“Brexit has driven everyone crazy”

British historian Timothy Garton Ash talks about the new nationalists in Europe, his pride of British parliament and why he fears that Brexit could be worse for the EU than for the United Kingdom.


Timothy Garton Ash observes European history since the 80ties, when he was based in Berlin. He analysed the end of communism in Eastern Europe, he now watches the rise of the new nationalists. He is professor for European History in Oxford’s St. Anthony College and writes essays for “The New York Review of Books” and editorials for “The Guardian”. His latest book is called “Free Speech. Ten principles for a Connected World”. Two hearts beat in his chest: one for the UK and one for the EU.


Profil: How did the honorary House of Commons deteriorate to the House of Clowns?

Timothy Garton Ahs: I have to say that I get a bit defensive, if people call the British Parliament House of Clowns. The houses of Parliament are absolutely the heart of British identity. Not Buckingham Palace. There is a lot of national pride invested in this place. Britain has one of the oldest democracies in the world. And it shows. The whole world is watching the reality show called parliament. And the fact that there are not enough seats on the benches for all MPs. The fact that people have to physically march through the lobbies for each single vote, astonishes many, have they not heard of smart phones or electronic buttons? At the same time I am very proud of some of the traditions. We have now some of the geatest speeches, esspecially when we have free votes. With all its faults we have democracy working. One of the things with democracy, which we know from history is, that democracy is messy, it is also slow. Dictatorships are slow but lose in the end. Democracies are messy and slow. For our Brexit debate parliament just needs more time.


Profil: Is the behaviour of some of the honorary members of the Tory party not undermining the credibility of the institution in the view of the population?

TGA: You look at some people and you think they have gone a bit bonkers. Brexit has driven everyone crazy. It has been such a psychodrama, such a national nervous breakdown.


Profil: Whose fault is it?

TGA: It is really important to say that the blame for Brexit and the Brexit mess lies 90 percent with the conservative party. Starting with Margaret Thatcher – 30 percent - in the beginning of the 90ties. Going through David Cameron – 20 to 30 percent guilt - leaving the EPP. A mistake by the way that Viktor Orban did not make. Then declaring the EU-referendum and losing it. Having no European connections left Britain was in a weak position at the beginning of the Brexit negotiations. Theresa May then conducted them in a farsical attempt to keep the Tory party together. She was heavily influenced, and badly influenced by her advisors. She did not compromise with the Remainers. If she would have said Common Market 2.0 in 2016, most would have gone with it. Ten percent of the fault maybe lies somewhere else, but it is not parliament’s fault that it could not fix the Brexit mess in the three debates it held in the last weeks. Give them another few weeks.


Profil: I am missing the name Boris Johnson in your list. Will he become Prime Minsiter after Theresa May?

TGA: I don’t think he will be following Theresa May. He is so unpopular with the MPs that I don’t think he will get on the short list. If it would be up to the Conservative party members, then yes. But it isn’t.



Profil: Will it get to a Labour-Tory compromise?

TGA: No. It is not in the interest of Corbyn to help May through it. But could there be something that gets a majority? Not likely but possible. May’s deal put to a referendum afterwards or a deal with remaining in the costum’s union. On the continent everyone likes the idea to accept government’s deal and then put it to a referendum. Everyone gets what they want and the decision will be clear.



Profil: Can another referendum be the solution?


TGA: There is the school of thought of Edmund Burke: Referendums are the work of the devil, we have a representative democracy and basta. I think this position is no longer defensible. Because we had referenda already, they are part of the British constitution. In Canada they nearly lost Quebec and then passed a Clarity Act, which says you need to have a super majority for example.


Profil: Does Brexit lead to the breakup of the UK?


TGA: A very hard No Deal Brexit would mean the UK splitting up. We would be back in the 16th century, when it was England and Wales. But a soft Brexit is more ambigious. Scottish independence is quite complicated. There is a long border between Scotland and England.


Profil: Is Brexit a soap opera or a tragedy?


TGA: A British tragedy is also a farce. It is both at the same time. It has the farcical elements if you watch John Bercow becoming a soap opera character for the whole world but at the same time in my view the negative consequences for Europe could be even more serious than those for Britain. We already see a lot of forces of populismum and disintegration in Europe and Brexit could give a big chance for a democratic process, which could end up either with a democratic referendum and Britain might end up staying in the EU which would be a fantastic chance for Europe. Or with a softer Brexit. Both those options are less bad for Europe.


Profil: Would it be better for the EU if Britain leaves or if it cancels Brexit and stays?


TGA: In continental Europe I often hear the argument that Britain will be such a problematic member of the EU if it decides to stay. Cancer or Poison and other terms are being used. There is some competition between European capitals there are lot of problematic countries, Hungary and Poland. But if we think longterm in relation to china, to Trump’s America or to climate change than it is clearly better to work together. Some understand us better than others. “Einfühlsam” is the word I would use for Frau Merkel. Germany understands better than other nations that we in Britain have to go through this process now. Whatever the result will be, we need to get there ourselves. If we have not gotten there by the end of this year, then I give up as well. Wherever we end up it would be better if we do it in a process of democratic self-determination.


Profil: Has Europe given up on the K?

TGA: Clearly, more and more people. I am quite shocked how many of my good friends are even saying, a no deal brexit is a lesser evil, just get us out. That’s a growing trend. I hope that wiser heads will prevail.


Profil: How bad would be no Deal?

TGA: I think it will be poison for a generation. A huge blame game. We will blame it on continental Europe.


Profil: Security?

TGA: There is a real illusion, somehow a French illusion, to believe that you can somehow artificially separate the security and defense relationship from the economic relationship. That’s not real world politics. If the economic relationship is back, if we have a bad recession and queues and people dying in the hospitals because they haven’t got the right medicine supply, sure as hell this will have a negative impact on the security relationship. The best case? Italy has already signed up to the China Belt- and Road-project, which is already a big split through the European policy on China. The next thing Brexit Britain would do is establish a special relationship with China. And then forget about a united European China policy.


Profil: How long would it take for Britain to crawl back to the EU?

TGA: I really warn against the belief that the Remainers would become Rejoiners and in a few years we would be back. This is a complete nonense. This is a misreading of the British people. We ae a bloody strong minded people and it would take quite a few years until we admit that we made a mistake. Secondly the Scots would leave. Northern Ireland would be off with Ireland. The whole constiutional structure of the United Kingdom would be in question. And thirdly the EU would itself move on along Franco-German lines whatever those would be and this would mean a different type of European Union. To rejoin also would mean to give up on our sepcial deals – we would have to sign up to Euro, Schengen, lost our Rebate.


Profil: If the EU wants to be more integrationist, would it then not be better to let Britain go?

TGA: Taking Britain out of this complicated triangular relationship between Britain, Germany and France; North and south; East and West in Europe upsets the balances in the rest of the European Union.

I think Brexit is worse for Europe than Britain. We will be weaker and poorer, but we will muddle through, we will be ok. But I am not so sure that the EU will be ok. And I think EU leaders don’t see this.  Understandably European pleaders are totally fed up with Britain, I understand that, totally understand that. But the long term effects of letting Britain go could be much worse than thought now.


Profil: What would be the best outcome?

TGA: A long-term flexible extention as proposed by Donald Tusk. With a self-denying ordinance by the UK, which says we will not interfere with the rest of the EU’s business, budget, top jobs. And Britain participates I European elections. In my view that actually becomes an opportunity for us British Proeuropeans to make the case for the EU for Britain.


Profil: Is the French president Emmanuel Macron too tough on Britain?

TGA: I think he genuinely believes that he has a mission for Europe to make it ready for the 21st century. And it’s good to have someone like that for the EU. I admire him for that. I don’t think that after the last marathon summit in March he so unrealistic to believe that he will simply win. He wants as tough as possible.


Profil: Is Brexit driven by the fear of German dominance?

TGA: Absolutely not. This is a great misunderstanding in Germany that the Brits are obsessed with the Germans. They are not obsessed with the Germans, but with the French. For 700 years our great rival has been the French. Europe is much more seen as a French Napoleanic project, Jacques Delors is the hate figure much more than any German politicians. If we were in the Euro zone than things might be slightly different, we might really have felt German hegemony, but we are not. I think that’s a misunderstanding.


Profil: Does Germany see itself differently after Brexit?

TGA: I wish I could see a sliverlinings in the Brexit fog but there simply is not. Germany was already facing demands in leadership, it was in any case already a huge step-up for Berlin. For the parties and for public opinion. It was beginning to step up to those demands. But Brexit adds another ten feet that Germany has to jump over the high-jump bar and I am honestly not sure that German public opinion and the German political class is actually ready to take on those burdens of leadership. So I think it becomes very problematic for Germany itself. I don’t see anything at all positive in Brexit for Europe. I see something positive in Brexit for Britain, because we finally - fünf nach 12 nicht fünf vor 12 – have woken up to what we risk losing what we have in Europe. So you have a Proeuropean movement here now – six million people signed the petition to revoke article 50 and one million went on the streets to demand to cancel Brexit.


Profil: Angela Merkel’s role?

TGA: She has been super. Calm, states woman like. Quite tough. But also nothing but praise. Peope in this country feel that she and Germany all together have much more understanding for the British dilemma than maybe some other countries. Another question would be: In the run up to the referendum, if you would have injected Angela Merkel with truth serum, I would like to ask this question: With benefit of hindsight, knwoing everything you know now, knowing that immigration has become such a huge issue in Germany, don’t you wish you had given David Cameron the emergency break on freedom of movement that he so much wanted. This would have swung the vote in the referendum. We would have spent the last three years reforming the EU with Britain as an ally of Germany instead of bloody Brexit.


Profil: Could some concession be made now?

TGA: No. It is completely unrealistic and it is an illusion that many British Proeuropeans including people like Tony Blair that we can go back now and can ask for concession on freedom of movement. Apart from anything else freedom of movement has beene elevated to a kind of theological standing. The four freedoms are now like the ten commandments. Even more difficult to make concessions on freedom of movement now.


Profil: The EU-election will be a Brexit Zombie ball for King Nigel? How will Tories or Nigel Farage now campaign for another round in the EP?

TGA: UKIP is running seperately from Nigel Farage and his Brexit party. Do Brexit voters turn out to vote at all? And if so, who do they vote for? The vote will be split. Nobody knows what the manifesto of the Tories will say, what can they possibly say after they campagined for Brexit? In Europe there is of course a competition of nastyness. We can rank them: Le Pen, AfD. The nice thing about the international nationalists is that they will end up arguing with each other.


Profil: UKIP was the eurosceptic voice in Britain but has picked up nastyness in the last three years with the inclusion of the far right with Tommy Robinson, founder of the English Defense League.

TGA: I am not astonished by UKIP. In the English society there was always this far right corner. What I am horrified by is that the supposedly civilized conservatives from the European Research Group, the Jacob Rees-Moggs in their impeccably tailored suits and perfect Oxford accents have turned out to be quite nasty English nationalists.


Profil: Will it not be a terribly divisive campaign?

TGA: I think our voters, the Proeuropean voters, will turn out in full force. It will mean that some of the independent British Pro-Europeans will come to the European Parliament. If Conservatives and Social democrats suffer as much as we think than the voice of liberal, independant Proeuropeans coming from this country might be quite helpful to balance out the far right nationalist forces. They will be good partners for En Marche! in France and ALDE in the EP. I just talked to the smaller parties – the liberal democrats have an organization but need a popular leader, you have the Greens with a terrific leader, but no organization and than you got Chance UK with money and leaders but no prganization either. And then SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales. In the European elections you have to have party lists to stand. For the new “Change UK” this is a challenge.


profil: Do you see the EU getting stronger through Brexit?

TGA: In the short term Brexit will not be followed. But if Britain reaches a soft Brexit and gets on quite alright, in a few years you might have politicians like Mario Salvini saying like in the famous movie scene with “When Harry met Sally”: I want what she is having.


Profil: Does it strike you as ironic that the voice of reason and rationality today comes from the Polish EU council president Donald Tusk, coming from a new member state trying to keep the old European democracy Britain close?

TGA: It is rather moving personally. Forty years ago I was making the case for Poland to be part of the European family. People were being very dismissive. Donald was sitting up in Gdansk and I was on his side. Now, it is almost the other way round. He is seen in this country quite rightly as one of those who has most understanding with the British position.


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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz