Παρασκευή, 1 Ιουλίου 2016

Brexit blues at David Cameron’s last supper in Brussels



29/6/2016

By Alex Barker in Brussels

Candour and criticism as EU leaders bid farewell to UK prime minister

There was something different about David Cameron’s last EU supper. The mood was good-tempered, the jibes few and far between, the atmosphere sober but for the occasional laugh.

Emerging from the British prime minister’s three-hour summit farewell on Tuesday, one northern European leader remarked that given the circumstances it could have been far worse — “but only nice things can be said about the dead”.

Indeed, behind all the pleasantries there was the feel of a Brussels wake, as Europe grappled with a Brexit vote that has upended Britain’s political establishment and left the EU bracing for its first big divorce.

Over a starter of quail salad and a main course of poached veal, EU leaders spoke into the night, bidding farewell to the bloc’s second-longest serving leader, recalling centuries of shared history and preparing to bring an end to Britain’s 43-year experiment in sharing sovereignty.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, described the occasion as sad, “but it is a reality”.

“We’re politicians and we shouldn’t be detained for too long by sorrow,” she said after the dinner. “We made our feelings clear [but] we have to accept reality and draw the necessary conclusions.”

Mr Cameron’s view was straightforward enough. He was sorry that Britain had voted to leave the EU. He had tried his best to avoid it but his plan had not worked. Immigration was his undoing. Had he been given a stronger “emergency brake” on EU migrant numbers, the result might have been different.

François Hollande, the French president, said Mr Cameron was “emotional” when he spoke of the “lies and the approximations” of the Leave campaign.

Yet when Mr Cameron turned to the matter of succession, he kept his calm. He noted it could be Boris Johnson or Theresa May sitting around this table next time for Britain; both Conservative party colleagues were “pragmatic”, he said, showing no grievance against the Brexit-backing former London mayor who hastened his political demise. An early general election was unlikely, he added, but not impossible.

His intervention was followed by a phalanx of old allies around the summit table, starting with Mark Rutte of the Netherlands and Ireland’s Enda Kenny, who riffed on the 800 years of direct English rule of Ireland to make a point on the importance of keeping its borders open with the UK after Brexit.

Charles Michel, the Belgian prime minister, was the most critical of the evening, asking why Britain was taking its time to invoke the EU’s divorce clause. Other leaders privately shared his exasperation.

However, Ms Merkel counselled calm. Journalists cared about the next five or 20 days, she said, while heads of government needed to care about the next 20 years. The EU had to find a way forward on Brexit but there was no need to rush Britain at a time of crisis.

The mood was finally lifted with the words of Greece’s Alexis Tsipras, the last prime minister to rattle a summit of EU leaders with threats of a referendum. Such votes were not difficult, he said. There were only two outcomes possible and you needed to be prepared for both — which is why he was “surprised” by the situation in the UK. The room erupted in laughter.

Mini tributes came and went around the table, from Danes and Latvians to Poles, Croats and Slovenes. Many spoke of the dark Eurosceptic clouds hanging over their project. There was a touch of gallows humour.

One leader of a small country quipped: “If we left, perhaps nobody would notice — but the UK is our second-biggest economy.”

Viktor Orban of Hungary simply said: “Thank you.”

Finally it came to Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president whose appointment Mr Cameron tried in vain to block. He upbraided national leaders for using Brussels as a political punch bag. In a press conference later he rejected Mr Cameron’s claim that immigration was the cause of the referendum loss.

“My impression is that if you, over years if not decades, tell citizens that something is wrong with the EU, that the EU is too technocratic, too bureaucratic, you cannot be taken by surprise if voters believe you,” he said.

With a wry smile, he had one parting quip: Mr Cameron should fill the vacancy in the commission and be Britain’s next EU commissioner. There were laughs but they belied the reality of the UK’s influence slipping away in Brussels.

Donald Tusk, European Council president, closed the evening, inviting diners to reconvene the next day for a working breakfast on the consequences of Brexit.

The 27 EU leaders bar Mr Cameron, that is; the UK prime minister no longer had a seat at the table.

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