Where have those nice Britons gone?

Published in the Guardian 3rd of July 2016

Who are you and what have you done with those Britons I used to know and like so much? Have you no idea how disruptive uncertainty is for our countries, for business? Forgive me, of course you do – it’s you British who taught us that. The single market, for heaven’s sake, the EU’s largest and most formidably lucrative business venture, was very much down to you. It was your Lord Cockfield who worked out a plan, and if your then prime minister Margaret Thatcher had not used all her force to push it through in the face of reluctant protectionists on the continent, it might never had happened.

Trade is your thing, after all and here it was: full freedom of movement for capital, goods, services and people. Yes, for people, including for eastern Europeans, not long after the Berlin Wall came down. That happened because you British insisted on uniting the whole of Europe, the sooner, the better, while the French, the Italians and others all held back for as long as they could.

They were so worried that the eastern European workers would come storming in their millions to the west, taking our jobs, pushing our wages down. But you insisted. Openness, inclusiveness, freedom – we have come to associate that with you. And you have, or had, such a way with words. You’re so gifted at persuasion, winning us over with your thoroughly prepared and elegant arguments. In the end, all agreed to do the enlargement your way. Except for the instant freedom of movement for all. The rest of the EU wanted to be able to restrain eastern Europeans for another seven years. Most of us did. You kept true to your word and did not.

You also have such a way with people. Your politicians are well schooled in parliament, aspiring to hold their own in any heated debate with their opponents. For decades, you have applied the brakes in the EU and watered down proposals to suit you. (Thanks by the way. You have never been an easy partner but the less-than-perfect compromise that is the EU has been improved by your hard work in Brussels.)

And your Foreign Office comes better prepared than anyone else with numbers and facts, closely following what is going on in other countries, and sometimes managing diplomatic acrobatics that stun others into a deal. How on earth did Thatcher talk the others into giving one of the richest countries billions of pounds’ worth of a rebate to its EU fee? Permanently!

On top of that, things were usually accompanied with a joke, with some little aside, often with yourself as the butt of the humour. Or always politely ignoring rudeness or stupidity in others.

Maybe that’s why we like – or liked – you so much. It is remarkable that so many European countries feel that they have a special relationship with the UK. Perhaps you were not aware, but my people, the Swedes, feel that there is a complete understanding between us. The Danish and, for that matter the Norwegians, feel the same. Ask the Germans whom they feel closest to and they will point to you. The Dutch, for their part, basically believe they are part British.

In Lithuania, the mayor of the capital, Vilnius, launched a campaign before the referendum with the slogan “Hug a Brit”, desperate to keep you with us. People in Poland and the Czech Republic have been in tears since the referendum, saying they lost their best friend and ally. When we Europeans get together and a Briton walks into the room, there’s a sigh of relief. Finally, some pleasant small talk to make a meeting go smoothly. The gruff Germans are useless at it, the French are too stuck up to waste time on any of us, the Scandinavians tend only to look at their smartphones.

And all those different version of cool you had – James Bond, Mr Darcy, Helen Mirren, Adele. You made the Olympics feel warm and welcoming for everyone. You even had us foreigners rooting for your athletes; the happy cheering from your audience won us over.

And then. To be perfectly honest, we could not for the life of us understand whatDavid Cameron was doing calling a referendum. He and almost every other British politician have for years trashed every single thing we have done together as the EU, in front of his home audience.

Yes, it’s been odd watching that particular performance after each summit, but we wrote it off as some peculiar aspect of British politics. After all, none of us feel that we are the EU. We are Swedish, Dutch, German and French. So we weren’t taking the attacks personally. Also, it’s certainly not uncommon for other European politicians to blame the EU for this or that.

So plain and sheer madness, we thought, calling the referendum. However, since it was the British, masters at politics and diplomacy, we believed there must be a clever plan behind it all.

Sadly, it did not turn out that way. The referendum debate was followed with absolute horror from our side. How can British politicians lie so unashamedly? After all the compromises and offers of opt-outs awarded from the rest of us, more to the UK than any other country, how can they claim lack of control? Why are they still offered a microphone and not simply laughed off the stage?

Watching this unfold, the Leave vote still shocked and saddened us, but it didn’t surprise us. Neither did the losses on the financial markets, Scotland preparing to leave the UK, businesses freezing all recruitment and looking to move to the continent. We could see this all coming. But the racist attacks on people in your country, this, we never expected to see. It’s gone too far.

But now you really must let us in on the secret: what is your clever Brexit plan? When is one of your leaders going to tell us that this whole thing – farce, tragedy, political mayhem and utter destruction of any democratic values – was a way to… what? We can’t wait to find out. Because it is extremely painful and really scary to watch the sturdiest pillar of democracy and political stability (congratulations, you have the only majority government in the EU together with Malta)smashing itself to pieces like this.

Watching British politics at this moment has had the astonishing effect of making the EU, for perhaps the first time ever, feel a warm and cosy place. Don’t expect any Frexits, Swexits or other exits soon. I hate to be rude, but everyone is much too frightened of turning into you, right now.

Some are even worrying that whatever you have caught is contagious. I’m afraid no one will be able to side with a British politician for some time, for fear of opening up a path for mad populist parties in our own countries. Yes, we liked you a lot. But we might have to learn to avoid you from now on.

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