Leave victory should send chill down EU's collective spine

You could almost feel the hulking edifices that house the European Union’s main institutions in Brussels shrinking in on themselves as the news arrived with a grey dawn that one of their own, even if only reluctantly so, would be leaving after all — divorce papers to be delivered soon.

Britain's exit will be huge psychological blow to the Union, even if no one should be surprised

Supporters of the 'Stronger In' Campaign watch the results of the EU referendum, announced at a results party. (Rob Stothard/AFP/Getty Images)

You could almost feel the hulking edifices that house the European Union's main institutions in Brussels shrinking in on themselves as the news arrived with a grey dawn that one of their own, even if only reluctantly so, would be leaving after all — divorce papers to be delivered soon.

The first to congratulate Britain's Leave campaign on the win and the pending separation were other, presumably like-minded individuals. 

"Hurrah for the British! Now it is our turn. Time for a Dutch referendum," tweeted Geert Wilders, leader of the right-wing Dutch Party for Freedom. 

"A Victory for Liberty," chimed in Marine Le Pen, who heads the anti-immigrant National Front in France, a formidable force. 

It should send a chill down the collective spine of the European Union. Germany Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier seemed to be feeling it, calling the news "truly sobering and a sad day for both Britain and the EU." 

Despite all the griping in European capitals about Britain's demands for special treatment over the years, Britain's exit from the EU, if it does indeed follow, will be a huge psychological blow for the Union, even if no one should really be surprised. 

The political classes here in Brussels seemed to sleep through the potential strength of the Leave camp, just as the Remain camp seemed to — with winks and predictions that in the end, people would come to their senses, do the right thing and tick the right box in the privacy of their own ballot station. 

The Europeans I've spoken to this past week genuinely wanted to see Britain stay in. 

Debt, refugee crises

"I don't honestly know if I would like to stay in an EU without Britain," an Estonian woman told me earlier in the week with a worried look, saying her country feels very close to the U.K. ideologically. 

This morning, the various leaders of the EU's Council, Parliament and Commission were circling the wagons, holding back-to-back media scrums, gestures of reassurance to EU citizens who might be questioning whether the bloc can withstand another crisis. 

Nobody has a clue what they're doing.- Former cabinet minister Ken Clarke

It's been a tough couple of years for the EU, the highlights being the Greek debt crisis and the refugee crisis. 

"The Brexit crisis comes up on top and makes management of the other crisis much more difficult," said Steven Blockmans of the European Centre for Policy Studies. 

The president of the European Parliament, Martin Shulz, has said he expects negotiations on a British exit to begin soon. But that's not automatically the case. 

To extricate itself from its treaty obligations, it must invoke Article 50, which then sets the clock running on a two-year negotiating period, which could be extended. 

Message to skeptics

The prospect of more drawn-out negotiations has many Eurocrats shaking their heads and hunching their own shoulders in dread at the prospect. 

Brockmans predicts Britain will be given a tough time, not so much punishment, as a need to send a message to other Euro-skeptic movements trying to form their own exit strategies. 

"Governments in place now will want to prevent other countries from going that way. It will in fact lead to very tough negotiations on separation with Great Britain," he said. 

A man carries an EU flag, after Britain voted to leave the European Union, outside Downing Street in London. (Neil Hall/Reuters)

And as the former Conservative cabinet minister Ken Clarke told me in an interview last week, first the U.K. will have to sort out its own affairs. 

"Nobody has a clue what they're doing," Clarke said of the Leave campaign. 

Clarke is a longtime advocate of the EU and campaigned for the Remain side. He says he's constantly surprised by Britain's long-held suspicion of the continent. 

"The debate's been slightly irrational and rather neurotic from the moment it started," he said. And with such a divided country in the form of the U.K. it looks set to continue for some time to come. 

When the Nordic countries such as Sweden and Finland were negotiating to join the EU back in the 1990s, negotiators were constantly stopping the clock to expand their deadlines and make room for last-minute compromises. They even did it to watch the Olympic gold-medal hockey game between Sweden and Canada. 

The building housing the European Commission in Brussels, nicknamed the Berlaymonster. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

So I take it with a little grain of salt when they say out means out, there's no going back, there's no special deal. Who knows. Maybe the Brits have left a little trail of crumbs behind so they can find their way back, however unlikely that seems. 

But for now Brussels feels like a sad place, a little piece of it, however contrary, slipping away. Even my old friend the Berlaymonster, the nickname for the building housing the European Commission seems a little shell-shocked.


Margaret Evans

Senior International Correspondent

Margaret Evans is the Senior International Correspondent for CBC News based in the London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.