Brits see themselves as a pragmatic, no-nonsense people. Yet their political establishment is currently experiencing a period of profound trepidation bordering on hysteria. Three issues are causing this neurotic situation: Brexit, the Paradise Papers, and revelations of sexual harassment. Each of these has stirred up emotional debates with little space for reason, and split parties, businesses, and the media. They have revealed chaos within Theresa May’s cabinet, who looks out of touch and out of control. For the rest of Europe this is very disturbing news. It is hard to negotiate a new set of mutual relations with a partner on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
The Paradise Papers have highlighted something fundamentally wrong with the British version of free enterprise. Theresa May has tried to launch a milder, compassionate form of capitalism since her arrival at No 10, but the Paradise Papers revealed that the system is mild and compassionate for fat cats only. Ordinary employees and small businesses must pay their dues, while rich individuals and firms are free to dodge the fiscal burden. The latter group includes such celebrated symbols of Great Britain as the Royal family, a winner of Formula 1, and my own university of Oxford. The fact that similar scandalous cases were exposed (but not addressed) two years ago in the so-called Panama Papers shows that the system of tax avoidance is immune to any public outrage.
The recent deluge of sexual harassment claims has shown that something fundamentally wrong is going on in British workplaces, including the mother of democracy, Westminster. Politicians from different parties have traded influence for sexual pleasures for many years and they are now under investigation. Indecent treatment not only affected young interns, but also senior ministers. It was reported that the Minister of Defence was forced to resign after a former cabinet colleague divulged that he behaved improperly towards her on several occasions. If those who work in Westminster do not live up to higher moral standards than those living in Hollywood, then the mother of democracy is in trouble. And British voters still have fresh memories of the 2009 parliamentary expenses scandal that showed public money (which means their money) was invested by MPs in such silly private objects as floating duck islands or garlic peeling sets.
The Brexit saga has laid bare the reality that that the personal ambitions of politicians are more important than the health of the British economy. Devoted Brexiteers are happy to gamble with ordinary peoples’ money in order to gain control over the British cabinet. They are refusing to strike a compromise with EU negotiators in fear of looking redundant. They see the hard Brexit scenario as a means of eliminating political competition and securing top jobs. Since those in favour of a hard Brexit represent a tiny minority within the Parliament, they bark and push hard, invoking the "will of the British people" and ignoring the warnings of the Bank of England and heads of large British firms. "The revolution must go on" is their slogan, no matter the price.
The chaos, confusion, incompetence and impotence sitting atop the Tory hierarchy is striking. It is difficult to translate into German the words used by the British press to describe the current situation: "omnishambles," "undignified, mortifying mess," "zombie government" manifesting "unwatchable level of farce." Whatever the description used, one thing is clear: Europe does not have a partner for serious negotiations. Confronting the Brits with negotiating conditions, compromises or deadlines is useless. The Brits are busy with themselves and unable to engage in any meaningful dialogue, let alone any joint project.
While much of this British pain is self-inflicted, there is no point engaging in the blame game. A failure to reach a Brexit deal will have serious implications not just for the "perfidious Albion," but also for the whole of the old continent. Europe and the United Kingdom are closely interconnected and the EU does not need another shock caused by a sudden and rough disruption of multiple economic, security, educational and cultural links. The EU is a delicate political construction, which has numerous other problems on its plate at present. The pain of hard Brexit may well be greater on the other side of the Channel, but Brits may prove more resilient in coping with pain than some continentals.
Moreover, Europeans are not in a position to give the UK moral
lessons. The EU is led by the man seen as a symbol of the European tax dodging
system. In one of the largest European states, the man in charge of Bunga-bunga
orgies is likely to return to power after the forthcoming elections. In another
large European state, I see a march of tens of thousands of nationalists
throwing red smoke bombs and burning the EU flag. And how to explain that even in
the best performing countries so many people voted for such parties as the AfD
or FPÖ? Across the entire continent, not just in England, people begun to scorn
the EU, and I do not know a single official who has admitted the responsibility
for this. Perhaps those who look down at the Brits with disdain should look in
the mirror. I see many disturbing developments across Europe with no plausible
solutions to hand.