It seems ironic that, after years of acting like a man afraid of commitment and unfortunately shackled to a clingy girlfriend, the U.K. is now obsessing over Brexit in a way Brussels isn’t.
As an EU migrant, working around Westminster these days feels like being stranded inside someone’s existential crisis.
Theresa May might well be remembered as one of the unluckiest prime ministers in recent times, as scandal after scandal appears at her Downing Street door every week. But no gaffe or -gate will ever be enough to distract from the deep unease everyone seems to be feeling in that pocket of central London.
Those who wanted to Remain are still coming to terms with their defeat; those who favor a softer exit are anxiously realizing that it probably won’t happen that way; the true believers are oscillating between fury at perceived saboteurs and anguish at the idea that they too might not get exactly what they want.
Every single microscopic aspect of Brexit is argued about again and again. Every MP, minister and adviser feels that they deserve to have their voice heard on at least one facet of the process, and every battle fought feels like a proxy for the wider debate on what country the U.K. wants to be.
Like roads and Rome, every debate ends up being about Brexit. But crucially, every debate about Brexit is also symptomatic of the battles of ideas slowly tearing Britain apart: Do they want to go left or right? Be cosmopolitan or parochial? Open themselves to the world or decidedly turn inward?
There is paranoia, too: Remain-backing papers screeching — rightly or wrongly — about shadowy elites tricking the public into backing their own demise, and Brexiteers taking any doubt or criticism as proof of the existence of a nasty cabal praying for the country to fall to its knees.
Brexit was supposedly meant to free the U.K. from the chains of an organization that demands too much from its members
Brexit was supposedly meant to free the U.K. from the chains of an organization that demands too much from its members. But what it has done so far is turn the country into an unhinged Shakespearean prince who has voluntarily locked himself away in a tower and spends his days mumbling about the ghosts wishing to cause him harm.
We’ve moved on, really
Where Brussels stands in this scenario is unclear. Talking to people in the European quarter on a recent trip, what I heard at first was mostly a kind of blasé cockiness — the Brits have lost it, Brexit will be a disaster for them, but we’ve already moved on.
Over beers in “Place Lux,” conversation turned into an odd one-upmanship of who cared the least about the U.K. One staffer joked that he and his colleagues only spent “10 to 15 minutes a day” talking about Brexit. Another added that, if anything, the Catalonian mess had replaced the Brexit drama in the city’s sharpest policy minds.
Scratching the surface, however, revealed a kind of touching sadness and helpless consternation. As the British press tends to forget, people in Brussels can, in fact, read English, and have access to foreign newspapers: They know exactly how they’ve been portrayed, and how much some hate them.
Most European Commission aides I quizzed about Brexit were more worried than smug, asking with genuine alarm what on earth was happening over the Channel.
No matter what top Brexiteers might be arguing in Westminster, it seems a lot of people in the Brussels bubble do care about the U.K. and don’t want to watch it fail. They’d also like to see this British angst come to an end. Not least because there is a lot on the EU’s plate — including repercussions from the British referendum.
Because while the U.K.’s identity crisis may be more paralyzing than the EU’s, that doesn’t mean Brussels isn’t going through some soul-searching as well.
Prancing pony no more
When the U.K. rejected the deal David Cameron brought back in 2016, the received wisdom was that this may have worked out in the EU’s favor. Other countries — especially toward the east of the bloc — might well have demanded similar concessions. But that sense of displeasure and bubbling Euroskepticism in other member countries hasn’t gone away.
After all, not everyone has a similar image of what they want the EU’s future to be; would ever-greater integration be the holy grail after all? Should concentric circles of different levels of involvement be introduced? Who should join next, who shouldn’t, where should it end?
Starved of a fight it has been reveling in for decades, the U.K. might just feel further adrift that it realizes
The U.K. liked to see itself as the rebellious, prancing pony of Europe, and although its relationship with the Continent was rarely straightforward, it did always enjoy the attention.
This is coming to an end. Once Britain regains its independence in March 2019 — transitional deal or not — the EU will want to move on once and for all and deal with its own affairs.
Starved of a fight it has been reveling in for decades, the U.K. might just feel further adrift that it realizes. And what about Brussels? What the EU will look like in five or 10 years is anyone’s guess, with the exception that tipsy aides will probably still be enjoying their drinks and their gossip on Place du Luxembourg on Thursday nights.
Some EU nationals in the U.K. will be wondering if, considering the somber and self-obsessed mood in Westminster, it might not be wise to go join them for good.
Marie Le Conte is a French freelance journalist living in London and writing about politics for the New Statesman, Prospect magazine, VICE and others. She was previously a staff writer at the Evening Standard and BuzzFeed News.