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How Brexit Britain lost friends and alienated people

Life & Arts

How Brexit Britain lost friends and alienated people

‘May’s cabinet has displayed an incompetence that has baffled Brussels’

No European country is better understood in Brussels than Britain. Many European officials grew up adoring The Smiths or Manchester United, studied in the UK and now work mostly in English. So when Britain’s foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt compared the EU to the USSR, Brussels understood he was merely pandering to the Conservative party conference. That still didn’t satisfy Britain’s Polish and Baltic friends, who remembered the actual USSR. They had been trying to nudge Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, towards generosity over Brexit. Now they won’t bother any more.

The UK’s conduct of Brexit has been a study in how to lose friends and alienate people (to borrow the title of Brexiter Toby Young’s memoir). The European Commission’s insistence on hammering into legal form every word of the “backstop” plan for the Irish border showed how trust had faded. Now that even the Brexit secretary and several other ministers have disowned May’s deal, which seems doomed not to pass parliament, trust has evaporated entirely. I visited Brussels and Ireland last week, and officials around Europe before that, trying to gauge whether the UK can restore trust.

Theresa May and her ministers embarked on Brexit almost devoid of personal relationships with their European peers. The counsellor to one continental prime minister told me that past British politicians (he cited Denis Healey) spent decades attending European talking shops, making friends. May’s lot didn’t, so they walk into European summits knowing nobody. Moreover, the counsellor said, no western European governing parties identified with the utopian-nationalist Tories, while the Corbynistas reminded them of 1970s splinter groups in their own countries.

From this bad start, May’s cabinet then displayed an incompetence that has baffled Brussels. “Britons were known here as master negotiators,” says Michiel van Hulten, chief EU lobbyist at consultancy Boldt. Yet senior Conservatives repeatedly hint at wriggling out of agreements, flirt with out-of-power European populists who are enemies of Britain’s negotiating partners, and opposed the European parliament’s censure of Hungary’s leader Viktor Orbán

Philippe Lamberts, the Belgian MEP who sits in the European Parliament’s Brexit steering group, sums up: “David Cameron has fulfilled the worst nightmare of every British prime minister since centuries: the unification of the continent against the UK. It’s remarkable that Barnier can count on a solid front of 27 European states.”

Even if by some miracle May manages to get her deal through parliament, Britain faces trade talks in which its impotence will only encourage more lashing out from Westminster. Brussels knows by now that the UK doesn’t have a plan for Brexit, but suspects that its impulse is towards low-wage, low-regulation undercutting of the EU — more Bangladesh than Singapore. That’s why Barnier last week demanded environmental and state-aid rules.

From Brussels, I flew to Ireland. Many Irish people understand Britain better than Britons do themselves. They have all the ties of language, family and often long residence in the UK, yet their complete distance from English nationalism gives them a cold-eyed view. Now they are outraged that Britons dreamt up Brexit without remembering the neighbours. The best ever 20 years of Anglo-Irish relations are over. 

Yet I returned home thinking that Britain can overcome its damaged trust and friendships in Europe. That’s because the modern EU isn’t built on trust and friendship. “This is a club of countries that don’t trust each other to do what’s been agreed. That’s why it has all these institutions and rules,” says Van Hulten. Almost all EU member states are sceptical of the EU’s ideals. Lamberts asks: “Do you think the European project is about bringing together like-minded people? No. Can the British government be a pain in the neck? Of course. Like the French government, the Dutch government, like everyone.” Britain, he notes, remains closer to Europe’s “core values” than Poland, Romania, Hungary or Italy.

Anyway, European officials know there are many different Britains. Vocal Remainers provide a daily reminder that not everyone on the island is Boris Johnson. The coming generation is Europhile. Lamberts, who says he “loves” Britain, told me: “If there is a special relationship for the UK, it’s with the EU.”

Europeans have built alliances on infinitely bigger conflicts than Brexit. A few years after Hitler, West Germany was being welcomed into the fold. If a new British government decided to rejoin the EU, Brussels would be pleased, except the minority of hardcore federalists who see Brits as mouthy obstacles to European integration. Lamberts said that if Britain decided to return, it would probably lose its budget rebate but wouldn’t have to join the euro or the Schengen agreement allowing passport-free travel. Then, having learnt from Brexit that it’s just a mid-ranking power, Britain might actually make some European friends. 

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