POLITICS

EU Referendum: A View From Europe As 'Brexit' Vote Looms

Huffington Post editors in France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain survey the mood throughout Europe

22/06/2016 15:38 | Updated 22 June 2016
Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters
Two activists with the EU flag and Union Jack painted on their faces kiss each other in front of Brandenburg Gate to protest against the British exit from the European Union, in Berlin, Germany

Finally June 23 arrives, and Britain gets to vote.

The news bulletins have been dominated by talk of the UK's referendum on whether to 'Remain' in or 'Leave' the European Union, a ballot touted as more important than any general election. It will change Britain’s relationship with Europe and, in turn, the rest of the world.

It all goes back to David Cameron promising the Conservative Party they would hold a vote on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union, the now 28-country bloc of countries forged out of the defeat of Adolf Hitler. 

The plan was simple. Take out Nigel Farage’s insurgent UK Independence Party (or Ukip), a real threat to the party’s share of the vote, and eurosceptic Tory MPs, a thorn in the side of successive Conservative Party leaders.

But it was never going to be that simple.

What started as a debate over the EU outgrowing its purpose as a trading zone has become an existential conversation about British identity. We've had arguments about 'Brexit' prompting a fresh World War and bananas. But the noise has drowned out everything bar two key arguments: Remain warn of economic peril on 'Brexit', and Leave want to take back control of immigration.

And the debate has increasingly resembled a soap opera, with pro-EU Cameron pitted against former London Mayor Boris Johnson, whose decision to campaign for Leave was a crucial endorsement.

With polls suggesting the British public has yet to make up its mind (they're on a knife-edge), international interventions have come thick and fast - almost entirely in favour of Remain. While President Obama warned of the UK being at the "back of the queue" for future trade deals if it left, President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, offered a more dramatic view: “I fear Brexit could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also Western political civilisation in its entirety.”

Editors from HuffPost’s European editions weighed in, offering insight as to how the Brexit debate is playing out on the streets and among politicians in France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Spain ahead of Thursday's momentous vote.

Philippe Wojazer / Reuters
French President Francois Hollande and Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron

France 

While France is barely recovering from the 2008 economic crisis, the prospect of a Brexit worries both the business community and pro-European French politicians.

People are concerned about the economic consequences of a UK exit, particularly on commercial partners, and about a potential domino effect that could lead to the collapse of the European Union.

Although he says he doesn’t want to meddle in the UK’s internal affairs, the socialist president François Hollande is concerned. He has warned that if the UK leaves the European Union, “there will be consequences” in many fields, including on the European single market, the movement of goods and people, as well aseconomic development between Paris and London.

At a time when the European project is stalled and the refugee crisis undermines the unity of the Schengen area, François Hollande is even more concerned that a Brexit would lead to complete implosion. “It’s the EU in question, not just one country in the EU,” he said earlier this year.

His conservative rival, former President Nicolas Sarkozy, shares the same sentiments. Regarding a Brexit, he says, “Europe would lose its second economy. And for our British friends, it would be a disaster — it risks “dislocating” the UK, he said

These arguments explain why the French public is largely in favor of keeping the UK in the EU, despite Brussels’ growing unpopularity. Several polls conducted in early June revealed that almost two out of three French citizens (62 percent) wants the UK to stay in the EU. The same percentage thinks that Brexit would have a negative impact on the EU, and slightly less than half of the sampled population thinks that the Brexit would have negative consequences on the French economy.

The strongest Brexit supporters are members of the National Front. The far-right party, which promises a “Frexit” from the eurozone if it wins the presidential election of 2017, hopes that Britain can prove that leaving the EU is not only possible, but a natural progression of history. National Front president Marine Le Pen has already announced that if elected president, she would follow David Cameron’s lead by organizing a referendum to get France out of the eurozone. She claims that the Brexit is only “the beginning of the end for this European Union. Not the beginning of the end of Europe. Europe will survive the European Union.”

— Geoffroy Clavel, Politics Editor, HuffPost France

Bloomberg via Getty Images
A copy of German magazine Der Spiegel featuring the headline 'Please don't go!' and a British Union flag illustration on the cover sits on a table next to a cup of coffee in this arranged photograph in Berlin, Germany
 

Germany

Overall, politicians, business leaders and intellectuals in Germany are concerned over the Brexit vote. Sigmar Gabriel, the Vice Chancellor, recently warned that “our children and grand-children could curse us for not managing to hold Europe together.”

Gabriel shed light on the main fear in Germany: People worry that a Brexit would start a domino effect that could lead to other countries leaving the European Union, eventually dismantling the whole of the EU.

To most Germans, the EU represents a guarantee for a peaceful Europe after the horrors of the Second World War. It is no surprise that a recent survey revealed that 79 percent of Germans don’t want the UK to leave the EU.

And that is even true for far-right populists from the AfD-Party — for the most part, they accept the European Union as a necessary structure. What they want, however, is less influence from Brussels.

There’s also a major economic side to the Brexit discussion. A recent study by DZ Bank found that a Brexit could cost the German economy around 45 billion euros by the end of 2017. Car manufacturers, as well as chemical and engineering industries would be hit hardest by Brexit.

— Benjamin Reuter, Executive Editor, HuffPost Germany

Yannis Behrakis / Reuters
An anti-government demonstrator waves a Greek flag next to a placard that reads "No Brexit" outside the parliament during a protest in Athens, Greece

Greece

For Greece, the possibility of a Brexit calls to mind last summer’s catastrophic debt crisis. In essence, both the Syriza-led coalition government and the center-right opposition parties realize that a Brexit would put at severe risk the already-fragile state of Greek economy and the recent effort to pursue key reform policies and growth. Policy-makers, commentators and citizens fear that if a Brexit occurs, Grexit will be back on the table. The marginal, yet present, domestic far-right political discourse may play a part in pushing the Grexit scenario back to the foreground.

Moreover, there is a growing concern among the large and dynamic student and professional Greek diaspora in Britain regarding the direct economic consequences of a Brexit.

While some international commentators have compared pro-Brexit campaigners to Alexis Tsipras and Yanis Varoufakis (making wild promises that will ultimately backfire), it should be noted that Tsipras and Varoufakis were never against the EU — they were merely opposed to inept policy-making with regards to austerity.

Greece’s modern transition to democracy following the collapse of the Colonels’ Regime in 1974 was tied to the progress of the European project as a source of stability, economic growth and democratization. Despite EU’s contemporary troubles, Greece is safer within the EU family — undermining the European project, as Paul Krugman stressed, “Will open the door to a lot of ugliness.”

Jo Cox’s terrible murder shocked Greece’s public sphere. In a country like Greece, which has a long history of political violence, any deviation from EU institutions — which, however problematic, still provide a democratic and collective ethos — would mean a serious compromise of economic and national security.

— Nikos Agouros, Editor in Chief, HuffPost Greece

ASSOCIATED PRESS
An "Anglo-European kiss-in” in Rome 

Italy

In the last few weeks, Italy has been almost completely absorbed by theadministrative elections and the migrant crisis playing out on its coasts. Nevertheless, the ghost of Brexit has been present in the minds of political leaders and citizens.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is a strong supporter of a more integrated European Union. Recently, he said that “Brexit would be a disaster for the British people and the UK.”

Renzi has also tried to reassure the electorate by telling them that Italy’s current market turmoil is only temporary. “These tensions are physiological but they won’t affect Italy over the mid-long term,” he stated.

Italian populist parties such as the Five Stars Movement (M5S) and Lega Nord have been inspired by the Brexit debate. M5S — the biggest protagonist on the Italian political scene in the last few years — has clearly stated its support of British people’s right to decide whether or not they remain in the EU. They have even campaigned for a similar referendum in Italy, and they have promised to organize it if elected.

Lega Nord — the Italian version of National Front and UKIP — has openly expressed its endorsement of Brexit. Its leader, Matteo Salvini, recently compared the EU to fascism, stating that “what Hitler did to Europe 70 years ago with tanks and bombs is now done by Brussels with its financial weapons.”

A recent poll conducted by SWG for the Italian newspaper Il Messaggero suggests that more than 50 percent of Italians hope that the UK will remain in the EU — largely inspired by economic concerns. Less than 10 percent of people surveyed believe that Italy will go unaffected in the case of a Brexit.

— Giulia Belardelli, Politics Editor, HuffPost Italy 

Albert Gea / Reuters
An "estelada" (Catalan separatist flag) hangs from a pole in Cabrera de Mar, north of Barcelona, Spain

Spain 

From the moment Spain entered the European Economic Community (now, the EU) 30 years ago, people were convinced that the country had a lot to gain. The country has since received more than it has contributed; which may explain why 78 percent of Spaniards hold positive views when it comes to belonging in the EU.

The predominant sentiment in Spain is that the UK should not be leaving the EU: Poll results released Monday, June 20 show that 64 percent of Spaniards want to keep the UK in the EU.

If Spanish people could take part in this referendum, 80 percent would vote for the UK to remain’, according to a poll conducted by Metroscopia. Seventy-nine percent of Spain’s population consider that a Brexit would be bad for the EU, and 74 percent think that it would have a negative impact on the Spanish economy as well. It is clear that Spaniards believe that Europe is better together.

The referendum will take place just three days before the general election in Spain, and political parties are speaking out against a Brexit, in unison. Even Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias is opposed to the UK leaving the EU. Podemos’ Secretary for International Relations Pablo Bustinduy even travelled to Manchester to campaign for the ‘no’ vote. He was the only Spanish politician to do so.

Even though the direct and indirect consequences of a Brexit cannot be properly forecast at present, it is no secret that Spain would be significantly affected, given the close ties between the two countries.  

There are 200,000 Spaniards living in Britain — with some estimates reaching up to a million — and 300,000 British people living in Spain. A Brexit would potentially affect public health services, the job market, or Erasmus scholarships (a network for students studying in the EU).        

The Spanish economy also hangs in the balance in the event of a Brexit, and so is the Gibraltar issue — Spain’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation José Manuel García-Margallo has already said that Gibraltar should accept Spanish co-sovereignty in case of a Brexit. Britain’s exit from the EU also runs the risk of re-igniting the gestating secession movement in Catalonia, which surely would be tempted to follow suit. 

-- Laura Riestra, Editor, HuffPost Spain

 
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