European commentators weigh in on what Britain’s departure from the EU means
Britain faces an uncertain future as it finally pulls clear of the EU’s orbit, continental commentators have predicted, its reputation for pragmatism and probity shredded by a Brexit process most see as profoundly populist and dangerously dishonest.
“For us, the UK has always been seen as like-minded: economically progressive, politically stable, respect for the rule of law – a beacon of western liberal democracy,” said Rem Korteweg, of the Clingendael Institute thinktank in the Netherlands.
“I’m afraid that’s been seriously hit by the past four years. The Dutch have seen a country in a deep identity crisis; it’s been like watching a close friend go through a really, really difficult time. Brexit is an exercise in emotion, not rationality; in choosing your own facts. And it’s not clear how it will end.”
Britain’s long-polished pragmatic image had been “seriously tarnished”, agreed Nicolai von Ondarza, of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. But trust in the UK, too, had taken a heavy battering on the Brexit rollercoaster.
“That’s particularly been the case over the past year,” Von Ondarza said. “Boris Johnson has always been seen as a bit of a gambler, displaying a certain … flexibility with the truth. But observing him him as prime minister has only made that worse.”
Germans tended to view international politics “very much through the prism of international law”, Von Ondarza said, so Johnson’s willingness to ignore it – in the form, particularly, of the internal market bill – was deeply shocking.
“The idea that you’d willingly violate an international treaty that you’d negotiated and signed barely eight months previously … That’s just not something you do among allies,” he said. “That whole episode really damaged Britain’s credibility.”
Others were more brutal still. In Der Spiegel, Nikolaus Blome said there was “absolutely nothing good about Brexit … which would never have happened had Conservative politicians not, to a quite unprecedented degree, deceived and lied to their people”.
Much of the British media, Blome said, “were complicit, constantly trampling on fairness and facts”, leaving Britain “captured by gambling liars, frivolous clowns and their paid cheerleaders. They have destroyed my Europe, to which the UK belonged as much as France or Germany.”
But Johnson’s lies were the biggest of all, he said: “‘Take back control,’ Johnson lied to his citizens. But all the British government will finally have achieved is to have taken back control of a little shovel and a little sand castle.”
The “sovereignty” in whose name Brexit was done remained, essentially, a myth, said Jean-Dominique Giuliani, of the Robert Schuman Foundation in France. “It is history, geography, culture, language and traditions that make up the identity of a people,” Giuliani said, “not their political organisation.”
It is “wrong to believe peoples and states can permanently free themselves from each other, or take decisions without considering the consequences for their citizens and partners. ‘Take back control’ is a nationalist, populist slogan that ignores the reality of an interdependent world … Our maritime neighbour will be much weakened.”
The German historian Helene von Bismarck doubted Brexit would end what she described as a very British brand of populism. “British populism is a political method, not an ideology, and it does not become redundant with Brexit,” she said.
Von Bismarck identified two key elements in this method: an emotionalisation and over-simplification of highly complex issues, such as Brexit, the Covid pandemic or migration, and a reliance on bogeymen or enemies at home and abroad.
“Populists depend on enemies, real or imagined, to legitimise their actions and deflect from their own shortcomings,” she said. If the EU has been the “enemy abroad” since 2016, it will steadily be replaced by “enemies within”: MPs, civil servants, judges, lawyers, experts, the BBC.
“Individuals and institutions who dare to limit the power of the executive, even if it is just by asking questions, are at constant risk of being denounced as ‘activists’” by the Johnson government, Von Bismarck said. “Everyone has political motives – except for the government, which seeks to define ‘neutrality’.”
Brexit itself is being framed as “the grand departure, the moment the UK is finally free and sovereign, when all problems can be solved with common sense and optimism – justifying a more ‘pragmatic’ approach to rules, constitutional conventions and institutions” that actually amounts to a “worrying disregard for the rule of law”.
“British populism” would continue, she said, especially when the real, hard consequences of the pandemic and Brexit started to bite.
“It is naive to expect a political style which ridicules complexity, presents people with bogeymen to despise, and prides itself on ‘doing what it necessary’ even if ‘elites’ and institutions get in the way, to lose its appeal in times of hardship,” she said.
Elvire Fabry, of France’s Institut Jacques Delors, said the past four years had shown Europeans and Britons “just how little we really knew each other”. They had also revealed, she said, the fragility of a parliamentary system seen by many on the continent as a point of reference.
“It’s been difficult for us to anticipate, at times even to interpret, what’s happened” in the UK, Fabry said. “The direction Johnson has taken the Conservative party in – we didn’t see that coming. The course he’s setting for the country. The polarisation. And the way MPs have been bypassed since he became prime minister ….”
Most striking of all, she said, was how the politics prevailing in Britain had become “detached from geopolitical reality – from the way the world is developing. It’s a political vision turned towards yesterday’s world. Ideological. The way the trade deal focused on goods at the expense of services … It’s not the way the world’s going.”
Painful as the Brexit process may have been for Europeans, however, it had at least demonstrated “the reality and value of the single market, its rules and norms, and of the EU’s basis in law”, Fabry said. “Those are at the heart of the European identity – and defending them has given the union a new political maturity.”
It had also, concluded Korteweg, served as a warning. “I think it’s taught us all just how vulnerable our political processes are,” he said. “Just eight years ago, leaving the EU was a seriously fringe proposition in British politics, and now look where you are. So we’ve seen how fragile it all is, what we’ve built – and how worth defending.”
All Rights Reserved for Jon Henley