Our countries face common challenges but the UK is having a peculiar kind of meltdownby Christine Ockrent / February 26, 2019 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2019 issue of Prospect Magazine
Photo: Parrot Pascal/ABACA/Maxppp/PA Images Painful, tiresome and hopeless. That is how Brexit looks from France. First there was the shock of impending divorce after 46 years of a marriage which had been rocky at times, but altogether rewarding. Then, after two years of negotiations needed to write down the preamble of the eventual contract, the truth came out: the UK was not prepared at all, the divorce was a decision based on lies, and many of its own lawyers quit during the job. The French may endlessly brag about “La République,” yet we have always envied Britain and its political system dating back to Magna Carta, with less beheadings than our own country and producing some remarkable figures, at least until the current generation. Westminster, No. 10, Whitehall and the Queen have long been looked upon with admiration and affection, albeit some amusement at your colourful traditions. Now, except for royal weddings, Brexit has somehow spoiled it all. We are bewildered by the spectacle of a prime minister going back to parliament so many times in a row, to ask for approval of an agreement she has herself stamped in the hope to rein in her own political party. We are just as shocked by an opposition leader whose support of the Venezuelan dictatorship is clearer than his position on Europe. The Cooper amendment, the Malthouse compromise, the Kyle-Wilson amendment—we have long lost track of the parliamentary meanders of what was supposed to be the “take back control” process. We cannot recall the names, not even the number of those members of government who resigned in despair. We find it hard to believe that the Irish issue came as a complete surprise. The obsessive nature of the debate, the self-delusion entertained by many of its participants, the sheer ignorance about basic EU facts and practices seem to get worse as the calendar moves inexorably forward. The only relief is to see so many European flag-bearers camping every day in front of parliament. In one respect however, the British mess has been of considerable relief to most political leaders on the continent. Departing from the EU has proved to be more complex and painful than its champions ever pretended. No more fear of Brexit setting off a chain reaction—even Marine Le Pen doesn’t vouch for a “Frexit” anymore, she wants to change Europe “from the inside.” Thanks to Michel Barnier and his team, the 27 have kept together. Whatever their disagreements on many other issues, they have stuck to a firm line, despite London’s attempts to divide and rule, cherry-pick, and endlessly ponder over the Norwegian, Canadian or Swiss scheme. Yet there is also some fear on the continent. Some of the UK’s most trusted allies, starting with the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, keep insisting that economic disaster is about to fall upon the UK if no deal is reached in time. But concern is also growing about the impact on the European Union itself. Brussels swears it is getting ready for the worst-case scenario so that the whole regulatory system keeps functioning. In France, the government pretends all necessary measures are being taken, from hiring additional customs agents to fixing infrastructure in some key locations like Calais. In some circles—banking, real estate—professionals expect some benefits. Yet anxiety is growing in some specific areas: fishermen are concerned their rights will be limited, producers and exporters of fresh food and meat products fear considerable losses and the disorganisation of their markets for a long time to come. For all the disarray in British politics, no voice can be heard that rejoices over the current impasse. We in France have little to brag about. Sweeping out the old political system by electing Macron in 2017 hasn’t spared us the strains of populism. Indeed, from the complaints of English Brexiters to the anger of the “gilets jaunes,” who have taken to the streets every Saturday for the past four months, there are many common concerns, and both of our democracies find themselves incapable of offering the appropriate response. The British case demonstrates that a parliamentary system, however well oiled, cannot cope with a referendum: the process is contrary to the very principles of elected representation. The French semi-presidential institutions can handle it better. But Emmanuel Macron will find it hard to summarise in one question, or even a set of questions, the multi-faceted national debate he has initiated to try and put an end to popular discontent. Whatever happens before and after 29th March, the challenges remain the same on both sides of the Channel: our democracies need to be rejuvenated, and Europe must find new ways to reinvent itself.