Britain and Europe

Cameron’s EU deal: the view from Brussels

2 March 2016

The prime minister’s reform package has had a mixed reception domestically, but how has it been received in the European capital?

Chris Kendall

Brexit fatigue set in long ago among the Brits in Brussels. Last Friday’s marathon European council deal, paving the way for a referendum on 23 June, caused barely a stir in the air of fatalism enveloping our shrinking band of British officials in the European Union institutions.

Colleagues of other nationalities seem resigned to the UK’s leaving, and ask me what I will do (I don’t know, it depends). At a reception with fellow Brits on the Wednesday before the council, the discussion was not about the ‘reform’ package being negotiated but about our career prospects in a post-Brexit EU. The general feeling is that our jobs will probably not go, but our career prospects will nosedive; how many Norwegian directors-general are there? (Answer: none, of course, though there are a number of Norwegian officials still working in the EU institutions who were recruited before Norway’s no vote in 1994 put a stop to its accession.)

Sympathy for the prime minister is in short supply among EU officials of any nationality. Not for one second does anyone here buy the pretext of ‘reform’, this is transparently about UK national politics – which on this subject has long been entirely toxic – and the feeling is that he is holding the rest of us hostage while far more pressing issues besiege us. On those pressing issues – Syria, Ukraine, energy security, Russia handling, migration – the UK seems absent. This is a source of regret not just to British Eurocrats. The British civil service is well regarded and its contributions in meetings of council working groups are generally influential and welcome. That influence suffers when there is disengagement at the very top. On handling relations with the Russians in our eastern neighbourhood, for example, the UK is practically invisible. Compare and contrast the activism of the big two, France and Germany, and the energy of the Swedes and Baltics.

I personally felt some anxiety ahead of the publication of the proposed deal by Donald Tusk on 2 February. Many fear that the UK’s departure could mark the beginning of the end of the EU. Where the UK leads, others may follow. The entire project could fail and throw Europe back into an era of nationalism, rivalry, and insecurity. So our politicians will surely do almost anything to stop that happening, right? I was afraid that the council would offer Cameron a deal so sweet it would leave the treaty toothless. I shouldn’t have worried – it seems that everyone has reached the same conclusion: the UK referendum will not be about the deal negotiated on Friday, it will be a straightforward in/out vote. So there was no point at all in offering Cameron more than an inch; he would have to present even that inch as a victory, and a mile would not have satisfied his backbenchers or the Fleet Street nihilists. There is a sense of relief that a deal was agreed, and the deal is not over-generous to the UK. It is unlikely to make much difference on referendum day.

Our resignation is defeatist, born of years of attrition. Brexit seems almost a foregone conclusion among EU officials, and privately (or not even) many of us would welcome it, imagining (surely in error) that the EU without the obstructive UK might actually tackle some of its real reform needs. But the referendum is not lost just yet, and it may well be won. What we need to be thinking about, here in Brussels, is how to win the peace.


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