With a Shrug and Some Sorrow, Europeans Bid Farewell to EU Member Britain

2020-01-30

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PARIS - An hour's train ride from the European Union's headquarters, where the bloc's British lawmakers and staffers packed up to leave, businesswoman Meriela Masson pondered Brexit during a quick smoke outside her Paris office.

"Unfortunately, I don't have time to think of it," Masson said of Britain's departure from the EU, which becomes reality at midnight Friday in Brussels. "I don't follow the news regarding Brexit, so I have no clue what to think about it."

If Britain's departure from the EU amounts to a political earthquake in Brussels, the aftershock is less intense in other European capitals.

Europeans feel sadness, but they are also watching Brexit unfold with "a sort of fatigue," said analyst Elvire Fabry of the Jacques Delores Institute, a Paris research group.

"It was more perceived as a deep political crisis within the U.K., than a real negotiation between the U.K. and EU," she said, as the protracted talks wound out.

Now, as Europe moves from saying goodbye to Britain to carving out a new and potentially rocky post-Brexit relationship, ordinary Europeans face many unknowns.

Will fishermen and farmers lose out on a lucrative British market? Will drivers and passengers be stuck in unending customs lines?

"I hope it won't penalize France," said student Adolphine Nsimba, 25, as she exited an M&S food market in Paris - another sign of Britain's imprint on Europe, along with craft beer and afternoon tea. "I have friends and family in England, and I don't want to apply for a visa to go there."

Outside the Gare du Nord station, where London-bound Eurostar trains depart every 30 minutes, truck driver Pierre Weillart voiced similar fears. He spends many workdays moving refrigerated goods by road through the Channel Tunnel to Britain.

"We're worried about customs," he said. "It could lose a lot of time."

Soul-searching

Brexit is also sparking soul-searching among some Europeans about what is broken in a political and economic union born from the ashes of World War II.

"We European decision-makers must realize that if an increasing number of our fellow citizens have turned their back on the European project, it's for a reason," said Philippe Lamberts, an EU Greens Party lawmaker from Belgium. "It's because many believe that too often, policies adopted at the European level have served the few rather than the many."

Lamberts' remarks came as the European Parliament voted to formally approve Brexit on Wednesday. As many lamented Britain's departure from the bloc, euroskeptic parties cheered it on.

"Brexit is the victory of the common people against multinational corporations, special interests and other elites," populist Finns Party lawmaker Laura Huhtasaari said. "The 2020s is the decade where the national state makes the ultimate comeback in Europe."

Euroskeptic parties gained ground during last year's European Parliament elections. In France, the far-right National Rally party led the overall vote with 23%, ahead of the ruling Centrist Party of President Emmanuel Macron.

A comeback for Europe?

Pro-EU parties still won the majority of votes, and overall turnout hit a record high of more than 50%. Promises of a French-style Frexit or Italexit in Italy have faded.

"All the parties that are really critical toward the EU have changed their strategy a little," Fabry said. "Instead of calling for a similar move out of the EU, they now want to change the EU from the inside."

Recent polls also show an uptick in citizen support. A 2019 Eurobarometer survey found Europeans view the bloc in a more positive light than at any other point in the last decade.

"Brexit is a failure of Britain, not the European Union," former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said.

Others see it as a failure of both.

Fabry, for one, disagrees. She believes Brexit has delivered a powerful and positive message that might prove useful for other tricky negotiations, including with China and the United States.

"We happened to see a new kind of cohesion among the Europeans," she said, describing the unity in Brexit negotiations?that?member states have not found on issues like immigration and defense. "We were expecting divisions and increasing criticism of the EU - but on the contrary."


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