Brexit is "battle of heart versus reason" for Brits in Brussels

British bartender Eli, who has lived in Brussels for 17 years, calls the European Union a monster.

At the English Pub in the old quarter of the Belgian capital, Eli sips his beer, and says: "The EU is a real monster and we are all chained to it."

There are only a handful of customers at the pub. The lights are dim, the walls have dark wood inlays, and the room is adorned with old photos of The Beatles. For Eli, EU officials in their glass-paneled high-rises seem far away.

Would Britain's leaving the European Union change anything for him? "No, not at all - why should it?" he says.

Many British nationals in Brussels might have a different stance on this contentious issue. Most of them work for EU organizations, or in jobs closely connected to the bloc.

What would be the effect of the so-called Brexit, Britain's possible departure from the EU after more than 40 years of half-hearted membership? "That would have direct consequences for their jobs and their careers," says Bruno Waterfield, correspondent for London's Times newspaper.

EU leaders are meeting Thursday to try to thrash out an agreement with Britain on reforms, amid hopes that they can seal a deal that will convince the country to stay in the bloc.

Fears are rife that Britons might vote to leave the EU in a referendum that Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to hold by the end of 2017, but that is widely expected this year already.

But there are optimists in Brussels, like Captain Europe.

He walks around the city in a European Superman costume - sporting a blue cape, yellow boots and the EU stars proudly displayed on his chest.

Captain Europe spends his day working for the EU, and his nights trying to persuade others of its strengths. The Brit with the black mask is keeping his identity a secret. "I couldn't speak openly otherwise," he says.

British politicians have to convey to their constituents the tangible advantages that the EU brings, he notes.

"Right now, it's a battle of heart versus reason. Maybe the emotions win, and the British say no."

Captain Europe hopes for a clear decision in the referendum. "A narrow result would be a catastrophe - with years of uncertainty to follow."

EU Financial Services Commissioner Jonathan Hill, who is British, is keen on his country staying in the bloc.

"The British are very pragmatic, realistic and rational people. If you weigh the pros and cons, you'll realize there is no attractive alternative to a EU membership," he told German newspaper Die Welt.

Adversaries have no good arguments, he was quoted as saying. "Britain would not have better access to European markets. Like Norway and Switzerland, we would have to pay for that."

Hill is unfazed by polls showing strong support for a Brexit. The referendum is not yet a big topic, he says. "The majority of the people will only seriously ponder the question once the occasion arises."

But journalist Waterfield roots for Britons opting out. "I think that would be a really good thing," he says, adding that it would give rise to real discussions about whether the EU is able to solve its problems - which it failed to do in the last few years.

"European cooperation is important, but it's questionable if the EU is the right vehicle for that," according to Waterfield.

"They would be stupid to leave," says Lars Mrozek, who runs a British-Scandinavian specialties store steps away from the European Commission.

Mrozek is Swedish, but a Brexit would leave him in dire straits. He notes that he already has to pay custom fees on some of his merchandise. "Is that free movement of goods?" A country on its own, he says, is always weaker. "There's still a lot to do."

Last update: Fri, 24/06/2016 - 08:49

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