There is no escaping the melancholy in many European papers marking Britain’s departure from the European Union (EU). Images of a rent EU flag or its broken and scattered stars illustrate the fears many have for Brexit’s impact on the union.
There’s also relief that this milestone has finally been reached, and there are hopes of rebuilding ties with Britain as a trading partner.
Some believe Britain will find new strength in its self-reliance. But accompanying this is a continued wariness of the uncertainty in trade negotiations to come.
‘Tragic defeat for everyone’
“Like a thief in the night, [Britain] will leave the European Union late on Friday,” says the Belgian paper De Morgen. “The way the EU is losing a member state for the first time in its history is a tragic defeat for everyone.”
“Brexit is, inescapably a terrible loss,” says the Irish Times. “The EU will be weaker… and Ireland has lost a valuable ally at the EU table.”
It is “a defeat for EU and the European idea, a defeat for anyone who has primarily liked to think of the EU as a peace project,” says Norway’s Aftenposten.
“It is a relief, it is a loss, it is a failure,” agrees another Belgian daily Le Soir. The paper calls the moment a “historic turning point”, with the EU now “dwindling, shrinking, shrivelling”.
“When London leaves the community, all the countries there will feel orphans, especially those that have never believed in European integration,” says Italy’s Il Sole 24 Ore.
Some are counting the cost in detail: “The EU will lose a significant part of its population, discover a 60-billion-euro hole in the budget and have only one permanent member of the UN Security Council with nuclear weapons,” notes a commentator in the French daily Les Echos.
Others believe there is a broader, existential dilemma.
“The debate on the future of the club coincides with a very delicate moment in the international situation, marked by an unprecedented challenge to the world order,” says the Spanish daily El Pais.
Brexit could be ‘source of envy’
There are calls for greater self-reflection within the EU. “When will Brussels start the inquiry into its own share in this divorce?” asks a commentator for the Dutch financial channel RTLZ. “It would be better if Brussels finally looked at itself in the mirror and started wondering about what aversion the British – and too many other Europeans – are experiencing.”
Austria’s Der Standard appears to agree: “Should the British ever rejoin a European community, it would be an organisation significantly different from the EU in its current form. Should this be considered a bad thing?”
Some perceive an economic threat from the UK.
“There is a great concern in Brussels that competition is emerging from the coast,” says the German business daily Handelsblatt.
Brexit “could become a source of envy if the British demonstrate all the agility they are known to be capable of”, says France’s Le Figaro. “Let us not imagine that they will sink into a kind of post-divorce spleen.”
Brussels will now want to prevent the emergence of a tax haven on its doorstep, the paper adds, warning the EU may suffer from competition with a “Singapore-on-Thames”.
To that end, there are appeals to rebuild relations and recognise that Britain and the EU still rely on each other – especially when negotiating future trade relations.
“Know that Belgium is still open for business. And that you are still welcome in Brussels,” says the Belgian financial De Tijd, in a letter addressed to the British people.
“It is so important from the EU side that.. no hurt pride rejects the desired partnership,” says Austria’s Die Presse.
‘The truly difficult part starts’
Little changes in practical terms from today, given the UK enters an 11-month transition period to negotiate new ties, but “it is quite possible that a few months from now the risk of ‘no deal’ will appear again,” says Poland’s Gazeta Wyborcza.
“The problem is that the Boris Johnson government views many EU regulations as constraints” and that “there have been indications” the UK intends to distance itself from EU laws and regulations, it says.
“They know they are playing 27 against one but also, across the Channel, they believe they have aces up their sleeve,” muses Italy’s La Stampa. “In defence or foreign policy, for example, they know they are indispensable for Brussels.”
“Now, the truly difficult part begins,” says Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter.
Brexit since 2016: The long, absurd goodbye
The immediate aftermath of the Brexit vote in 2016 was characterised in catastrophic, irreversible terms by many – an earthquake, the worst crisis in Europe’s history for the UK and for Europe.
As the deadlock over the terms on which the UK left continued however, the tone slowly turned to exasperation and bewilderment at what appeared, to some, to be a grotesquely absurd situation.
Images of clowns, references to the Marx brothers, Monty Python, and Mr Bean have all been used in commentary, as well as an already familiar photo of Mr Johnson dangling, legs akimbo, from a zipline.
To some, the absurdity is still evident.
“Should we laugh or cry?” asks the Hungarian business weekly Heti Vilaggazdasag. “To give history the finger… appears an overreaction to [former Tory leader David] Cameron’s experiment with disciplining his own party,” says Slovakia’s Sme newspaper.
“The fact that the British voluntarily chose to leave that big, free market and that they must simultaneously try to regain access to it, indicates how absurd the entire idea of Brexit is,” says De Standaard.