French uncertainty over Brexit gives way to fear of the status quo

The Brexit debate has already emboldened Eurosceptic movements in other member states. []

Paris fears that if the British vote to stay in the EU, the United Kingdom’s power to disrupt the European project would grow stronger. EURACTIV France reports.

Over the last half a year, anti-Brexit campaigners have published a seemingly never-ending stream of dramatic studies and frightening statistics on the consequences of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.

The latest of these studies, by the insurance company Euler-Hermes, concluded with even more dramatic projections than most: a loss of GDP for many other European countries, drama in the Netherlands and more.

But just three weeks from the vote, with bookmakers giving a healthy lead to the ‘Remain’ vote and the number of undecided voters falling all the time, Paris has been gripped by another worry. The French nightmare would be a United Kingdom bristling with renewed arrogance in the wake of a successful referendum campaign led by the prime minister David Cameron.

“The United Kingdom will be even more odious in Brussels if it stays in Europe,” warned Pervenche Bérès, a French Socialist MEP. Although this would be her prefered outcome, the politician mainly fears that it would strengthen David Cameron’s leadership.

An ‘In’ vote would certainly bring the Euro-critical British premier greater authority, both domestically and within his own party. But if he loses, he will have to go.

If the status quo prevails, the UK’s demands, thrashed out between EU leaders at the last European Council, will inevitably lead to yet more negotiations at the next Council, which was pushed to 28 and 29 June to accommodate the Brits.

The June Council was initially scheduled for Thursday 23 and Friday 24, but with the referendum results only expected on the morning of 24 June, the heads of state had little choice but to reschedule.

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Picking and choosing

While a Leave vote would have the benefit of closing the debate once and for all, a Remain vote would threaten to monopolise the time and attention of further European Councils, at the expense of other, more important subjects.

“We have raised the question of relations between the core members of the EU and the other member states, notably concerning relations with the eurozone, and it is still a relevant question,” a British source said.

The source added that the United Kingdom would not join the eurozone or the Schengen visa-free travel area, “but wants to be among the leaders on other subjects”.

But it is just this desire to “keep poking their noses into everything that is the problem”, according to one French MEP. “In the European Parliament, the English have gone off on their own. They vote not in line wth their political groups but with their country. And they are the ones holding up progress on lots of issues at the Council,” the MEP added.

Diplomats can often be overheard within the muffled confines of the Council of Ministers complaining about the ambiguous positions of the UK.

In the suspected case of Chinese dumping on the European steel sector, the UK payed a double game. On the one hand, the country co-signed a letter asking the European institutions to tackle the issue. On the other, the British trade minister refused to make any radical increases to customs barriers to Chinese steel imports.

Sowing mischief

Similarities can be seen in the UK’s attitude towards agriculture, which is a less crucial part of the British economy than it is for France, Poland or Ireland, for example.

For the UK, the plight of Europe’s farmers is clearly not a priority issue and London never fails to drag its feet whenever the EU has to enact emergency measures, as it has done twice in the last year. Some even accuse the island kingdom of working to undermine the EU’s efforts to make truly European policy.

According to one lobbyist, the Brexit debate has also reinvigorated the power-centralising movements of other European countries. This will do nothing to smooth the difficult negotiations due between the 28 member states on a number of issues over the coming months.

So even if the UK votes to stay on 23 June, lasting damage to the European Union has already been done.

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