BREXIT — will it really happen?

The heartbreaking divorce seen from the EU bubble perspective

«Someday it’s going to make sense »

I recently told a girlfriend that was heartbroken after a breakup. I said it because I was confident, she would one day wake up to realize that she is fantastic, independent, can find something better and that she was miserable throughout the relationship with her ex.

They will both move on. Though they have friends in common, they will find a way to see them separately. Luckily, they don’t have any kids to fight about, and they can afford to find each their own place to stay.

They will continue to live in the same city — at least for now. But they can avoid each other’s favorite cafés and bars. They can block each other on SoMes until the worst pain is over.

With BREXIT, it’s different.

It’s a lengthy divorce process. I represent the EU bubble of people that work with Brits and people from 28 member states in Brussels.

We have lots of children together. We have common legislation on food, health, goods, the environment and trade with third countries etcetera. We have shared ideas about the world around us. We both know that. We have created prosperity together, and we had experienced the same crises including the economic crisis in 2008 and the refugee crisis when we didn’t and perhaps still don’t know how to agree on a fair sharing mechanism. The last crisis might have been the last straw, but who knows?

Most likely there were as many reasons to vote for a separate England as people were voting for a breakup with the EU.

In Brussels, we don’t understand why the UK would leave us.

Though the Brits always said that “we’re at the continent” and they live on a separate island along with Ireland, we don’t see it the same way from the continent side. Some of us think they are continuously throwing a spanner in the works when we want to progress on European integration on more legislative areas. We might have been wrong, we realize now. Lots of other Member States equally think we’re moving too fast, we see now.

Some of us were protected by The Great Britain that would not give in to protectionism of European goods including food products vis-à-vis goods from the rest of the world.

The day after the BREXIT referendum, 24 June 2016, was the strangest day in my adult work life.

Everybody had watched the polls all-night or woken up to the shocking result that we didn’t think possible. Of course, the intelligent people of Great Britain would realize that they would get more impoverished from not being part of the Internal Market of the EU, we had told ourselves. Of course, they would understand that €5.2B of €8.5B to help fund rural areas in the country would not be compensated by the British government. Of course, Great Britain would not rise as a global power like in the early 1900’es. Or so we thought.

My workplace looked utterly different. Most employees came in late. Journalists had invaded the building. Nigel Farage was jumping from TV-camera to TV-camera, telling about his great victory — and the greatness of the UK without the EU.

Except for the journalists and Mr Farage, everyone looked sad. Some were crying. Most couldn’t believe what had happened.

After a while, shock turned to action and love set to bitterness. The UK government was not adequately prepared. I suspect no one there, especially not David Cameron, thought a BREXIT majority would be possible neither. The EU-27 countries without the UK decided to work side by side the best we could. We would not have internal fights — at least not in public.

Michel Barnier, the former French Agriculture Minister, was appointed to lead the negotiations from the EU-27 side. Even the political groups that used not to like him stood by his side and praised his negotiating skills. Several member states’ populations that were on edge to a majority to leave the EU changed their opinion or became silent for a while. We saw the consequences of a breakup with the wealthiest common market in the world. Besides peace and stability, the economy is one of the significant forces that keep the 28 — soon 27 countries together in a voluntary union of many shared values.

The UK government with Theresa May — a former Bremainer — claimed that the EU’s negotiation methods were unfair. The UK should be allowed to stay within the Internal Market, but decide for itself, if it would allow for people to move freely over the UK border.

From our side, in the EU bubble, we thought our proposals were more than fair. We did not only want to prove a point towards the other Member States on the verge of departure as it was said.

First and foremost, we wanted to divide the estate fairly after the divorce.

We watched the UK government fumble around in its BREXIT negotiations. We have seen how former colonies that The Great Britain thought would die to make new trade deals with the UK would reject it in diplomatic phrases.

We started making jokes about how the percentage of brexiteers in the different parts of the country matched where the mad cow disease hit hardest in the early 1990’es. We knew we were talking about real people whose private economy would worsen, who would lose their jobs on the continent or try and obtain new citizenships.

We didn’t care. An ex is an ex. It’s better to become angry right away than to sob for three years until it’s over.

Some of us still hope and believe that there will be a new referendum.

Tony Blair mentioned not so long ago that there’s a 50–50 chance of this. From our EU bubble side, we’re confident that the Brits will then understand that they can’t live without us. We find it impossible to imagine a future without them. Therefore, the Brits must have realized that they can’t live without us either.

If we imagine for a moment that it would come true: There will be another referendum. The majority will vote to stay. There would be some wounds to heal. After all, we’ve now spent more than 28 months in divorce negotiations. We’ve said bad things about each other and told in public that we could comfortably live without one another.

Did we cheat on each other? Maybe not. But we both said we were ready to. The children will have to get used to mum and dad living together again. There are some EU agencies that we’ll either have to tell The Netherlands and France that they can’t have. Or we will have to invent some new ones for the UK. But hey, that’s not a big issue.

An indefinite transition period is at the table now. There is a reason for that.

The point is that we’re just next to each other. We cannot decide to go to different bars and cafés like other couples after a breakup. We’re going to live next to each other for years and years. And it’s going to be strange either or. We have much more in common than what separates us. If the UK decides to stay, it will mean there are a lot of egos to swallow at both sides of the table. We will have to listen more. And the Brits will have to learn more about the Union, they’re part of. Googling “What’s the EU” only after the BREXIT referendum is too late.

In the short run, there will be more trust in the EU-27 and the UK market, because Europe will appear politically stable again. In the long term, there will be lots of issues that will reappear. Some differences shouldn’t be overlooked in the future. Perhaps, because we’ve tried to be apart and we’ve felt the dire consequences, we’ll know that it’s worth it and swallow our pride.

EU Public Affairs professional on health, transport and energy. Privately, I love fashion, my friends and the ocean. Views are personal.