didn’t get them, so at 2:30 a.m., he vetoed the whole thing.

While Cameron might have succeeded in looking strong at home, the EU called his bluff: The other countries drew up an intergovernmental treaty that amounted to the original plan. German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders were furious, and relations remain soured to this day. One European official said the ill feeling weakened Cameron’s hand when he came to renegotiate Britain’s membership.

David Cameron leaves the European Commission's headquarters in Brussels as he pushes for EU reform in 2016. © Getty David Cameron leaves the European Commission's headquarters in Brussels as he pushes for EU reform in 2016. At the time of Cameron’s veto, the U.K. was a force to be reckoned with in EU circles. Catherine Ashton, a member of Blair’s Labour Party, was the second most senior member of the European Commission and the bloc’s first foreign policy chief. Jonathan Faull, the EU’s top British civil servant, was head of the commission’s financial-services directorate as it drew up legislation to save the continent’s banking industry. Sharon Bowles, another British politician, led the European Parliament’s influential economics committee. In London, Nick Clegg, a multilingual EU fanatic who’d studied at Belgium’s College of Europe (training camp for many of the bloc’s top brass), had become deputy prime minister.

But that was the high-water mark. As Cameron set about to extract concessions from the EU before the referendum, the relationship declined rapidly. When Boris Johnson became prime minister in 2019, he stopped British diplomats from attending all but the most important EU meetings, saying they needed to be “unshackled” to spend time on other things. Officials from other countries are incredulous: Instead of attending gatherings they’re entitled to, the U.K.’s civil servants wait outside in corridors or phone their bloc counterparts afterward, begging for news.

Theresa May at a European Union leaders' summit in Brussels. © Reuters Theresa May at a European Union leaders' summit in Brussels. A common thread through all these moments is the role of the British media. Prime ministers were desperate for a good write-up; they loved being portrayed as standing alone but strong, like St. Paul’s Cathedral during the Blitz, even at the expense of good European diplomacy. European officials think the tabloid press did more to push the U.K. out of the EU than anything else. Since the 1980s, newspapers fed the public a diet of French plots of a United States of Europe or German attempts to take over the continent. When Prime Minister Johnson was the Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph in the 1990s, he created a model of reporting that owed more to making readers laugh or scoff or fear the European bogeyman than it did to facts. One of his successors described his own job as “essentially entertainment.” The day after the 2016 referendum, another journalist from a euroskeptic publication, who was making his name writing Brussels-bashing reports himself, said he’d suddenly realized he was being used as “cannon fodder” for his newspaper proprietor’s desire to engender Brexit. Government spin doctors often played the game, too. The EU wasn’t adept at countering the torrent of bad press or at taking on the politicians’ anti-Brussels narrative.

David Cameron and former European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. © Getty David Cameron and former European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker. Officials in Brussels still speak highly of Britain’s diplomatic service, which for decades brokered deals, cajoled rivals to cooperate, and spoke truth to power. Even as the EU scored a famous early PR victory when, on the first day of the Brexit negotiations, its representatives were photographed with fat wedges of paperwork opposite their empty-handed British counterparts, the Europeans secretly confided that they expected U.K. diplomats to have plenty of tricks up their sleeves. These never materialized. Britain’s civil servants seemed hamstrung by their political masters, EU officials involved in the negotiations said. May’s government was in such disarray that the EU often found itself taking the lead and drawing up plans for the U.K.’s withdrawal. “It’s as if they’ve outsourced Brexit to us,” Sabine Weyand, the bloc’s formidable top negotiator, said privately, according to people familiar with the talks.

Could the EU have done more to keep Britain in the club? In a 2011 speech at Bloomberg’s London headquarters, Cameron called for wide-ranging reform of the EU to allow some countries to have a far looser relationship than others. Despite having some support in the bloc—with French President Emmanuel Macron recently expressing similar views—there’s no sign of any shift in that direction. Ivan Rogers, who resigned as Britain’s ambassador to the EU in 2017 after falling out with May’s top advisers, acknowledged in private as far back as 2013 that Britain’s departure was likely. He’s mostly critical of Britain’s politicians, but he said in his book 9 Lessons in Brexit that the EU bears responsibility too, claiming that it’s still blighted by “complacency, fatigue, and strategic myopia” when it comes to the U.K.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson greeted by other European leaders. © AP Prime Minister Boris Johnson greeted by other European leaders. There’s no one reason why the EU lost Britain. Alongside the examples mentioned here, Margaret Thatcher’s belligerence in the 1980s, Brown persuading Blair to reject joining the euro in the 1990s, Cameron’s decision to pull his Conservative Party from the Merkel-aligned biggest group in the European Parliament a decade later, and his and May’s exaggerated idea of Merkel’s willingness to compromise before and after the Brexit referendum may have all played their part in people feeling less European and politicians having less influence. Nothing was a foregone conclusion, and even as recently as in the runup to last month’s general election some EU officials—and, secretly, some British ones too—still held out hope that a less-than-convincing win for Johnson would lead to a second referendum and a reversal of the original vote.

Practically 12 years to the day of Brown’s solo treaty signing, a U.K. prime minister was again absent from an EU summit. This time, on Dec. 12, 2019, Johnson had a better excuse: It was election night. As the bloc’s other leaders debated into the night, a small group of senior British diplomats, as well as a few friendly officials from other countries, gathered in a house near Place Brugmann, a swanky Brussels neighborhood 2 miles from where the leaders were sitting. Fortified with mulled wine and mince pies, they crowded around a laptop TV stream of the BBC’s election night coverage.

At 11 p.m., when the exit poll predicted a large majority for Johnson, a silence descended. That was it. They knew it was game over. And in that moment, Britain was finally gone.

To contact the author of this story: Ian Wishart in Brussels at iwishart@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Howard Chua-Eoan at hchuaeoan@bloomberg.net

For more articles like this, please visit us at bloomberg.com

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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