Opinion

The UK election viewed from continental Europe: Meh

It will take more than the vote on December 12 to make the continent pay attention to the UK. Viewed from the continent, the UK election is one more episode in a Brexit series that “jumped the shark” long ago.

By: Date: November 29, 2019 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

Viewed from the continent, the UK election is one more episode in a Brexit series that “jumped the shark” long ago. It is increasingly difficult for continental audiences, by and large, to feel emotionally connected to the British political drama.

Leaving aside the campaign’s superficial entertainment value, it is not even clear that very much is at stake from a continental perspective, given the UK government’s willingness to put off, repeatedly, its most difficult choices. It will take more than the vote on December 12 to make the continent pay attention to the UK.

To be sure, Europeans are diverse, and generalisations are always fallible. The Republic of Ireland, for example, is a special case, and this partial view does not intend to cover it. But when it comes to “continental Europe” there are some common threads to the mood about the UK.

The general feeling is one of estrangement. Among the UK’s main political parties and leaders, there are barely any that continentals find appealing. In 2016, in the aftermath of the referendum, there were political forces and constituencies across Europe that were happy to identify with the Brexit camp. France’s Marine Le Pen tweeted, “Victory for Freedom!” on the day after the vote, and the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders declared, “Now it’s our turn.”

Three-and-a-half years on, by contrast, most if not all anti-elitist parties in the EU27 have pivoted from the idea of leaving the EU or euro area. Instead, they are urging transformation from within — the slogan is no longer Burn Brussels, but Change Brussels. The European Parliamentary election last May was illustrative of that shift. It also witnessed an unexpected trend reversal in turnout, which jumped by eight percentage points after decades of decline. It was a clear sign of interest, if not of confidence, in EU institutions.

Meanwhile, the “remain” camp does not offer much to inspire continentals. The Labour leadership looks lacklustre, rather than inspirational, and the Liberal Democrats seem to have slumped. Scottish nationalists may elicit more emotional support, but they remain a niche interest.

Some figures occasionally win popular appeal here on the continent, but they’re typically on the periphery. John Bercow was one, and, of course, the Queen. But in the main, Leavers have an unfortunate tendency to insult their European neighbours indiscriminately, and Remainers tend to be lukewarm in their commitment to an ever-closer union. Neither camp sparks much enthusiasm across the Channel.

The experts and decision-makers are left scratching their heads. The reaction to Britain’s current political plight covers a wide range. Some simply want to limit the damage at almost any price, while others want to take advantage of the UK’s weakness for their own benefit or that of the EU27 as a whole.

But, ultimately, this does not matter much, at least in the near term. The key parameters of the EU negotiating position were set long ago, and no one wants to change a negotiating stance that appears to have been very successful so far. From the continent’s perspective, the key decisions are in the hands of the British; the rest of Europe can only watch, and hopefully stay patient.

But this patience offers diminishing returns. Successive extensions to the Article 50 deadlines have persuaded continental onlookers that what the UK press calls “cliff-edges” are, at most, modest bumps on a rather gentle, if downward-tilting, slope. The commentator who in the last twelve months described a single step as “critical” now knows better.

An increasing number of participants, including from the business community, think nothing dramatic will happen any time soon. And they are probably correct. Talk of a “no-deal” scenario materialising on December 31, 2020 is less plausible than it was about last October 31, which itself was a less credible cliff-edge date than last March 29.

Neither the EU27 nor any half-responsible UK government has any interest in falling off a cliff. Irrespective of what they say, it is rational to anticipate they will find a way not to make the stupid leap, if only at the eleventh hour. That perpetuates the uncertainty and generates pain for everyone involved, but it is still better than the alternative.

In the meantime, a lot is happening in the wider world, much of it alarming, and most continental European countries have turbulent politics of their own. These occupy the minds of continental audiences far more than the Brexit drama, which seems never to end. And quite possibly, it never will.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint.

Due to copyright agreements we ask that you kindly email request to republish opinions that have appeared in print to communication@bruegel.org.

View comments
Read article More on this topic

Opinion

Politics, not policy will help Lagarde save the eurozone

Her success at helm of Europe’s central bank will depend on her ability to mend fences with hawkish policymakers.

By: Guntram B. Wolff and Rebecca Christie Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: November 4, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

The Art of the Brexit Deal

An emergency Brexit podcast to dissect today's tentative deal between the EU27 and the British Government, featuring Maria Demertzis, Guntram Wolff and Nicholas Barrett

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: October 17, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Brexit and Finance: Brace for No Impact?

Amid the daily high drama of Brexit, it is easy to lose track of the structural shifts, or lack thereof, that may be associated with the UK’s possible departure from the European Union. One of them, and not the least, is the potential impact on the European and global financial system.

By: Nicolas Véron Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: October 14, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Brexit: a European Odyssey

Nicholas Barrett and Guntram Wolff talk to Kalypso Nicolaïdis, author of Exodus, Reckoning, Sacrifice: Three Meanings of Brexit. Together they discuss the mythology that binds Britain to continental Europe

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: October 11, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Brexit banking exodus creates a dilemma for Dublin

Irish consumers’ interests may not coincide with the needs of banks relocating here.

By: Rebecca Christie Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Date: July 10, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Where Brexit goes, the law shall follow

How the financial industry and the law firms that support it are preparing for what comes next

By: Rebecca Christie Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: June 25, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Backstage: The EU financial services landscape after Brexit

Bruegel fellows Rebecca Christie and Nicolas Véron discuss how the map of the EU's financial services industry has begun to change, and how it might eventually settle.

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Date: April 30, 2019
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

The emerging new geography of financial centers in Europe

What shape is the new financial continent of Europe?

Speakers: Rebecca Christie, Valerie Herzberg, Nicolas Véron and William Wright Topic: Finance & Financial Regulation Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: April 29, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

ICT revolution key to populist political surge

Developments in digital technology have prompted a ‘tabloidisation’ of traditional media, created opportunities for the misuse of information online, and closed the decision-making horizon for politicians.

By: Marek Dabrowski Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: April 4, 2019
Read article More on this topic

Opinion

Brexit: When in doubt, slow down

Uncertainty over Brexit remains high despite looming deadlines. Here, the authors argue that the UK should take the necessary steps to make time to build consensus around the final shape of Brexit, and that the UK population should be consulted.

By: Maria Demertzis and Nicola Viegi Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: March 29, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

The shadow of Brexit: Guessing the economic damage to the UK

Under a set of assumptions, this post concludes that UK real income and investment would have been 4% and 6% larger respectively had it not been for the shock of the Brexit referendum result. With somewhat audacious assumptions, the damages already incurred can be scaled up to guess the negative macroeconomic consequence of each of the three possible Brexit outcomes: no-deal, deal or no Brexit.

By: Francesco Papadia Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: March 21, 2019
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Diverging narratives: European policies and national perceptions

Who tends to get the blame for the Euro crisis in national media? What do national politicians think about the EU and EMU?

Speakers: Pierre Boyer, Juha Pekka Nurvala, Giuseppe Porcaro and Laura Shields Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: February 27, 2019
Load more posts