Brexit: Europeans hope Britain will stay, but they're not begging

Story highlights

  • The European project is at a crossroads -- whatever the result of this week's "Brexit" vote in the UK
  • The message from Europe to British voters is -- mainly -- "Please don't go"

Paris (CNN)On the grounds of the Petit Palais in Paris stands a bronze statue of Winston Churchill. It was sculpted by a Frenchman and recalls the day in November 1944 that the British Prime Minister visited the French capital soon after the end of the Nazi occupation.

The statue was erected in tribute to Churchill's wartime leadership -- but also his vision for Europe. A few months after that visit to Paris, Churchill spoke of the need "to re-create the European family," with Germany and France at its heart.
    "We must build a kind of United States of Europe," he said.
    More than 70 years later, the European family seems altogether more enthusiastic about the project than Churchill's own compatriots.
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    Stronger together

    Statue of Winston Churchill in Paris. Churchill once called for a "United States of Europe."
    The front page of El Pais, Spain's leading daily newspaper, shows a woman standing in front of Parliament in London holding aloft a "Together Stronger" banner. In France, Queen Elizabeth II and Mr. Bean share the front cover of the weekly Marianne, with the banner "Ils sont fous, ces Anglais." Swedish tabloid Dagens Nyheter has a map of Britain drifting away from Europe with the text "Mind the Gap."
    The message from Europe to British voters, who face a referendum Thursday on whether to leave the European Union, is -- mainly -- "Please don't go."
    Some convey the message as a plea. Europe needs Britain's defense capabilities at a time when Russia is saber rattling, they say. It needs Britain as a balance to German dominance inside the EU and as a counterweight to the Franco-German obsession with regulation.
    Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny wrote Monday in The Guardian: "The EU needs renewal and we need a strong UK at the table to help drive the reform agenda that can help the union regain competitiveness and growth."

    Start of a trend?

    There are also worries that a "Brexit" would tempt other states to try to negotiate a better deal.
    Others have opted for veiled threats. French and German ministers have warned Britain that "out is out"; don't expect favorable treatment or access to the single European market for old time's sake. They point to the fact that Switzerland and Norway contribute to EU budgets in return for tariff-free trade; so would the United Kingdom.
    The French economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, has taken the argument a step further, warning that if the UK leaves it will become irrelevant. The often outspoken Macron told Le Monde last week the UK would become like Guernsey, an island off the French coast, "a small, isolated country at the edge of the world."
    Macron has been among those arguing for swift amputation should the "Leave" camp win -- saying that an EU meeting at the end of June must send a firm message and timetable for the surgery. He's also suggested that France will roll out the red carpet for financial services firms in London that would find themselves suddenly outside the EU.

    Don't go

    A majority of the European public also appears to want Britain to remain in the EU.
    According to an opinion survey across all 28 member states, 54% of Europeans want the UK to stay -- a solid but hardly overwhelming majority -- while 21% want to see Britain leave.
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    The survey, carried out by the Bertelsmann Foundation in Germany, interviewed some 11,000 people. A third of those polled thought the EU would be less influential in the world without the UK, but most did not expect their own country to be worse off.
    Among the larger states, Spain and Poland appear most enthusiastic about the British staying in (not least in Poland's case because nearly 1 million Poles now reside in the UK.) The French insist they don't really care, with 41% saying Britain should stay in and 25% saying it should go.
    While the "Leave" campaign in the UK gets most of its support from Conservatives and the right, that's not echoed in Europe. Far-right parties are faring well everywhere, from Denmark to France to Hungary. Many -- such as the National Front in France -- don't want to see Europe collapse nor Britain to leave. But they want a different Europe.
    Marine Le Pen, leader of the French National Front, said over the weekend: "The eurozone has among the weakest growth in the world. Things get more precarious every day. ... The EU had no idea how to respond to the migrant crisis."

    'Wrong direction'

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    Whatever the result of the British vote Thursday, the European project is at a crossroads.
    A raft of polls shows that most people in member states still think the EU is a good thing. But they are unimpressed by the way it's run.
    In a major survey across Europe in August, 72% said European politics was moving "in the wrong direction." The disconnect is growing between the elites, who favor an ever closer union -- even a federal Europe -- and a public that puts jobs, growth and a workable migration policy first.
    Disenchantment with Europe's priorities mirrors a "throw the bums out" mood in individual states. The Greek political establishment has been shattered. Polls ahead of national elections Sunday in Spain show the insurgent Podemos overtaking the Socialists as the main party of the left. In Italy, the Five Star Movement -- an anti-globalization protest party -- has just won mayoral races in Rome and Turin. The party wants a referendum in Italy about staying within the single currency zone.
    Europe has stumbled from crisis to crisis since 2008, keeping the euro afloat, rescuing Greece from bankruptcy, fighting over migration policy and now bracing itself for years of divorce negotiations should the "Leave" camp win this week.
    In Macron's words, "Europe has lost its capacity to think and to project itself in the world."
    Churchill would not be pleased.