On the day Britain had been scheduled to leave the European Union a week ago, I was invited to an event in central Brussels that was meant to be an elegy for the loss of an important partner, with sombre readings and speeches. It turned into a punch-drunk celebration, the Belgians and Britons spilling out into the cobblestones on a warm Friday night in happy relief at the United Kingdom’s comically botched departure. Given this week’s House of Commons chaos and ever-debated deadlines, there might soon be a repeat engagement.
Elsewhere in town, there is a more substantial and lasting mood of satisfaction. Britain may yet end its 46-year membership in the 28-nation bloc, possibly in a catastrophic way; but there is a dawning sense, in this city’s sterile European quarter, that this has been a strategic and ideological victory.
Say what you will about Brexit, but it has unquestionably been a triumph of effective, measured diplomacy and exhaustive, intelligent planning.
Absolutely none of it has been on the British side, mind you.
Brussels has a well-deserved reputation for bureaucratic inaction, organizational myopia and opaque, inhuman leadership. The things that turned Britons and other Europeans off about the EU, as an organization, are real. But something about Brexit brought out the higher democratic principles behind the union, cut through the administrative morass and brought the member countries together around well-picked representatives.
The first of those was European Council president Donald Tusk who, as a former prime minister of Poland and a survivor of its 20th-century traumas, did not need to be reminded why, in an organized community of democracies, solidarity matters. And solidarity is what he delivered: For months before Britain’s 2016 referendum vote, he marshalled the 27 governments around a common position – one from which, over the next three years, they would not waver.
Britain would be encouraged to exercise its right to leave. But it would not be permitted to begin negotiating its post-Brexit relationship with Europe until after it was gone – contrary to what the United Kingdom’s Brexiteers had hoped. And there would be no negotiations with any individual countries, including its EU neighbour Ireland – the only talks would be in Brussels. And if it wanted a divorce deal that kept goods and money flowing across the border while a post-Brexit relationship was being negotiated – a process that could take a decade – it would have to find a way to keep the Irish border open.
Britain, on the other hand, had planned nothing. Former prime minister David Cameron, believing a referendum loss impossible, refused to authorize plans for a Leave outcome. His successor, Theresa May, tried to improvise and work her political contacts, and was blocked at every step.
EU negotiators Michel Barnier, a French politician respected across the bloc, and Jean-Claude Juncker, the droll former prime minister of Luxembourg, held Ms. May and her cabinet hard to these lines. She was forced to accept a set of compromises that have led to 39 members of her government resigning over the past year, and to the deadlock in the House of Commons. Even if Britain does exit the EU, hard or soft, that will only be the beginning of many more wasted years of chaos and compromise and dysfunction.
No other EU government, no matter how anti-Brussels, will ever want to repeat that experience.
Indeed, even Steve Bannon, the extreme-right former adviser to Donald Trump who has spent recent years trying to drum up ethnic-nationalist movements in Europe, complained last week that Brussels’ negotiating success around Brexit has been fatal to anti-EU politics across the continent. “There has been a shift, definitely a shift,” he lamented to Chico Harlan of The Washington Post. Since 2016, “I have not seen one [party], except the U.K. guys, say ‘we want to exit.’… The agony of Britain in the last two years has clearly been a subtext for [other Euro-skeptic governments to say] ‘Let’s try to make this thing [Europe] work’.”
Whether in Italy, Hungary, Poland or the Czech Republic, no political leader on the populist right seems interested any longer in following the path of Britain. Today, they would rather lobby to reduce the EU’s powers, or get it to enforce tougher immigration policies or stack its Parliament. Leaving no longer looks like a desirable option.
Behind that shift is a larger victory: The Brexit experience has reshaped the attitudes of Europe’s 500 million citizens. Polls taken in recent months have found that two-thirds of European voters now believe the EU is a force for the good – the highest level of voter support the EU has enjoyed since the early 1980s.
Three years ago, most of us expected Brexit to inaugurate a cascade of countries leaving the pact and a crumbling of its support. Instead, the opposite has happened. Maybe it was something about the sight of angry governments closing borders, and of hateful figures such as Mr. Bannon looming on the horizon, that reminded a lot of Europeans of the historic tragedies that led them to create this thing in the first place.