Brexit Pushes EU Into the Great Unknown and Brussels Is Speechless

Britain is divorcing the EU, and in Brussels no one even dared to prepare a contingency plan.

Shlomo Papirblat
Shlomo Papirblat
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EU Parliament leader Martin Schulz, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, Juncker's Head of Cabinet, Martin Selmayr and President of the European Council, Donald Tusk in Brussels on June 24, 2016.
EU Parliament leader Martin Schulz, European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, Juncker's Head of Cabinet, Martin Selmayr and President of the European Council, Donald Tusk in Brussels on June 24, Credit: Francois Lenoir, Reuters
Shlomo Papirblat
Shlomo Papirblat

BRUSSELS – For some time on Friday morning, after the results of the British vote to leave the European Union were announced, the Euronews channel broadcast aerial pictures of London - without any sound. This was the feeling too in the area of Schuman Square in Brussels, the center of the "European Quarter" of the city where the major institutions of the EU are located: Shock and speechlessness.

A group of EU officials and staff, employees of the European Commission in its Berlaymont building, crowded around the entrance trading experiences in various languages. The pessimism and negative feelings showing clearly on many of their faces.

Whoever wanted to display some optimism, enthusiastically quoted the tweet from the European Parliament member from Luxembourg, Viviane Reding, the former vice president of the European Commission, that sometimes a successful divorce is better than a failed marriage. This was the morning's biggest hit among those looking for some comfort. Some asked, possibly in jest and possibly out of worry, whether the EU's English translators should begin to worry about their jobs.

This lack of words was expressed in a cartoon published Friday morning by the cartoonist Le Kroll in the Belgian newspaper "Le Soir" in French: One of the queen's servants says next to her bed, "We are leaving, your majesty," and she responds, "Then let me sleep, because I don't know what to think about it."

The biggest question over the past few days in the Berlaymont building was whether an emergency plan had been prepared to provide an immediate response to the first few days following the British vote to leave. None of the EU's senior officials were willing to answer, based on the assumption that even the knowledge of the very existence of such a document could influence the results of the referendum.

Journalists were told at a briefing that many things had been verbally discussed; a mix of ideas and advice, but no one risked putting them down in writing and prepare a working paper on the matter. Now, everyone will have to rush to search the charters and union agreements for the rules on the possible exit of a country from the bloc – a scenario that had been until now only a theoretical possibility. Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty deals with the matter, but beyond the official wording of the slim protocol lies a deep chasm.

Article 50 of the EU's Lisbon Treaty that deals with the mechanism for departure. Brussels, Belgium, June 24, 2016.Credit: Francois Lenoir, Reuters

In any case, all the heads of the political groups in the European Parliament were invited to a meeting Friday morning, scheduled well in advance, with Martin Schulz, the president of parliament, in order to formulate a quick response. Schulz will meet later in the day with Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, and with Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission.

These three tenors of the EU are supposed to release calming statements of the type: "We regret the decision, but recognize the British right to decide their own fate, and this is not the end of the EU." But it is clear at this stage already that Britain's exit from the EU is one great unknown in every way concerning the future of the EU.

European Parliament President Martin Schultz speaks during a media conference at European Parliament in Brussels Friday, June 24, 2016. Credit: Olivier Matthys, AP

Either way, the leaders of all EU nations, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, who resigned Friday morning after the results of the vote were announced, or his successor, are scheduled to arrive in Brussels on Tuesday to discuss the referendum results. This will be the first meeting of EU leaders to be held in the shadow of a member country deciding to leave the club, which was considered to be the most prestigious on the continent – until now. For now, it was announced that the foreign ministers of the six founding members of the EU: Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, will meet on Saturday for an emergency meeting. The meet will be held – very symbolically now – not in Brussels, but in Berlin.

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