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Is This the End? France, Other EU Countries Brace for Brexit Vote

  • Lisa Bryant

A slogan in support of Britain's exit from the EU is seen in an image from the French National Front-Youth Wing's Facebook page. The slogan reads "Vote for Brexit and we will handle the champagne."

A slogan in support of Britain's exit from the EU is seen in an image from the French National Front-Youth Wing's Facebook page. The slogan reads "Vote for Brexit and we will handle the champagne."

Le weekend, le sandwich, le business, le feeling. Pints, pubs, rugby and Marks & Spencer.

A centuries-old love-hate relationship with Britain has left an indelible mark on France, so it’s no surprise that today people here are closely eyeing - with much worry and some anticipation - another potential Britishism: Le Brexit.

“At stake is more than the future of the United Kingdom in the European Union. It is the future of the European Union," French President Francois Hollande said on the eve of Britain's referendum, warning a British exit from the EU would be "irreversible."

As Britons vote Thursday on whether to remain in the EU, that sentiment is being echoed by many mainstream leaders across the 28-member bloc, as they nervously eye a possible exit.

A bar in Paris shows one of the many British influences in the French capital. (L.Bryant/VOA)

A bar in Paris shows one of the many British influences in the French capital. (L.Bryant/VOA)

“Certainly there’s a lot of apprehension among those who really care about the European integration process,” says Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the Brussels-based European Policy Center.

Yet the broader European reaction is complex and conflicting, as is the possible fallout of a British departure. Some analysts suggest an exit will deliver at least a short-term blow to economically fragile EU members like Greece and Portugal, and those like Ireland and Germany with strong trade ties to Britain. Europeans working in Britain also worry about losing jobs and pensions.

“France will have a lot to lose, because Britain is France’s second-biggest trading partner after Germany,” adds Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, Paris office director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, noting Britain also helps counter economic powerhouse Germany.

Britishisms in Paris. A breakfast menu at a French restaurant is replete with samples. (L. Bryant/VOA)

Britishisms in Paris. A breakfast menu at a French restaurant is replete with samples. (L. Bryant/VOA)


Others describe broader threats of a British exit to Europe’s international standing and dreams of an ever closer union.

“I think the biggest loss would be the EU’s global weight,” says Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ Paris office. “With this idea that you can get out of it, rather than finding compromises to respond to challenges, the EU would become less formidable, less attractive.”

Broad discontent

Polls show a majority of European citizens oppose a Brexit, even if few are fond of Brussels.

Many Europeans disapprove of the bloc’s economic management and the way it handled the migrant crisis, according to a study by the U.S.-based Pew Research Center. Another survey by German research organization The Bertelsmann Foundation found that while citizens in the biggest EU states would back staying in the bloc, if similar referendums were held in their countries, only a slim majority of French and Italians would do so.

Didier Ajuelos (R) is no fan of the EU but believes it's better to be in than out. (L. Bryant/VOA)

Didier Ajuelos (R) is no fan of the EU but believes it's better to be in than out. (L. Bryant/VOA)


“There’s been nothing positive about the EU. They tell us how the euro is good for us, but we French have lost more than we’ve gained,” says Paris-area car dealer Didier Ajuelos.

Still, Ajuelos reluctantly throws his weight behind Brussels.

“In today’s world, you’re stronger together than out on your own,” he says.

Many European nationalist parties, however, are broadly cheering on a British departure.

“Vote Brexit, and we’ll handle the champagne,” France’s far-right National Front youth wing urges on its Facebook page.

“It will give the British freedom, and it will show other countries that it’s possible to renegotiate EU treaties or to leave altogether,” says leader Gaetan Dussausaye.

Passengers are seen heading to board the London-bound Eurostar in the Gare du Nord in Paris, one of many ties that bind Britain to France. (L. Bryant/VOA)

Passengers are seen heading to board the London-bound Eurostar in the Gare du Nord in Paris, one of many ties that bind Britain to France. (L. Bryant/VOA)


A Brexit vote may indeed give Euroskeptics reason for hope, analyst Zuleeg believes, but only if Britain negotiates a good deal after leaving the bloc.

“But if the U.K. suffers economically and politically, then I think it’s not an example other countries would follow,” he adds.

Consequences

Some analysts predict those remaining will make Britain pay dearly for leaving the EU. With the anti-EU National Front surging ahead of next year’s French presidential elections, France will likely lead the pack, the German Marshall Fund’s Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer says.

“Paris will push to ensure that consequences are felt swiftly and severely to avoid encouraging anti-EU forces,” she says.

“There will be consequences, and the U.K. will lose some advantages,” agrees Lafont Rapnouil of the European Council, although he believes it’s too early to predict the fallout.

Along with anger, Britain’s referendum has also sparked calls for reforming the EU.

“Whatever the outcome of the British referendum, afterwards Europe will not be able to shy away from a few much-needed debates,” Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern told Britain’s The Guardian newspaper.

In France, former European minister Elisabeth Guigou called for ‘refounding the European project’ in a bloc buffeted by crises.

Lafont Rapnouil believes significant reforms are unlikely ahead of the French elections, and with general elections expected in another year or so in another EU force, Germany.

Still, he says, the debate needs to be opened on how Europe moves forward on a range of key issues, from banking to a digital single market.

“What do we do in terms of solving the eurozone crisis for good, or on security, or the refugee crisis or a multi-speed Europe?” he asks.

“Now is precisely the time for Europe and France to move beyond ambiguity and give a clearer sense of the direction we want to go.”

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