Brussels Babylon II: An Insider's Guide to Brexit from the EU's HQ
NGO workers, journalists, civil servants, lobbyists and consultants working inside the Euro-bubble told us as candidly as they could what they think of Brexit.
Theresa May meets European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in February. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / Alamy Stock Photo
Almost three years ago, just before an EU referendum that was slated to be chip paper by the 24th of June, we phoned up a bunch of British foot soldiers who worked inside the Brussels bubble – the lobbyists, the journalists, the parliament wonks and NGO types, the lawyers and general supra-national superstate groupies – and got them to talk about life: the sex, drugs, money and endless carousel of schmoozing. Then we forgot about them.
But somehow, those same people couldn't forget about Brexit. In fact, they’ve spent two-and-a-half years living through the severing of their home country from where they currently live. So what’s the vibe now? Six-hundred hours from leaving the EU, our anonymous friends are back from the dead, Weekend At Bernie's II style, and this time… it's serious.
THE MOOD AROUND TOWN
"I don't think anything substantial has changed here in the past two-and-a-half years, except that there's better coffee and cocktails now, and people are sick of talking about Brexit."
"There’s a mood of sadness and… incredible boredom. They don’t want to hear about it day-in, day-out. It's so tedious. Ninety-eight percent of people in Brussels are not dealing with Brexit. Only a small minority are working Brexit as a primary occupation."
"I saw Barnier the other day and he was pissed – he was so mad he was red in the face. The bottom line is: there's no change to circumstances, so there can be no change to the agreement."
"A lot of the fun has gone out of it - there’s too much negativity in the EU Parliament at the moment. You only have to look at the way the negotiators are behaving. Even Donald Tusk – who I always would have said was the most sympathetic of the lot – has resorted to badmouthing the Brits."
"As a lobbyist, whenever you’re doing a proposal, now you have to have a Brexit section. But it’s more of a question mark than a plan – flagging up that there will be uncertainty. Obviously no one knows quite what that is yet, so the whole thing’s a bit futile."
"If this goes wrong then everyone in Brussels will unanimously blame the UK government. The seeds for that have been planted."
"My boss – who is an MEP – won’t tell me what he’s going to do. He asked me what I was doing, and I said, and then I asked him, and he didn’t want to say!"
"I don’t see Brits here having super-long futures. Most of the higher-ups are just getting Irish or Belgian citizenship. The problem is, people of my [young] age and my position are a bit screwed – my career path will be stunted. I can probably get the next contract, but at least within the Parliament it might be a bit unsavoury for them to employ me."
"Brits who are there on staff contracts have been told they will be able to keep their contracts, but they won’t be promoted."
GETTING UP AND LEAVING
"People are leaving in small, individual ways. One of my friends went to Barcelona – he decided to use freedom of movement while it lasts. Another went to Berlin to work in tech."
"I don’t wanna go! Most Brits here don’t want to go back to Britain. What are we going to do in London? My background’s in European Studies – this is what I’ve trained for. But then again, because English is the lingua franca, there’s always going to be jobs for us somewhere here."
THE VIEW OF BRITAIN FROM BRUSSELS
“Honestly? It’s put me off visiting the UK. I don’t feel super comfortable there. I don’t want to have to get into a conversation with someone who really believes this is a good idea, because they’re screwing my life chances over. If they genuinely believe some of my friends should be fired? That we should be weaker? Then fuck them."
"For all their faults, the EU has actually gone according to the process, as it’s written down, so no one here is blaming the EU for this. Normally the morning conversations all start with. 'What have the Brits done now?'"
"The Commission have tried everything to cater to the UK’s whims and wishes, so they can’t complain."
"People here are pissed off about how misinformed the UK press are, and how rude. We’ve got a few really great UK journalists here, but Radio Suisse have more reporters here than the BBC. That kind of says something, no?"
"People are very sympathetic to regular Brits. It’s one thing to talk about the negotiations, but they understand ordinary Brits caught in the middle of this."
"It’s so divided and toxic in the UK – I don’t think I could go back to that any more. My home is here now."
THE RUSH FOR PASSPORTS
"I’m personally going to try to get Belgian citizenship. Failing that, an 'administrative marriage'. You have to be here for five years to qualify, which most of the higher-ups already have. I need one more year to qualify."
"I don’t feel Belgian in my heart. I like this country, I call it home, there’s a lot I love about it… and some things I don’t. But really, it’s a tool to be European: I want all the advantages of a European passport."
"It’s easy enough. You have to do a citizenship test and speak one of the three official languages – French, Dutch or German. The problem is its handled by Belgian bureaucracy, and until recently they've had a particularly fascist immigration minister who would take any excuse not to grant citizenship."
"The British consulate here has emailed us to say that we need to change our driving licenses to international ones. I’m doing mine next week."
"I don't think anyone gives a damn about them anymore. Honestly. Most of the time they’re not even here. UKIP has become one of those things where everyone still loves to rip on Farage every now and then, but broadly it’s not relevant."
"I know one [Brexiteer] MEP, and he regrets the referendum and doesn’t actually want to leave the EU now. He spends a lot of his days drinking. He always goes to the pub my housemate works above. He will sit there drinking for eight hours. I can’t imagine he has much else to do – I mean, they got what they wanted…"
"I’ve just gone downstairs to talk to you and I can see three UKIP MEPs at a bar on the Place de Luxembourg, and they were definitely there when I arrived three hours ago."
"Apparently the best-attendance UKIP's MEPs have ever shown was when they held a meeting last month on the pension rights of ex-MEPs."
THE COMING POPULISTS
There’s an EU election in May of this year, so there’s been all this talk about these anti-EU MEPs coming in and taking over about a third of the Parliament. But I don’t know if they’re going to change things. If you look at Italy, for example, the populists there are all over the news as being troublemakers, but actually, they talk a big game, but they want to be a part of it. They get to see the way the EU works and discover that the benefits, for all the bureaucracy, outweigh the costs.
"They are going to be a force within the Parliament. But the thing is, these people can’t work together. Five Star and UKIP sit in the same group, and they vote completely different ways."
"I’m optimistic about [the EU’s] long-term survival. Ironically, I think the populists who’ll be elected in 2019 will save it, by constraining the EU from doing some of its madder integrationist projects."
THE EU FROM HERE ON IN
"There’s very little introspection from the Commission. There’s just a lot of hatred towards the British government, on all sides. Even among Eurosceptic Brits."
"They’re falling apart. The EU project was a house of cards built on a sea of shifting sands. And that is only now dawning on them."
"There’s very little openness to dissidents. It’s classic bubble thinking – technocratic thinking. Despite the fact that people do realise there are some black clouds forming, they’re not really trying to do too much about it."
"There’s a bunfight going on for the spoils of the British departure. The Dutch are lining up to take as many seats in the Commission as possible."
"The negotiations have been tough, and I think that has served as a warning. Before, there were always questions about the Czech Republic, or the Danes, even the French at one point, leaving. And now even the likes of Le Pen are not saying that they want to leave anymore."
THE HOLE THAT WILL BE LEFT
"People ultimately understand this is not a good thing for the EU project, but when they say that they want to keep Britain in, they’re speaking from the heart. That’s not a pose."
"The British brought with them a very open perspective. For example, if you look at race, many of the British people will be from minorities. That integration is happening elsewhere on the continent, but at a slower pace than it is in Britain. Syed Kamall, for instance, who is the chair of the entire voting bloc that the Tories belong to, is of Pakistani descent. People like him will be harder to find in the EU27."
"The Brits are the most well-travelled of any nationality in the EU. I’ve been here ten years now, and I meet lots of Brits who have lived in Asia, in Africa, in Canada or Australia. I think many people realise that is going to be lost, and regret it."
"The majority of my European colleagues are like: we’re really sad you’re leaving, because we see the Brits as bringing a kind of level-headedness to discussions."
"Well, the Brits like a drink, don’t they? Bless them."