Brexit could lead to 'domino effect' in Europe as far-right celebrates referendum result

EU officials and European governments are likely to take a hard line with British representatives for fear of the spread across Europe

John Lichfield
Friday 24 June 2016 16:02
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Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National
Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National

The menace of a Brexit “domino-effect” will lead EU governments to take a hostile and uncompromising line with David Cameron when he flies to a shell-shocked summit in Brussels next Tuesday.

Populist right-wing leaders in France and the Netherlands lost no time yesterday in demanding “in-out” votes in two of the European Union’s founding member states. Similar demands are likely in Denmark and, maybe, Sweden. Although nothing obliges existing governments to give way to this pressure, the British vote seems certain to make exit referendums a central issue in French and Dutch elections next year.

As a result, Germany, France, Italy and several other governments are determined to make Britain’s secession from the EU as painful as possible. “Unwinding British membership is bound to be a miserable business anyway. It is not in the EU’s interests to make it seem simple,” one Brussels official said.

German Finance Ministry papers seen by Die Welt newspaper last night expressed concern that Brexit would set off a domino effect, listing Austria, Finland, the Netherlands and Hungary as countries that could follow the UK’s lead. The papers recommend making the UK ‘an associated partner country’ of the remaining 27 EU nations, according to reports.

Mr Cameron, the departing prime minister of a departing country, may be symbolically ejected from parts of the summit in Brussels next week. Several governments believe that he should be asked to leave the room while the “27” discuss their options.

EU governments will warn that Britain must decide rapidly whether it wants to leave completely or whether it wants to remain part of the European single market.

In his resignation speech yesterday, Mr Cameron suggested that true negotiations should not begin before his successor in Downing Street is chosen in September. This leisurely timetable will be rejected by other governments.

The presidents of the EU's main institutions called on London yesterday to act on the Brexit decision “as soon as possible, however painful that process may be.” President François Hollande of France said that the European Union now faced “dissolution…and the immense danger of extremism and populism”. He called on Britain to trigger Article 50 of the EU treaty – the exit clause – “as soon as possible”.

“Britain wants to leave the EU. The EU does not want to leave Britain. London will have to follow the timetable we lay down,” one French official explained.

The European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and the French economy minister, Emmanuel Macron gave similar warnings before Thursday’s vote. Mr Macron said: “To protect the interests of the EU, we cannot leave any margin of ambiguity or let too much time go by…Out is out.”

The EU governments fear that a new British government would try to delay and muddle the exit issue in the hope of winning favourable trade access to the single market without paying into the Brussels budget or allowing free movement of European citizens. In a pre-summit meeting in Berlin on Monday, the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Mr Hollande and the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi will issue a joint statement insisting that that London must make a rapid and clear choice.

EU government are especially worried by the prospect of further, destabilising, in-out referendums in founding member states such as France and the Netherlands.

The departure of Britain – 12 per cent of the EU’s population and 20 per cent of its GDP – will be a crippling injury. The departure of founding members such as France or the Netherlands would be a death blow.

Both the Front National leader in France, Marine Le Pen, and the populist leader in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, are riding high in domestic opinion polls. Both employ the same kind of rhetoric – anti-elite, anti-“expert”, anti-immigrant and pro-sovereignty – as Nigel Farage and leading members of the Brexit campaign.

The divisive electoral map drawn by Thursday’s Brexit voting – old versus young, poor versus rich, small towns versus big cities, the educated versus the less educated – is not exclusive to the UK. It closely resembles the electoral territory staked out by Ms Le Pen’s National Front in France in recent years. It also resembles the constituency of Donald Trump in the United States.

'Londependence' petition calls for London to join the EU on its own

Early yesterday, Ms Le Pen took the unusual step of displaying the union jack on her Twitter page with the message “Victory for freedom!”

“We now need to hold the same referendum in France and in (other) EU countries,” she said.

As things stand, Ms Le Pen seems certain to reach the two-candidate second round run-off in the French presidential elections next April and May. Conventional wisdom is that she is extremely unlikely to be elected president but an EU referendum call might extend her popularity with the kind of alienated, white, blue-collar voters who supported Brexit in northern England and Wales.

In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ anti-EU PVV party threatens to emerges as the dominant force in parliamentary elections next year. “Hurrah for the Brits!”, Mr Wilders tweeted yesterday. “Now it’s our turn. Time for a Dutch referendum!”

Recent polls have put Dutch percentage support for leaving the EU in the mid-40s and French support in the high 30’s.

Danish and Swedish euro-sceptic parties are also likely to press for in-out referenda but they are not likely to be in a position to implement their demands.

French officials have been in the forefront of calls for “punishment” of Britain – partly out of pique but also in self-defence. There must be no question, they say, of London setting the agenda.

The French have been especially alarmed by suggestions by some leading Brexiteers that the UK could unilaterally suspend EU payments and free movement while negotiations continue. If that happened, they say, Brussels should retaliate by withdrawing some UK rights – such as the commercial “passport” which allows British banks and other financial institutions to trade and raise money throughout the EU.

Chancellor Merkel originally suggested a softer approach to avoid an ugly confrontatioin with Britain. She is now said to have come around to the French viewpoint.

Officials have also been drawing up contingency plans for some kind of grand, forward-looking statement at the summit which would prove that the EU is alive and well. |One of the possibilities under discussion is a move towards an EU defence and security policy – something long opposed by Britain.

There may also be calls for a “leap forward” in EU political integration or the formal creation of a two-tier Europe, which would relegate poorer eastern and southern countries to the periphery. No clear consensus exists for any of these policies.

The biggest headache facing the 27 remains how to untangle thousands of ties binding Britain to the EU – and how to replace them with new arrangements or none.

The European Council (summit) president, Donald Tusk, has warned that this process could take at least seven years.

Removing Britain from EU laws would take the official two year “secession” period, he said. If the UK decides to leave both the EU and the single market, it would be “much more difficult” to negotiate what happens next, the former Polish Prime Minister said. That would take at least a further five years “without any guarantee of a success”.

In any case, several European governments believe that their own and the EU’s interests may lie in ensuring a failure.

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