The Brits not ready to leave Brussels | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 16.06.2016
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The Brits not ready to leave Brussels

How do you end a partnership between the EU and the UK after 43 years? Well, you don't have to do much at the start, writes DW's Bernd Riegert from Brussels, as the Brexit is likely to take years.

The owner of "The Old Hack" pub opposite the main offices of the EU Commission doesn't seem too worried in these turbulent weeks in Brussels. Should Britain leave the European Union after 43 years of membership, he says, it won't influence his business much at all.

"People will always want a drink," jokes the Irishman, as he pours a beer for a customer. And, as he points out, even if a Brexit were to occur, there wouldn't be a mass exodus of Brits from the Belgian capital. British officials working in the EU Commission, in the EU's foreign policy arm or in the Council of the European Union would mainly keep working in Brussels.

But one of the regulars who probably won't be coming back to the "Old Hack" all that often will be Nigel Farage. The European Parliamentarian from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), wants his country to leave the EU. "He's here a lot, and wants to throw a big farewell party if Brexit happens," the bar owner says.

Glenis Willmott Europaabgeordnete Großbritannien

Glenis Willmott: leaving the EU will be like jumping into a black hole

"Like jumping into a black hole"

Of the 1200 British citizens working at the European Commission at the moment, only a few of them would probably have to leave their posts immediately if Britain voted to leave the EU on June 23. Jonathan Hill, European Commissioner for Financial Services, would have to make way, as would Rob Wainwright, the chief of Europol. Most others have signed contracts in their own name, so a Brexit would be irrelevant to their job security.

The 73 European parliamentarians from Britain, however, would likely have to pack their bags if a Brexit became reality. Labour MEP Dame Glenis Willmott says that she hopes that she will be able to stay for the duration of this legislative period. After all, it will take a while for the details of the UK's exit from the European Union to be finalized. "I assume that our team can stay for the period that we were voted in for, that is, until the next European elections," Willmott tells DW. "But no one has actually talked to us about it."

At the moment, Willmott is on the campaign trail for keeping the UK in the EU. She's not worried about protecting her job, she says, but is more concerned about the big picture.

"There are so many unknowns," Willmott says. "It's like jumping into a black hole, if people vote to leave. Things will be better and we will be better off, if we stick together."

Belgien Brüssel Janis Emmanouilidis , European Policy Centre

Emmanouilidis believes there will be a lot of questions to be answered if Brexit really happens

EU Commission: No comment

The EU Commission and the Council of the European Union, who represent the individual member states, are not commenting on what might happen if Britain leaves the EU. A spokesman says there is no Plan B, nor any consideration as to how the country would actually leave the union.

The relevant paragraph in the Lisbon Treaty says merely that a member state has to put its intention to leave the bloc in writing, and that the details need to be negotiated within two years. It's unknown whether during this phase the departing country could vote in the European Council, whether it would still have to pay membership fees or whether it would still get money from Brussels. Sources inside the EU Commission say that should Britain opt to leave the EU, then it would be left out of decision-making almost immediately.

"On political issues, we will have to wait and see whether Britain decides to not be involved any more," counters EU expert Janis Emmanouilidis, in discussion with DW. "From a legal standpoint, they actually have every right to take part and to vote."

But when it comes to negotiations on leaving the bloc, the situation becomes less clear, Emmanouilidis admits.

"It's never happened before," he says. "We are in unchartered waters. It will be the first time we are in a situation like this and there will be a lot of questions."

This could get ugly

Emmanouilidis is, however, certain that the remaining 27 member states of the EU won't make the Brexit easy for the UK. "It will be a long and tiring process, where we don't actually know how long it will take," says European Policy Center expert. "It won't be much fun to watch."

MEP Glenis Willmott is uncertain how things would progress after a Brexit, saying that the "Leave" supporters haven't thought through a plan. "If you speak to people from that campaign then they don't have any idea or any answers, about what relationship we should have to Europe," Willmott complains. "Will it be a free trade agreement? Will we have a status similar to Norway? We don't have any idea what would happen."

Nigel Farage, whose UKIP party has been fighting to leave Europe for years, wants Britain to trade with the rest of Europe, but doesn't want the country to pay for membership of the bloc. Britain could become part of the European Free Trade Association which currently includes Norway, Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Iceland.

These countries have unrestricted access to EU markets and can take part in the bloc's programs too. But they have to pay a type of contribution for the privilege. Norway, for instance, coughs up 866 million euros ($978 million) a year. If this contribution were adjusted to match the size and economic power of the UK, Britain's yearly EFTA contribution would amount to 9 billion euros a year. That's just two billion euros less than what they currently pay the EU.

Just days before the Brexit referendum, a number of questions still remain unanswered in Brussels. The expat Brits in the Belgian capital are continuing with a stiff upper lip, under the motto, "Keep calm and carry on!" But the nerves are starting to show, even if many here could make use of a final escape, according to Janis Emmanouilidis. "Many Brits know their rights and will apply for Belgian citizenship," he predicts. "Or they will take the nationality of their partner, as long as they are not British."