PARIS • The rest of the European Union nations are looking at the possibility of a British departure from the bloc with disbelief, trepidation and anguish. But they are also preparing to retaliate.
If Britons do vote in a referendum on Thursday to leave the EU - a so-called "Brexit", they can expect a tough and unforgiving response, with capitals across the continent intent on deterring other countries from following the British example, European officials and analysts said. In other words, Britain will be made to suffer for its choice.
"In is in - out is out," German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble told Spiegel magazine.
Suggestions by British politicians favouring a departure that the rest of the EU will give Britain more favourable terms in a new trading arrangement will be rejected out of hand by European leaders, who do not want to make further concessions to a country that has rejected them, officials said. With other issues pressing, including Greek debt, the migrant crisis and terrorism, the largest and most powerful European nations will want clarity and are not likely to tolerate a long period of post-referendum confusion.
To that end, the main EU nations are envisioning a two-stage negotiating process for a Brexit, once the British government invokes Article 50 of the treaty governing membership in the bloc. Article 50 provides two years to haggle over the terms of a divorce from the bloc - something that has never happened.
Officials want to negotiate future trade and financial services arrangements with Britain as a non-member; they do not want to allow Britain to use the status of the European citizens in Britain and their rights as a bargaining chip in the trade negotiations, which could take several years to conclude, beyond the two- year time limit for exit talks.
France and Belgium, and probably Germany, are almost certain to reject any British proposal to remain within the European single market - even, or especially, for financial services - without at least an agreement that Britain continue to allow European citizens to live and work in Britain, analysts and officials said. In any case, such a trade-off is strongly opposed by British advocates of withdrawing from the bloc, in the name of controlling immigration.
"There is no appetite to be nice on the day after," said Mr Camille Grand, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in France.
The French message, he said, is like Mr Schauble's: "If you leave, you leave. And we won't grant you the benefits of the single market. You won't move to an a la carte membership."
He added: "In Paris, it's a divorce, and we must be tough with the British to prevent the Czechs or whoever from trying to make their own deals."
Mr Radoslaw Sikorski, a former Polish foreign minister, said a Brexit might have some benefits. "Europe could forge ahead with a common security policy, which the British have vetoed repeatedly."
"And the countries of the euro zone would probably insist on all euro trade being moved out of Britain", which could help efforts by Paris, Frankfurt and Luxembourg to establish themselves as more important financial centres relative to London.
NEW YORK TIMES