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Europeans watch Brexit chaos in 'disbelief and bewilderment'

NBC News logo NBC News 2/21/2019 Rachel Elbaum
a man standing in front of a building: Image: Shiren Hermanns outside the European Commission building in Brussels © Susannah Ireland Image: Shiren Hermanns outside the European Commission building in Brussels

BRUSSELS — Europeans in Brussels, the unofficial capital of the E.U., have some choice words to describe Britain's attempt to leave the 28-country bloc.

"Horrifying," "chaotic" and "frustrating" are just a few of them.

There are just 36 days left until Brexit, and lawmakers have been unable to agree on how it will leave and what the future relationship will look like.

"It's like watching a car crash in slow motion and you can't do anything to stop it," said Jess Fitch, who was born and raised in Belgium to British parents and is a U.K. national.

a person sitting at a desk in front of a computer: Image: Jess Fitch © Rachel Elbaum Image: Jess Fitch

Fitch, 29, applied for Belgian citizenship just two days after the Brexit referendum in June 2016. She got it but her brother, who moved to the U.K. as an adult, was not so lucky.

"I don't blame the voters. They've been sold out. I'm angry with the British establishment," said Fitch, a communications coordinator who also co-owns an Irish pub in Brussels.

She is far from the only person here shaking their head at the U.K.'s handling of Brexit.

Only three years ago, Britain was largely seen as a powerful force in the bloc. But the referendum result sent shock waves through not only U.K.'s political establishment but Europe's, too.

At first there was sadness in Europe, but also the hope that the relationship would remain close even if Britain left the bloc.

Fast forward two years, and that's not quite the case anymore.

U.K. lawmakers who need to approve a divorce deal are seemingly deadlocked.

In January, Prime Minister Theresa May's withdrawal agreement with the E.U. was crushed in Parliament, with more than a third of the lawmakers in her own ruling Conservative Party refusing to back it.

The opposition Labour Party is just as divided on how, or if, the U.K. should leave. On Monday, seven of its lawmakers resigned from the party to form what they called the Independent Group. Some of May's Conservatives followed two days later.

a man wearing a suit and tie sitting at a table: Image: Petros Fassoulas © Rachel Elbaum Image: Petros Fassoulas

"The fact that it's been so difficult to understand what the Brits want has soured attitudes, and now the sense is the sooner they are out the better," said Fassoulas, who was born and raised in Greece, worked in London and now lives in Brussels.

For many Europeans, Britain exiting the E.U. feels like the loss of a good friend. Among the consequences of the departure is an end to an era of free movement for European nationals, who currently are able to live and work in the U.K. with almost no questions asked, and vice versa.

"It's an unfortunate development and I don't think it's been handled well. I'm not sure they understood what they were getting themselves into," said Shirin Hermanns, 30, a German who works for the European Commission in Brussels.

Hermanns studied international trade at Oxford University in 2014 and said she noticed a creeping hostility toward the E.U. in the U.K. media during her time there. The loss of the U.K.'s influence in the E.U., as well as British culture, also saddens her.

"I will miss their accents," she added.

With just over a month to go before the U.K. leaves the bloc and no political solution in sight, both sides have started implementing contingency plans.

If the U.K. leaves the bloc with no framework in place for future trade, it would have economic consequences for both sides. The Bank of England has warned that the British economy could shrink by as much as 8 percent in about a year.

The hit in Europe would be less drastic, with output falling by 1.5 percent in the long run, and the employment rate decreasing by 0.7 percent, according to forecasts by the International Monetary Fund. The U.K. accounts for more than 15 percent of the E.U.'s GDP.

For those dealing with the business of the E.U., Brexit has proved to be an unwelcome distraction. The E.U. has its own long list of challenges at the moment, from an influx of migrants on its southern border to high levels of youth unemployment.

"Most people feel, let's get Brexit over and done with," said Fabian Zuleeg, chief executive of the European Policy Centre, an independent think tank. "We hear similar arguments here about the U.K. to those we heard about the E.U. in the run-up to the referendum, that we can't be shackled to the corpse of the U.K.,"

If anything, Brexit has highlighted the difficulties of leaving a social, economic and policy union after more than 40 years.

"The British example has shown how the E.U. is successful in creating interdependence," Zuleeg said.

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