Samuel Ribansky: Goodwill runs low on Brexit as EU loses patience

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WITH 276 days to go until the UK and the EU officially part ways, and the two-year Brexit referendum anniversary celebrated last weekend, the stakes for reaching a framework agreement are as high as ever.

However, while one of the parties to this dilemma has awarded Brexit the top spot 
on its agenda and has communicated (one way or another) its vision for the outcome of negotiations, there seems to be little discussion, or consideration, in the UK about the view of the EU top brass.

Crowds taking part in the People's Vote march for a second EU referendum at Trafalgar Square in central London.

Crowds taking part in the People's Vote march for a second EU referendum at Trafalgar Square in central London.

The European view is one of sadness, but also of irritation and frustration, as well as a growing determination to protect itself regardless of what the UK does.

Both the EU’s bureaucratic apparatus and the EU’s citizens have never been too happy about Brexit in the first place, but the past two weeks have also seen a rise in their frustration and irritation.

Largely as a consequence of the UK’s party-political struggles, the EU is facing uncertainty to a greater extent than originally expected. Therefore, the view on the eastern side of the English Channel is one where a no-deal scenario gets likelier by the day.

It was perhaps best depicted by a Belgian finance ministry spokeswoman. Though Belgium has been undergoing extensive preparations for a cliff-edge Brexit, she does not believe that equivalent effort was shown by the UK to prepare for such outcome.

Equally, the European Central Bank is currently accounting for a no-deal Brexit in its analyses and forecasts. Finally, Michel Barnier, the chief EU Brexit negotiator, recently declined the possibility of UK’s close involvement in EU’s foreign policy post-Brexit, stating that the co-operation was to be on a case-by-case basis rather than within an established framework. Therefore, the UK’s internal haggling has impacted the EU’s view of the Brexit process, where patience has started to run low.

Equal feelings of frustration and uncertainty are shared by EU citizens; both the one million UK citizens in the EU and the three million EU citizens in the UK. However, while – according to Eurostat – the number of UK applications for a EU citizenship has more than doubled, the same cannot be said of the EU citizens in the UK.

Poles, for example, have started leaving the UK for home, a move described as potentially harmful to some sectors of the UK economy. So the view of these citizens is one where they no longer have a place in the UK and will return home rather than attempt to stay in what can be described as an unwelcoming environment.

Putting the EU’s feelings of anxiety about Brexit aside, how much does Brexit itself actually matter to Europe? The answer: not much.

While Whitehall is having its oxygen sucked out by Brexit, the EU has other issues that require its immediate attention and undivided focus, such as the migration crisis, Eurozone reform and the EU’s fight against the illiberal tendencies of some of its members.

The European Council summit, which took place last Sunday, did not even feature Brexit on its agenda. When asked about Brexit, Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, said he struggled to keep track of where the negotiations stood at the moment.

While that might be a sign of the times, a better indicator of the fact that the EU is not too pre-occupied with Brexit is that less than half of the iconic Politico Brussels Playbook morning newsletters sent out last week included an individual section 
on Brexit.

For comparison, ‘Brexit’ previously had its own section in every newsletter.

Perhaps a bit higher on the agenda, but still not the top item, is Brexit for its citizens. The EU has pursued a policy of ‘non-obstruction’ for those who wish to remain in the EU post-Brexit; something that the UK has tried to make increasingly difficult the other way around. Some of the people I used to work with back in Brussels have been awarded EU citizenship, while those currently living in the UK have made the decision to return back to the continent.

So what should we then make of the European view on Brexit? To put it simply, I will revive the metaphor of the messy divorce that shares the top spot with the cake metaphor when it comes to describing Brexit.

Earlier into the process, the European view was one of a husband who, despite the divorce, still likes his wife and wants to give her the keys to 
the summerhouse to use every 
now and then.

Now, the husband (the EU) won’t even let his wife use the guest room and communicates exclusively through his lawyer.

The ball has for long now been in the UK’s court, but the EU is not willing to wait until the UK makes a move, and will hold no punches in protecting its side of the court as the initial goodwill slowly but surely dissipates.

Samuel Ribansky is a Sheffield University politics graduate. He’s now studying Public Policy at the Sciences Po university in Paris.