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01/10/2016

Van Rompuy: Brexit will take ‘years and years’

UK & Europe

Van Rompuy: Brexit will take ‘years and years’

Herman Van Rompuy

[Chatham House/Flickr]

No need to panic, the UK was on its way out of the EU years ago. This was the view shared by Herman Van Rompuy and the EU foreign affairs ministers who met in Paris on Thursday (1 September). EurActiv France reports.

The topic of Brexit was naturally high on the agenda at the Europe day of France’s Ambassadors’ Week, held in Paris, although the diplomats present tried to play down the impact Britain’s exit would have on the EU.

“Europe is undergoing a period of introspection. This could be useful if we manage to find renewed cohesion,” French Minister for Foreign Affairs Jean-Marc Ayrault said. The former mayor of Nantes mentioned Winston Churchill’s Zurich speech, in which he called for the creation of a United States of Europe.

“But in Churchill’s vision, which is sometimes misunderstood, the United States of Europe did not include the United Kingdom” the minister said.

UK inaction on EU foreign policy

Former European Council president Herman Van Rompuy went one step further, criticising the destructive role played by the UK in recent years.

Van Rompuy: Britain will suffer the most

The British have voted against their own interest, Herman Van Rompuy told EurActiv.com in an exclusive interview, contending that the UK’s isolationist mentality cut off its emotional link to Europe. The EU can go further without Britain on security, defence and foreign policy, he said.

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“Brexit is a political amputation. But the United Kingdom was never a full member of the European Union,” he said, referring to the many ‘opt-outs’ negotiated by the country during the course of its membership.

“The UK had even stopped playing a role in EU foreign policy,” Van Rompuy said. He pointed out that the Minsk agreements were signed between France, Germany, Ukraine and Russia, with no participation from the United Kingdom.

According to the Belgian politician, Brexit should not be viewed as a European phenomenon, but a specific incident largely influenced by national circumstances, for which Europe was a scapegoat.

“The negotiations will take years and years,” Van Rompuy warned, adding that the unresolved British question should not be allowed to paralyse the European Union, as the bloc’s remaining 440 million citizens had other priorities. “And we will not convince our citizens with a new narrative. That’s for when there are no ideas. What we need are results,” he said in a thinly-veiled jab at the current Commission.

Brexit on the menu in Bratislava

The ex-head of the Council also minimised the importance of Brexit. In reference to the delicate political situations in Italy and Spain, and potentially in France in 2017, he added that any danger of the EU imploding would not be caused by the United Kingdom but by political instability in one of the big eurozone countries.

The Slovakian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miroslav Lajcak, whose country currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU until the end of this year, unveiled the agenda of the 16 September Bratislava summit at the Paris event. Perhaps not surprisingly, Brexit will feature heavily alongside the economy, security and the effectiveness of European action.

Finally, Pierre Moscovici took a mathematical approach to Brexit. “Brexit is a situation where, for the first time, European Union will have to grow after a subtraction,” the Economic and Financial Affairs Commissioner said.

He added that the EU had already survived the subtraction of part of its budget. Over the period 2014-2019, and for the first time, the member states cut the EU’s budgetary capacity in spite of the growing number of challenges the Union faces.

Euroscepticism alert

The French Commissioner also warned of the risk of a breakdown not at the outer edges of the EU, with Brexit, but in its very heart, and within the political class.  “Former ministers from governing parties, from both left and right, have called for the abolition of the European Commission, or for it to be turned into a secretariat for the Council. This is unacceptable,” Moscovici said.

Laurent Wauquiez, France’s Eurosceptic former secretary of state for European affairs, called for the Commission to be abolished after the Brexit vote, and Arnaud Montebourg, a candidate for the 2017 French presidential elections, often has harsh words for the Brussels bureaucrats.