The writer is a columnist at Le Monde and fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin
From a European perspective, the only good news from London came on Sunday when Boris Johnson made it known that he would not run for the leadership of the Conservative party. “After two difficult days considering the possibility of his return, this was a big relief,” one senior EU official admitted.
Not that Liz Truss will be missed — any early hopes of goodwill from her government in the relationship with the EU had quickly evaporated. But having to cope with Johnson’s antics again was more than Brussels could bear.
Then came another cause for relief: Rishi Sunak’s acclamation as the next prime minister. In EU circles, Sunak was seen as the voice of reason in the Johnson government and the most reluctant to engage in a trade war with Brussels. When chaos hits, you take comfort where you can.
For many Europeans, the only surprise of the British political and economic mayhem of the past few weeks is the lack of debate about its real cause: no one involved seems to blame Brexit.
On the other side of the Channel, Brexit is the elephant in the room. Six years on, the prevailing view in the EU is that it was, as former French president Nicolas Sarkozy put it last week, “a major aberration of historic proportions”.
Brexit has become the best advertisement for EU membership — populist politicians, east and west, have now dropped any pretence of leaving the bloc. Indeed, many observers credit the Brexit experiment with convincing the new far right prime minister of Italy, Giorgia Meloni, to strengthen her European credentials. Comparing Britain to Italy is definitely unfair — the last thing Italy wants is to end up like Britain.
“Brexit was based on an act of immense stupidity,” says one European leader (on the condition of anonymity). “It was sold by politicians who promised a sort of great Singapore but voted for by people who were unhappy about globalisation.” As the leader went on to spell out, this is an impossible mandate to deliver on.
None of Brexit’s promises could be fulfilled. The City of London did not take over world finance, foreign investment did not flood in, major free trade agreements could not be concluded. Brexit ambitions clashed with real-world conditions: a pandemic, the rise of protectionism, tensions with China and the war in Ukraine.
Finally, the financial markets took back control. “This is what happens when you cut your country off from your biggest and most important market,” noted German liberal MP Alexander Lambsdorff. “Brexit devours its children.”
Yet there is no schadenfreude on the EU’s part about this self-inflicted wound. Britain’s travails are another challenge to the west’s standing on the global scene. A selection process which sends unelected prime ministers to Downing Street does not reflect well on the strength of democratic systems two weeks from midterm elections in the US, where voting rights will again be a big issue. Declining turnouts, weakened political parties and loss of trust in political institutions have become a common feature of western democracies.
Britain may have left the EU, but the populist trend that brought Brexit has not. Many European governments are grappling with shaky coalitions, including with far-right parties which claim to have become mainstream.
In France, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National now has 89 members of the National Assembly. They look with envy at the electoral victory of Meloni’s post-fascist party, Brothers of Italy. Meloni’s professed goodwill towards EU leaders puts some of them, like Emmanuel Macron, in an awkward position. Her ideology will bring her closer to the Polish leadership than to the Franco-German tandem — which is also, incidentally, going through a rough patch.
If Sunak makes the right choices, the powerful shock of the war in Ukraine, which has upset so many internal European dynamics, could actually push London and the EU to resume talks and work through their remaining differences.
Truss’s trip to Prague to participate in the summit of 44 European countries earlier this month, a French initiative, was seen as a positive step which EU leaders will want to build on. Sunak and Macron, both former bankers in their early forties, may find some chemistry.
Meanwhile, while perfectly aware that Brexit is here to stay, the EU has started a dialogue with the Labour party. Just in case a general election comes sooner than planned.