Europe isn’t the enemy – demonising us is undermining Britain

‘Building up pro-Brexit politicians and stoking divisions.’ Section of the Daily Mail front page, 4 November 2016. Photograph: Daily Mail
‘Building up pro-Brexit politicians and stoking divisions.’ Section of the Daily Mail front page, 4 November 2016. Photograph: Daily Mail

Seventeen years ago Theresa May stunned her fellow Conservatives by telling their annual party conference that they were “just plain unattractive”. The Tories, she said, had become “the nasty party”. Today, from where I sit in western Europe, Britain itself looks just plain unattractive. It seems to have become “the nasty country”. I’m not saying the British people are any worse, or any better, than any other Europeans. I am saying its ruling political party is nasty, as is much of its press. The leader of the Conservative party, and therefore the prime minister, is a man who has personally taken nastiness to an entirely new level, yet is the country’s most popular politician.

Ever since the UK voted to leave the EU, millions of other Europeans like me have been looking for signs that the country is coming around to its old, pragmatic self. It’s a version of Boris Johnson’s cakeism: you want to love Britain and you want to be honest about the kind of country it is now. These two positions have become impossible to hold at the same time.

The UK now seems to be the country whose government lies about nonexistent negotiations with the EU while threatening to renege on its outstanding financial obligations – often misrepresented as the “divorce bill”. It’s the country whose governing party’s chief whip, Jacob Rees-Mogg, threatened to sabotage the EU from within if Brexit was postponed. It’s the country, too, whose last prime minister (the aforementioned May) threatened to stop cooperating with the EU on terrorism, inspiring the Sun front-page headline: “Your money or your lives”. The country whose former Conservative leader Michael Howard talked up war with Spain over Gibraltar. Whose cabinet minister Priti Patel suggested threatening the people of Ireland with starvation. Whose foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt likened the EU to the Soviet Union and whose current prime minister compared it to the Nazis.

This is just a small sample of the nastiness now being shown towards the EU and to other Europeans by Britain’s mainstream political leaders and cabinet ministers. What comes out of the mouths of some backbench Tory MPs and Brexit party MEPs is so vile it would pollute a sewer. And then there is the far-right-billionaire-owned press.

The dominant four newspapers in Britain by circulation are the Sun, the Daily Mail, the Sun on Sunday and the Mail on Sunday, with the more measured but equally pro-Brexit Sunday Times coming in fifth. Each of these publications has been brainwashing its readers with fake news about the EU for years – in some cases, decades – while building up pro-Brexit politicians and stoking divisions. Terms such as “betrayal”, “surrender”, “plots by traitors” and “enemies of the people” are on the front pages routinely. The top 10 British papers by paid circulation does not feature any pro-European newspaper, unless you count the Daily Mirror. It does feature Boris Johnson’s mouthpiece, the Daily Telegraph, and the triumphantly nasty Daily Star. It is a depressing tally, scarcely improved by knowing how many people rely on social media for their news.

But of course the Britain that most democratic Europeans love, the Britain of say, the doughty supreme court justice Lady Hale, still exists. Yet the terrible truth is that this progressive side of Britain, the side that stands in such sharp contrast to the illiberal authoritarianism that Hungary and Poland have given in to, is in deep disarray. It has almost zero political representation. And there are few signs this is about to change. The Liberal Democrats and Greens are powerless under the country’s outdated first-past-the-post electoral system, while the Labour party is led by someone who campaigned for the leadership on the promise of straight talking, then obfuscated about Brexit from the moment he got the job.

The Tory party has elected the most callous, ruthless, mendacious and superficial politician in living memory as its leader and thereby prime minister. According to the polls this deeply nasty man is easily the most popular politician in the country.

It remains essential for other Europeans to distinguish between the rightwing papers and politicians that whip up hatred in Britain, and the rest of the country. As somebody who has lived in Britain, I know how tolerant and plural it can be. Neither is this a call for EU leaders to boot the UK out by refusing any request for an extension and forcing a no-deal exit by 31 October.

The EU needs to protect Ireland and make sure that if the UK opts for the no-deal disaster so many of its mainstream leaders and publications crave, it is clear to the rest of the world who is to blame. Because Brexit is something that the UK is doing to its European neighbours, not the other way around.

For years now a decisive segment of the British establishment and electorate has been poisoning itself with lies, delusions and the demonisation of everyone with a different opinion about membership of the EU. These people want to throw themselves off a cliff and take their country with them. It is a deeply painful process to follow, especially for those who know that a different Britain is possible. Alas, the EU cannot save a country that does not want to save itself.

Joris Luyendijk is an author and the former writer of the Guardian's Banking Blog.

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