With Brexit saga, Britain is fast running out of friends

Emmanuel Dunand, AFP | A British flag flutters amongst EU flags ahead of David Cameron's visit at the European Commission in Brussels on January 29, 2016.

Britain’s latest bid to unstitch EU treaties has tested the patience of its European partners and exasperated commentators long indulgent towards British “exceptionalism”.


Prime Minister David Cameron could scarcely have picked a less opportune time to hassle his EU counterparts with his reform “wish-list” – even as they struggle with a refugee crisis, a worsening terror threat, and persistent financial woes. But the British leader knows he has a much stronger hand than his Greek counterpart did last year, when Grexit – not Brexit – was the spectre haunting Europe. While many Eurozone hawks regarded Greece as expendable, nobody wants Britain to leave the EU.

Indeed EU leaders have duly obliged, offering to extend the arsenal of privileges and exemptions negotiated by Britain over the years. The plan floated by Brussels this week includes a four-year "emergency brake" on welfare payments for EU migrant workers, protection for countries that do not use the euro, and a "red card" system giving national parliaments more power to veto European regulations. Unlike previous British “opt-outs”, it will apply to all EU members.

Cameron tours Europe to drum up support

The proposal will be examined at a crunch EU summit on February 18-19, where it is hoped a final deal can be reached. Cameron wants to move quickly so that he can hold a promised referendum on Britain’s EU membership as early as June. The aim for his counterparts in Europe is to give him a deal sweet enough to sell to the British public.

French ‘red lines’

Donald Tusk, the European Council chief who penned the draft proposal, said it included a "mechanism" by which the nine countries that are not in the euro single currency – including Britain – can raise concerns about decisions taken by the Eurozone's 19 member states. But he also sought to reassure countries such as France that this would not amount to giving non-euro states a final say on euro matters.

On Wednesday, French President François Hollande reiterated his country's stance that there "can be no veto by countries outside the Eurozone" on Eurozone policies. "We have reached a point that should give Britons the reassurances needed while respecting European principles," Hollande said, warning the UK against asking for more concessions ahead of the Brussels summit in two weeks.

Britain's Eurosceptic tabloids would love to blame French “red lines” for scuppering chances of a deal. There are enough precedents to refer to. Charles de Gaulle famously blocked British membership of the European Economic Community in the 1960s. But Hollande is a very different president. Compromise and conciliation is his creed.

Politico’s Pierre Briançon described France’s stance in the Brexit talks as a delicate balancing act. The result is a mix of “concessions” and fictitious “red lines” designed to portray the UK as a winner – without making France look like a loser. In the process, Europe will graciously let Cameron present himself as the promoter of EU-wide reforms, some of which were already in the pipeline.

Wrestling bout

The French press has long proved remarkably tolerant of British exceptionalism, tempering its criticism with regular praise for Britain and its conduct during World War II. In an editorial bemoaning the UK’s growing isolationism in 2011, Le Monde felt compelled to begin with a statement of undying love for all things British, from habeas corpus to fish and chips.

“France does not forget [the UK’s] part in the war. We respect its history and admire its culture. We know what democracy owes [Britain],” wrote France’s daily of record. Le Monde listed the country’s many delights before, eventually, coming to the painful conclusion that the British are “interested in only one thing: the common market. The rest of the European project leaves them indifferent, when they are not openly hostile.”

Britain's not so splendid isolation

The mood has soured following Cameron's latest demands. Les Echos, the leading financial daily, has described the Brexit horse-trading as “ridiculous and humiliating” at a time when Europe is grappling with far greater challenges.

Le Monde’s columnist Arnaud Leparmentier likened the negotiations to a wrestling bout in which the outcome is rigged and the duelists “only pretend to be hurt”. The match, he wrote, “is designed to flatter British pride and persuade them not to drift away.” Leparmentier said the proposed “emergency brake” on welfare payments to EU migrants amounted to a “de facto dismantling of the free movement of workers” and a “flagrant discrimination” towards Eastern Europeans (who form the bulk of Britain’s EU migrants). He added: “Let us not surrender what is left of Europe to Cameron.”

Writing in left-leaning daily Libération, Jean Quatremer, a keen observer of EU politics, said it was time to call Britain’s bluff and stop the rot. He noted that Britain has already carved out a special status for itself by opting out of the euro, the banking union, immigration policy, defence policy and Schengen – on top of its notorious budget rebate.

“The UK has an existential problem in its relationship with the EU that no technical arrangement or treaty amendment will ever resolve,” Quatremer wrote in an editorial. “We need a Copernican revolution   a new treaty of 19 creating a federal eurozone […]. That’s how we could stop the United Kingdom and its apprentices from doing harm.”

French papers are not the only ones crying foul. “Cameron and his friends […] can’t think of anything better to do than try to eke out benefits for the islanders,” grumbled Germany’s Der Taggesspiegel newspaper this week. In Italy, a country infuriated by Britain’s refusal to help tackle Europe’s migrant crisis, financial daily Il Sole 24 Ore lamented a “tragically ridiculous” debate.

And in a speech at the London School of Economics on Friday, European Parliament chief Martin Schulz said European leaders are so exasperated with Britain's demands they are privately saying that "if Brits want to leave, let them leave".

A gamble too far?

Euroscepticism is not a British dominion. Anti-EU sentiment has surged in France and elsewhere. It now stretches from far-right Brussels-haters to leftwingers outraged by Europe’s treatment of Greece. Even diehard supporters know the European project is in need of an overhaul.

British press slams Cameron's Brexit deal

But they also know Cameron has little interest in furthering this project. As Le Monde’s Leparmentier noted, the British leader did not call a referendum “to improve Europe or his country”. His was a tactical move, designed to “solve an internal problem within the Conservative Party and win the 2015 general election”.

The British leader has already flirted with the break-up of Britain in one referendum. He could well break up Europe with another. The Brexit camp has been clamouring for this opportunity for decades. They won’t let it slip. Eurosceptic MPs from Cameron’s own party have already given him a taste of the battle ahead. Blasting the concessions wrestled by the British premier as “thin gruel”, they warned Cameron he had “two weeks to salvage his reputation as a negotiator”.

French papers noted that the Brexit camp has no shortage of firepower: it controls the best-selling tabloids, whose vitriolic EU bashing reaches millions of readers every day. On Wednesday, the Daily Mail said the “Crusade to get Britain out of the EU must continue”, mocking Tusk's proposal as “The Great Delusion”. The Sun splashed "Who do EU think you are kidding Mr Cameron?" across its front page, in a reference to the popular WWII-themed TV sitcom “Dad's Army”, which is set for a big-screen remake this year.

Britain's Eurosceptics can't help mentioning the war when they discuss Europe. Neither could Cameron two weeks ago, when a French TV channel asked him whether, “deep down”, he felt genuinely European. To the Daily Mail’s thinly veiled horror, Cameron described himself as a “passionate European”. He then spoke of the fight to rid Europe of the fascist yoke. That battle ended 71 years ago. It is time to move on.

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