The U.K. has many friends in Europe, myself included. Primitive water taps and lack of double-glazed windows aside, I love Britain. But as domestic power struggles push its leaders into making increasingly outlandish and offensive statements that pander to party hard-liners, the U.K. is getting harder and harder to defend.
When the country’s top Tories compare the EU to the Soviet Union, or describe its goals as akin to Adolf Hitler’s, that may be music to the ears of a handful of diehard Brexiteers who fantasize about being liberated from a Brussels-controlled gulag. But to everyone else it’s ridiculous and, frankly, pretty embarrassing.
Listen up, London: Most of us in Europe speak English. We hear you. And you’re embarrassing yourself and your country.
Britain has so much going for it. It’s a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and one of the world’s few nuclear powers. It’s a culture powerhouse, and London is one of the world’s greatest cities. The U.K. gave us The Beatles, James Bond and the inventor of the World Wide Web.
But Britain is also weaker than it seems. Alone, it is a small island that will soon find itself on the sidelines of the power struggle being waged between the United States and China.
After decades of lies about Brussels from opportunistic politicians in need of a scapegoat, and as many years of overwhelmingly negative media coverage, Brits decided in 2016 to leave the European Union. And that vote should be respected. But the referendum campaign and the negotiation that has followed have made it clear that the U.K. has lost its pragmatism and been taken over by hard-nose ideologues and opportunists instead.
Despite the assurances of some, Brexit talks are not a negotiation among equals. It’s 27 against one; hundreds of millions against 65 million. Any damage done to the EU from a no-deal Brexit will pale in comparison to the intensely focused damage done to the U.K. This seemingly obvious fact is clear as day to Europe, but still appears to escape millions of Brits.
Since it’s beneficial to be a member of the European Union, leaving it will inevitably have detrimental effects on the U.K. The closer the country stays to the Union, the less severe they will be. British politicians have never been honest to their people about this. That doesn’t make it less true.
Instead of advancing the national interest, the majority of British politicians have spent the last years exploiting their country’s crisis for domestic political gain. In some cases, it’s not even been about getting ahead in elections, but simply getting ahead within their own party.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt thought he’d get a few laughs from the old Eton boys and make a bit of a splash at the Conservative Party conference by comparing Brussels to the Soviet Union. Mission accomplished. But at what price? Europeans were outraged. And that outrage could have serious consequences at the negotiating table.
It would be petty for the EU to take offense at one poor taste remark. But Hunt’s “joke” is just the latest in a long string of insults. And while these comments are clearly intended for domestic consumption, U.K. leaders should realize continental Europeans hear them loud and clear.
Unlike the Brits, many of us continental Europeans speak another language. And we’ve been paying attention. Tory ministers’ comments have already cost the U.K. public support and goodwill across the Channel. According to a poll from last year, 49 percent of Germans don’t want to make big concessions in Brexit negotiations, and 32 percent don’t want to make any.
Brexit may be a national obsession in Britain, but a lot of other Europeans are simply fed up with all the whining, cherry-picking and lies. And that’s bad news for all of us. As power shifts from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Europeans need each other more than ever.
Ordinarily, a government as hard-line and incompetent as Theresa May’s would be held accountable by the opposition. That hasn’t happened because in this case the opposition’s leader is Jeremy Corbyn, whose political recklessness exceeds that of even the hardest Brexiteers.
When Brexiteers aren’t busy insulting the European Union and the hundreds of millions of citizens who support it by comparing us to Soviets or Nazis, they are insulting our intelligence.
We have the upper hand in these negotiations. Leaving will have consequences. It’s time for British politicians to acknowledge as much in order to prepare their people for the difficulties ahead.
If they don’t, British voters’ inevitable and understandable disappointment could plunge the country into deeper chaos still. As a longtime friend and admirer of the U.K., I hope it doesn’t come to that.