It has become ever clearer that the hardline Brexiteers who have been driving the British government since David Cameron’s post-referendum resignation have no plan for managing the negotiations beyond their oft-repeated slogan of “taking back control”, and European attitudes to London are now poised somewhere between anxiety and despair over the impossible situation in which the British government has put itself – and Britain.
Reflecting this change in mood on the continent, numerous articles have appeared over the last few days, highlighting the British government’s apparent amateurism: articles such as Libération's correspondent in Brussels Jean Quatremer's implacable op-ed in the Guardian or Spiegel International's merciless piece.
The latest is the following article headlined The British have worked to put themselves into a political catastrophe, by the Süddeutsche Zeitung's London correspondent Christian Zaschke. It has been suggested and translated by Paula Kirby:
If it weren't so serious, the situation in Great Britain would almost be comical. The country is being governed by a talking robot, nicknamed the Maybot, that somehow managed to visit the burned-out tower block in the west of London without speaking to a single survivor or voluntary helper. Negotiations for the country’s exit from the EU are due to begin on Monday, but no one has even a hint of a plan. The government is dependent on a tiny party that provides a cozy home for climate change deniers and creationists. Boris Johnson is Foreign Secretary. What in the world has happened to this country? Two years ago David Cameron emerged from the parliamentary election as the shining victor. He had secured an absolute majority, and as a result it looked as if the career of this cheerful lightweight was headed for surprisingly dizzy heights.Receive the best of European journalism straight to your inbox every Thursday
The economy was growing faster than in any other industrialised country in the world. Scottish independence and, with it, the break-up of the United Kingdom had been averted. For the first time since 1992, there was a Conservative majority in the House of Commons. Great Britain saw itself as a universally respected actor on the international stage. This was the starting point. In order to get from this comfortable position to the chaos of the present in the shortest possible time, two things were necessary: first, the Conservative right wingers’ obsessive hatred of the EU, and second, Cameron’s irresponsibility in putting the whole future of the country on the line with his referendum, just to satisfy a few fanatics in his party.
It is becoming ever clearer just how extraordinarily bad a decision that was. The fact that Great Britain has become the laughing stock of Europe is directly linked to its vote for Brexit. The ones who will suffer most will be the British people, who were lied to by the Leave campaign during the referendum and betrayed and treated like idiots by elements of their press. The shamelessness still knows no bounds: the Daily Express has asked in all seriousness whether the inferno in the tower block was due to the cladding having been designed to meet EU standards. It is a simple matter to discover that the answer to this question is No, but by failing to check it, the newspaper has planted the suspicion that the EU might be to blame for this too. As an aside: a country in which parts of the press are so demonstrably uninterested in truth and exploit a disaster like the fire in Grenfell Tower for their own tasteless ends has a very serious problem. Already prices are rising in the shops, already inflation is on the up. Investors are holding back. Economic growth has slowed. And that’s before the Brexit negotiations have even begun.
With her unnecessary general election, Prime Minister Theresa May has already squandered an eighth of the time available for them. How on earth an undertaking as complex as Brexit is supposed to be agreed in the time remaining is a mystery. In the end, Great Britain will withdraw from its most important trading partner and will be left weaker in every respect. It would make economic sense to stay in the single market and the customs union, but that would mean being subject to regulations over which Britain no longer had any say. It would be better to have stayed in the EU in the first place. So the government now needs to develop a plan that is both politically acceptable and inflicts as little economic harm as possible. It’s a question of damage limitation, nothing more; yet even now there are still politicians strutting around Westminster smugly trumpeting that it will be the EU that comes off worst if it doesn’t toe the line.
The EU is going to be dealing with a government that has no idea what kind of Brexit it wants, led by an unrealistic politician whose days are numbered; and a party in which old trenches are being opened up again: moderate Tories are currently hoping to be able to bring about a softer exit after all, but the hardliners in the party – among them more than a few pigheadedly obstinate ideologues – are already threatening rebellion.
An epic battle lies ahead, and it will paralyse the government. EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said that he now expects the Brits to finally set out their position clearly, since he cannot negotiate with himself. The irony of this statement is that it would actually be in Britain’s best interests if he did just that. At least that way they’d have one representative on their side who grasps the scale of the task and is actually capable of securing a deal that will be fair to both sides. The Brits do not have a single negotiator of this stature in their ranks. And quite apart from the Brexit terms, both the debate and the referendum have proven to be toxic in ways that are now making themselves felt. British society is now more divided than at any time since the English civil war in the 17th century, a fact that was demonstrated anew in the general election, in which a good 80% of the votes were cast for the two largest parties.
Neither of these parties was offering a centrist programme: the election was a choice between the hard right and the hard left. The political centre has been abandoned, and that is never a good sign. In a country like Great Britain, that for so long enjoyed a reputation for pragmatism and rationality, it is grounds for real concern. The situation is getting decidedly out of hand. After the loss of its empire, the United Kingdom sought a new place in the world. It finally found it, as a strong, awkward and influential part of a larger union: the EU. Now it has given up this place quite needlessly. The consequence, as is now becoming clear, is a veritable identity crisis from which it will take the country a very long time to recover.
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