European leaders should approach Brexit with a Hippocratic spirit and “do as little harm as possible”, one of the EU’s most senior leaders has said in a corrective to those pushing for a severe-break on both sides of the Channel.
As Britain prepares for formal exit talks with the union, Frans Timmermans, vice-president of the European Commission, insisted that the “anger” over Brexit was confined to a minority and that most EU-27 countries “are not out to punish the Brits”.
“It’s more of an emotional reaction of sadness,” he told the Financial Times in an interview. “And of course worry. Worry, especially with the economic actors. For heaven’s sake let’s not do too much harm to our economy in this process. I think those are the feelings I sense when talking to member states.”
Mr Timmermans is a polyglot Dutchman, educated in English schools, who has become a linchpin of the EU’s political machinery. His calls for restraint on Brexit reflect growing concern among Anglophiles in Brussels who fear that break-up talks could be hijacked by hardliners.
“We’re not in ’Allo, ’Allo here,” said Mr Timmermans, referring to a hammed-up British television sitcom set in wartime France. “Let’s not fall into these stereotypes about each other.
“People want to try and avoid undue harm to everyone in this process of disentanglement, which is going to be incredibly complex,” he added. “I would take issue with those in the UK who think this is a simple thing.”
Faced with the threats of economic populism and new muscle-flexing of America, Mr Timmermans urged the EU-27 to show the same resolve and determination seen in the wake of Britain’s vote to leave the bloc.
The EU “is as strong as it decides to be”, he said, and must put its house in order and “take care of its own interests” regardless of the approach taken by the US under its new president.
“A strong Europe was always seen as something that was in the strategic interests of the US. Now apparently this president seems to have a different vision of that. We need to just wait and see whether this really leads to policy implications,” said Mr Timmermans.
“The only thing that could weaken us is division in Europe. That is what could weaken us. The Americans looking forward for that is an extra challenge, if they are looking forward for that, but they don’t decide about that. We only decide about that. We are as strong as we decide to be. That is my firm conviction.”
The scepticism shown by the new US president has added to the problems facing the EU after the UK’s Brexit vote last year. It also comes as far-right forces hostile to the bloc anticipate big gains this year in elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany.
Unfettered nationalism was a short-term comfort “like drinking a bottle of vodka and feeling good for about two hours” before a headache, Mr Timmermans said.
Trying to convince people that they protect themselves by targeting scapegoats — “whether it’s the Muslim or the Jew or the gay or whatever” — was an age-old trap in Europe, he said.
A grandson of coal miners who honed his skills in the Dutch Labour party, Mr Timmermans was foreign minister of the Netherlands before he became first vice-president of the commission under Jean-Claude Juncker, its chief.
Mr Timmermans said Europe’s immediate requirements centred on collective security, the long struggle to spur economic growth and the migration and refugee crisis — with the correct answer being neither the protectionism advocated by Mr Trump nor the federalist leap forward sought by some in Brussels as the response to Brexit.
“Protectionism is not going to make you richer. It’s not going to bring back so many jobs to whatever country chooses protectionism,” said Mr Timmermans, who likened protectionism in the 1930s to the practice of bleeding in medieval medicine.
“We’ve been saying for years now ‘at least that mistake wasn’t repeated in this crisis’. So it would be a tragedy if at the end of this economic crisis we [were to] reintroduce bleeding as medicine.”
The notion that the answer to Europe’s many ills lay in “new structures” and “more treaties” was equally wrong. “I’m not sure that would be at this stage the right response, because you can only invite people to dream of a brighter future if you are at least credible on your ability to solve some of the problems of today,” he said.
“Politics is always a balance between the head and the heart. In European politics we’ve sort of forgotten about the heart for too long, just thinking with the head, and then you end up in the underbelly, apparently, in some of our member states.”
Asked about talk that Mr Trump might quickly unpick US sanctions against Russia over its interference in Ukraine, Mr Timmermans said Europe should “look after its own interest” when it came to EU sanctions. “This is something that will be debated with member states, hopefully in consultation with the Americans. But we’ve also seen in the past that you don’t always see eye to eye with the Americans on these things.”
Mr Timmermans has been in a bitter dispute with Poland’s government over its political takeover of the country’s highest court. He sees this as a fundamental breach of basic democratic principles but also one that has implications for Europe’s singe market. “The internal market, to function properly, needs independent justice to be able to function,” he said.
“If there are doubts whether a national judge is independent from political interference from a government, then the whole system becomes threatened and the internal market can no longer function as it should function.”