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'Un big mess' – how the rest of Europe views Brexit

The Guardian logo The Guardian 5 days ago Rory Carroll, Jon Henley, Kim Willsher, Sam Jones, Kate Connolly, Robert Tait and Christian Davies
a close up of a logo © Guardian staff

Ireland

The comment slipped out after a long, geeky conversation about Brexit’s potential impact on Ireland’s trade, employment, banking and consumer confidence. “You know, we’d almost forgotten how good it felt to stick it to the Brits.” The speaker shrugged and grinned. “Old habits.”

This was not a grizzled Sinn Féin party activist in west Belfast, but a young business professional in a cafe near the Dublin headquarters of Facebook and Google – the heart of new, globalised Ireland. Yet here was an admission – a declaration – of schadenfreude echoing down from a centuries-old resentment at the colonial master who came and stayed for 800 years.

I hear it from officials, shopkeepers, academics, truckers, artists and students: the Irish government is right to insist on the backstop, and if that gives Britain’s ruling class an aneurysm, well, grab some popcorn and enjoy the spectacle.

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More on this story: 

May to 'quit this summer' (Daily Mail)

May would win if election held today (Evening Standard)

Grayling incompetence 'off the scales' (The Scotsman)

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Far-right ‘yellow vest’ protestors block roads around the Trafalgar Square roundabout on February 9 © Getty Far-right ‘yellow vest’ protestors block roads around the Trafalgar Square roundabout on February 9

A tendency to enjoy the neighbour’s discomfort had faded in recent decades. John Major and Tony Blair earned respect for the Good Friday agreement. The Irish economy took off. There was a sense of a fresh start in Anglo-Irish relations.

In the centenary year of Ireland’s war of independence, Brexit seems to have turned the clock back.

Brexit in-depth: All the latest news, analysis and expert opinion

But it hasn’t, not really. There is some relish at Westminster’s convulsions – the parliament of Oliver Cromwell reduced to Benny Hill. But the overwhelming emotion is worry that Britain will crash out of the EU without a deal, wreaking havoc on Ireland’s economy and destabilising Northern Ireland.

And there is also sadness. A once-valued diplomatic partner, a neighbour with whom Ireland shares myriad cultural commonalities, is turning away. Glee at Westminster dysfunction is, it seems, an attempt to extract solace from a sense that Britain doesn’t care about breaking Irish hearts. Commuters walk past the European Commission headquarters in Brussels © AP Commuters walk past the European Commission headquarters in Brussels

“Brexit has damaged so many ways of doing business,” says Eunan O’Halpin, a history professor at Trinity College Dublin. “There is a sense that with the British unless it’s written down, you can’t trust anything they say.” Rory Carroll

The Netherlands

“It’s a mixture of bemusement and bewilderment,” says Michiel van Hulten, a former MEP. “On one level it’s entertaining, great spectacle. A pantomime you can’t stop watching. As you know, we love British comedy. Except this isn’t Monty Python, it’s your politicians.”

Back in June 1667, Samuel Pepys recorded an MP spluttering “I think the Devil s***s Dutchmen,”after the Dutch fleet sailed up the Medway and trashed the pride of the Royal Navy. Anglo-Dutch relations have come a long way since then. Politically, minds met in the EU: pragmatic anddistrusting of a Franco-German stitch-up. In business, dual-nationals Shell and Unilever flourished; more than 80,000 Dutch companies now trade with the UK. Prime Minister Theresa May © PA Prime Minister Theresa May

And the people? The Dutch master English like none other; admire and consume British culture in quantity; adore British humour. The Brits were people the Dutch could relate to. Then came Brexit.

It’s bewildering, says Van Hulten. “We had such a close relationship. For a whole postwar generation, the UK was a shining example. People just cannot fathom that a country that played such a vital role internationally, and in Europe, cannot even manage its own affairs.”

Thijs van den Berg, an Amsterdam English teacher, says he feels rejected. “As with any ex-lover, you now dislike what used to attract you. We liked your eccentricity because we knew at heart you were serious. Now you don’t look serious at all. Those jokes, that posturing – it just looks silly. Irresponsible.”

Far-right ‘yellow vest’ protestors block roads around the Trafalgar Square roundabout © Getty Far-right ‘yellow vest’ protestors block roads around the Trafalgar Square roundabout The Dutch, who reckon even a soft Brexit will cost them 3% of GDP, are better prepared than anyone for no deal. And there are silver linings: besides the European Medicines Agency, big-name multinationals such as Sony and Panasonic are shifting their EU HQs to Amsterdam, and 250 more firms are talking about it.

Then there is the fact that Brexit has inoculated them against the Nexit their wilder politicians are still flogging: 72% now say they are best off in the EU.

But mainly, a country they once felt they knew has become a mystery. When parliament sent Theresa May back to Brussels to renegotiate, the Dutch paper Trouw described it thus: “It’s like the crew of the Titanic deciding, by majority vote, that the iceberg really must get out of the way.” Jon Henley

Spain

Spain may be preoccupied with domestic issues – the landmark trial of Catalan independence leaders and the sudden eruption of the far-right, to name only two – but the Brexit pantomime continues to fascinate, confuse and appal.

Spaniards, who have long viewed British politics as an ancient beacon of democracy and informed debate, are struggling to reconcile their ideal with the realities of recent days, weeks and months.

“We’ve always had a bit of a complex – always thought our democracy was more imperfect because it was younger than that of France, the UK or Germany,” says Marta García Aller, a journalist with the online newspaper El Independiente.

Students at Liverpool's Hope University sign the Our Future, Our Choice, battle bus as activists from the youth movement for a People’s Vote tour the north-west © Getty Students at Liverpool's Hope University sign the Our Future, Our Choice, battle bus as activists from the youth movement for a People’s Vote tour the north-west But the UK political class’s uncanny ability to ensure that Brexit somehow manages to play out as both tragedy and farce has marked a before and an after.

“I think most people see it as chaos – and that’s very strange in a country whose people have such a strong reputation for being disciplined and well-organised,” says García Aller.

There is, however, little schadenfreude. Spain is devoutly pro-EU and all too aware of how much is at stake. Perhaps that’s why the word that comes up most frequently in relation to Brexit is incertidumbre, or uncertainty.

“People are starting to realise that this is all really happening, and worrying about what it will mean for the Spanish economy,” says García Aller.

“What’s going to happen with the British tourists who are fundamental to the economy? To the retired Britons who live here? The thousands of Spaniards who work in the UK? We’ve all got a friend or know someone who’s a nurse in a British hospital or a teacher in a British university.”

Ignacio Molina, a senior analyst at the Elcano Royal Institute in Madrid, agrees Brexit has disfigured the image of British politics as “moderate, pragmatic and dependable”. In the bungled departure preparations, he sees echoes of the UK’s post-imperial wane.

According to Molina, the “systemic failure” of Brexit has called into question the very idea of “the great British democracy. It’s a project that hasn’t been thought through. Even with Trump, there’s a strategy. But with Brexit there’s no strategy and no plan. It’s the most un-British thing there is!” Sam Jones

a close up of an airplane © Guardian staff

France

As Brexit turns into what one French commentator called a “national psychodrama” – or, in the more prosaic words of a friend, “un big mess” – many French are addressing Britons with the sympathy normally reserved for the bereaved. “So sorry,” they say, as a no-deal B-Day looms. “What will you do now?”

There is little gloating, much genuine concern, and massive incomprehension. The journalist Pierre Haski sums up Brexit bafflement: “Did electors really vote Brexit to allow the haughty aristocrat Jacob Rees-Mogg or the demagogue Boris Johnson to challenge Theresa May … or for Jeremy Corbyn to get into Downing Street without saying what he will do about Brexit?” It was a genuine question.

A billboard put up by the "Led By Donkeys" remain in the European Union supporting campaign © AP A billboard put up by the "Led By Donkeys" remain in the European Union supporting campaign The Channel tunnel has been key to softening historically fraught Anglo-French relations; personal and cultural links have grown richer now that travelling between Paris and London is less traumatic than the average commute.

As for the infamous “love-hate” relationship, of late the loathing has been largely one way. Screaming British tabloid headlines accuse France of deliberately orchestrating no-deal mayhem, while in the real world the French government is doing precisely the opposite.

Thankfully, the abuse is shrugged off. If there is a response, it is frustration. “We’ve spent hundreds of hours on Brexit – and we do have other things to do,” one French civil servant tells me.

Some try to make sense of the Westminster spectacle. Jean-Marc Puissesseau, the president of the company that runs the Calais port – also working hard to avoid Brexit chaos – says there were signs of Brexit years ago. “You had special conditions. You continued to drive on the left, you kept the pound … perhaps Great Britain is so fundamentally insular and protective of its own future and freedom, this is its destiny. But it’s a pity.”

Hélène Orain, the director of Paris’s Museum of Immigration, hopes “the links between our countries will not stop, and we can continue to recount our common history”.

If there is any silver lining to the present impenetrable Brexit cloud, it may be a growing feeling, for many Britons in France, that behind all the “frog” and “rosbif” nonsense, the French are really quite fond of us. Kim Willsher

Czech Republic

Signs of Anglophilia are easy to spot in Prague: a square named after Winston Churchill, a bunch of English-language bookshops and several branches of Marks & Spencer. Since the Velvet revolution that heralded the end of communism in 1989, most Czech politicians, diplomats and opinion-formers have routinely deferred to Britain as a cradle of democracy and common sense. All this has added to Czechs’ bewilderment at the seemingly chaotic drama unfolding at Westminster as the UK staggers towards the EU departure gate.

Blindfolded protesters against Brexit hold a banner outside the European Commission headquarters © AP Blindfolded protesters against Brexit hold a banner outside the European Commission headquarters Jiří Pehe, a political analyst and director at New York University in Prague, recently summed up the mood when he tweeted that politics in Britain had become even worse than its Czech counterpart. “The infantilisation of politics, to say ‘if it’s not my way, it won’t be any other way’, reminds me of Czech politics,” he explains. “We ascribe it to the fact that Czech democracy is so young, and recovering from communism. To see an established democracy like Britain descending into this chaos and irrationality is really disheartening. It’s a very comprehensive defeat for British politics.”

Some Czech policymakers worry that Britain’s impending departure from the EU will undermine the Nato alliance. Yet growing awareness of the political paralysis wrought by Brexit may have had one unexpected spin-off – a rise in support for EU membership here, where recorded levels of Euroscepticism have often matched, or even surpassed, those in Britain.

“It’s not a coincidence that support for the EU, although still under 40%, has risen in the last two years and one of the reasons is the mess we see in London,” says Ondřej Houska, a European affairs specialist with the daily Hospodářské newspaper. “If we’d voted for Czexit, I could have expected to see this in Prague. But Britain has never experienced totalitarianism, its civil service is world class, its political elite went to Oxford and Cambridge – so we’re amazed at their inability to agree on anything.” Robert Tait

Germany

In the days after the Brexit vote, Britons would remark that the Germans must be positively swimming in schadenfreude, after we had caused so much trouble in the EU. But among the people I spoke to – government spokespeople, supermarket cashiers, diplomats and taxi drivers – the overwhelming emotions were sadness and disappointment.

A diplomat likens his melancholy to that of being dumped by a girlfriend. “I still have her jumper and I go round wearing it, hoping her scent will linger,” he says. He clings to the positive aspects of a Britain he cherished – from punk music to humour – and almost breaks into song: “They can’t take that away from me.”

Gallery: Facts to know about Brexit (Photos)

Germans are also resigned – if frustrated - by British misperceptions, from Boris Johnson’s claims that a “German-led” EU is pursuing a Hitlerian superstate to the notion that Berlin would force the EU to submit to the UK’s Brexit demands in order to save the German car industry. They are also immune to the British tabloids’ assertions that Germany is morally indebted to Britain for the defeat of Hitler, and so should throw Theresa May a lifeline.

It’s a sign of the affection many Germans harbour for the UK that such feelings have not been dented. Even in their Brexit bewilderment, Germans still love holidaying in the UK, savour our lively parliamentary debate and obsess over the royals. But increasingly, they are coping with Brexit by separating Britain into two entities: cultural and political. Many kick themselves that they did not see it coming; some ask what what they can do to help reverse it.

But not everyone. A professor of risk assessment tells me the path to Brexit was long clear in Britain’s difficult relationship with the EU. “I think it is time Britain left now,” he says. “It doesn’t help anyone, least of all the British, for them to stay in.”

I am one of thousands of Britons living here to have taken German citizenship since the referendum. My book on the process, Exit Brexit, has had an overwhelming response. That a Brit is prepared to embrace historically tarred Germany, in the way lots of Germans have embraced Britain, astonishes many.

“If Brexit doesn’t happen, will you keep your German passport?” one interviewer asked. I assured her I have no intention of giving it up. Kate Connolly

Poland

Poland’s attitude towards Britain might be characterised as largely affectionate – but with an edge. Brexit is not helping.

The wartime alliance is remembered in Poland as much in terms of British betrayals as of Polish pilots and the Enigma machine.

Resentment eased during the cold war thanks to Britain’s role as a key adversary of communist Poland’s Soviet overlords, and the emergence – incongruously, for many – of Margaret Thatcher as a heroine of the Polish proletariat.

At first, the large-scale migration of Poles– admired for their work ethic and almost universally accepted – to the UK in the 2000s appeared to herald a golden age in relations between the two nations. Many Britons assume the new arrivals were motivated exclusively by money, but many were also attracted by modern British multiculturalism. “I loved the freedom. I remember thinking: ‘This is it! This is my place on earth,’” a Polish woman who moved to the UK in 1999 tells me.

That love of Britain has only intensified the pain of rejection after the Brexit vote. Complicating matters further, it is increasingly apparent that many other Poles living in the UK never accepted Britain’s multicultural model in the first place. Feeling rejected and economically exploited, the Polish community is increasingly a recruiting ground for the far right in both countries.

There are of course many Poles who still live perfectly happily in the UK, and will continue to do so. But the feeling that they are now being rejected, having once been welcomed, is leading to the return of some old resentments. For many, the love affair with Britain is turning sour. Christian Davies

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