David Goodhart

Continental divides

Europe’s biggest Brexit fear? That we’ll flourish outside the EU

What do Europeans really think about Brexit? Do they secretly admire our unexpected decision to walk away from all those pesky regulations and sub-committees? Or are our former ‘European friends’ relieved the arrogant, entitled Brits are leaving them alone?

The official response of the European political class is one of regret combined with studied indifference and a determination not to let Brexit weaken the project.

That, broadly, seems to be the unofficial response too. The EU, after a couple of decades of declining popularity and a rising populist challenge, has actually seen a small up-tick in popularity since Brexit, according to the Eurobarometer polling organisation.

Trust in the EU stands at 42 per cent, ten points up since 2015 and the highest level since 2010. A majority of Europeans (56 per cent) are now optimistic about the future of the EU, with the biggest increases in France, Denmark and Portugal. The wagons are circling in the face of a threat.

Not even EU populist parties are talking much about Brexit or recommending their countries emulate us — at least not yet. Marine Le Pen’s Front National has pulled back from its previous commitment to leave the euro.

Anyone foolish enough to vote for Brexit in the hope that it might shake up the EU and set it on a different course has, so far, been revealed as a hopeless idealist. In neither the French nor the German national elections last year did Brexit attract much attention. ‘In France, after the initial shock, Brexit has become a non-subject… and most French people now swing between complete indifference and bewilderment,’ says Sonia Delesalle-Stolper of Libération.

Nevertheless, the regret at Brexit is genuine enough in many places. It has several layers. It is a self-interested regret for the status of the EU itself and an acknowledgement that it is a blow to the club’s prestige — and its funding — that an important net-payer country like Britain should want to leave.

It is also a political regret on the part of countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and the Nordics, which shared some of our approach but were happy to allow us to take a front-of-house role in thwarting the more extreme plans for integration.

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