Brexit: Europeans in Brussels say Britain must make a decision on E.U. divorce

"Either they want to stay or they want to leave, which is it?" said one person in Brussels this week.
The Grand Place, Brussels, Belgium
Visitors walk through the Grand Place, the central square of Brussels.Universal Images Group via Getty Images

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By Alexander Smith

BRUSSELS — We don't want you to leave. But if you must go, please just get it over with.

That's the overwhelming view from Brussels, the Belgian capital and the political heart of Europe. People here have become deeply frustrated by their British neighbors' inability to end the paralysis of Brexit.

It's more than three years since the British public voted to leave the European Union. And yet today the future of Brexit appears as uncertain as ever.

Not only does the saga continue to dominate British politics, it's also proving a huge distraction for Europeans who would prefer to be getting on with other things.

"Either they want to stay or they want to leave, which is it?" said Nico Impens, 49, who was walking near the colonnades of Brussels' Monnaie De Munt opera house Friday.

Nico Impens.Alexander Smith / NBC News

Impens is typical of many people in Brussels. He considers himself pro-European and ideally wants the U.K. to stay inside the club.

However, with Brexit showing no signs of resolution, he says he would prefer any definitive outcome at this stage — even if it's the result he doesn't want.

"Whatever their decision, it has to be a clean break," said Impens, who was on his way to work laying parquet wooden flooring in people's homes.

Brexit has become a political circus for many beyond the U.K., drawing viewers and making news around the globe. But Europeans watching from just across the English Channel seem largely bemused.

The U.K. has become so deeply embedded in the E.U. over the past four decades that extracting itself is proving a maddeningly complex process. Different factions in London continue to disagree about which European rules to keep and which to scrap.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson defied expectations last week by negotiating a new exit deal. However his dreams of leaving on Oct. 31 — the current Brexit deadline — were soon cooled by British lawmakers, who said they wanted more time to scrutinize and possibly tweak his plans.

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The ball is currently in the court of E.U. leaders, whose surrogates held closed-door meetings Friday to decide on Johnson's reluctant request for yet another extension.

Above all, E.U. leaders want to avoid Britain leaving without any deal at all.

A "no deal" Brexit would be triggered if nothing's worked out by Halloween, and risks wreaking havoc on both the British and European economies.

At the same time, European leaders are also conscious that this process has dragged on far longer than most envisaged, sapping valuable energy from problems such as the rise of the far right, the global economic slowdown and climate change.

The Europeans have found it difficult to negotiate with a country that remains deeply divided.

Polls suggest that British opinion may have flipped, with most people now in favor of remaining in the E.U.

Any type of Brexit is likely to harm the economy and a "no deal" divorce could produce more drastic outcomes. And yet millions of Brits still feel they would be better off outside Europe, boosted by the ability to sign their own trade deals and regain control over their own laws.

That so many still support Brexit despite evidence it will do them harm puzzles many on both sides of the English Channel.

"I just don't understand why they want to do it," said Dounia Allouchi, 22, a student from nearby Charleroi on a shopping trip to the Belgian capital. "We learned English in school, we've watched so many English films, and I loved London when I visited."

Her friend, Yasmine Boulghemane, 24, who works in finance, jumps in, "It's like we almost look up to them, but now they want to leave."

Dounia Allouchi, left, and Yasmine Boulghemane.Alexander Smith / NBC News

None of the people interviewed in this unscientific survey of passersby said they disliked the E.U. or wanted Britain to leave it.

But there is evidence underpinning these anecdotal snippets. Surveys show most Europeans remain strongly in favor of staying members of the E.U., according to the polling aggregator Europe Elects.

For many, their initial hope Britain might change its mind has ebbed into pragmatic resignation.

"Brexit has been going on for so long now. Most people here feel that if Britain wants to leave Europe so much they should just get on with it and leave," said Simon Juncker, 24, smoking a cigarette outside the downtown bar where he works.

He can even see one potential upside of Britain's departure.

"Hey, if the pound keeps on dropping any lower it might be good for us because we'll be able to go on a cheap vacation to London," Juncker joked, referring to the steady drop in value of Britain's currency over the past few years.

Such trips between Brussels and London are common.

They are connected by a high-speed train that tunnels 250 feet below the English channel, and whose tickets go for as little as $50.

One of the perks of E.U. membership is the ability to live and work anywhere inside the bloc. This freedom would end under the hardline Brexit plan favored by Johnson, a measure designed to limit immigration.

"I have a daughter who lives in London and I'm meant to be going to visit her next week," said Marjian Wagemans, 79, a retired teacher in Brussels.

Brexit might put more hurdles in this family journey, but Wagemans says she has wider concerns.

"This is the spirit of our time, one where nationalism is growing," she said. "I'm not sure Britain will be better without us. I think it's an illusion."