China: ‘The Brexit farce has encouraged the nationalists in China, especially the young generation’
Liu Ye, editor of international affairs at Sanlian Life Week magazine in Beijing
I remember the day of the referendum. It was very hot in Beijing that morning and I had gone to a meeting with my publishing agent. I kept checking the BBC app on my phone for news. Finally, after leaving the meeting, while waiting for a taxi, my phone buzzed – the UK had chosen to leave.
Suddenly I was reminded of an old Yugoslav film, Walter Defends Sarajevo, which was very popular in China in the 1970s. There is a famous line that many Chinese people will remember: “The air is shaking, as if the sky is going to burn. The storm is coming.”
Within a few hours, I published an article titled “The storm is coming”. It was read by more than 100,000 people in just one hour. Later, I persuaded my editor to do a cover story on Brexit. We put that out within 72 hours, under the headline: “Brexit: are we facing the reversal of globalisation?” That edition sold almost 200,000 copies – even more than our report on Donald Trump’s presidential win.
Not many Chinese people care about the technical or legal details of the Brexit deal, but the saga has made an impression. The reputation of British democracy has suffered. If you ask someone on the streets of Beijing what they think of Brexit, they might say: “Democracy only leads to confusion.” I know that’s not true, but it is difficult to change their impression.
For the past two or three decades, the US and Britain have been cultural symbols in Chinese people’s eyes: the US powerful, rich, enviable; the UK exquisite, elegant. Public intellectuals, especially liberals, talk about the British style of constitutionalism, comparing it to our Soviet-style totalitarian regime. Students know more about Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher than JFK or Bill Clinton. That is real “soft power”.
But now this image has collapsed. In the Brexit farce, there is no Churchill or Thatcher, only a dozen mediocre politicians, none of whom want to take responsibility or unite the nation. This has encouraged the nationalists in China, especially the young generation born after 1989. With the “help” of the great firewall, they knew little about the inner crisis of their own country. But they see that China now has more aircraft carriers, more missiles and more hi-tech fighters, while the UK is trapped in the wallows of Brexit. There is an inner voice in their hearts: “Now we are strong. They are weak. We have nothing to learn from them.” That’s the danger.
Today, no one really cares about Boris Johnson, but since he was the one who called for Brexit at the beginning, Chinese people will be interested to see how he can turn his commitment into reality.
As told to Lily Kuo
France: ‘Once, we used to hold up British parliamentary life as the Rolls-Royce of liberal democracy’
Sylvie Kauffmann, editorial director and contributor, Le Monde
First, I should say that we French Europeans are grateful to our British friends for making sure one word has exited our vocabulary: Frexit.
For Brexit has made Frexit impossible. Four years ago, Marine Le Pen could still float the Frexit temptation and lead some of her supporters to believe that leaving the EU would somehow solve France’s problems.
By the time she launched her campaign for the 2017 presidential election, the Brexit referendum had already had one effect: the Front National leader no longer dared push her Frexit argument any more, confining herself instead to attacking the euro and advocating a return to the old franc. Even this proved a bad idea.
In the last TV debate between the two rounds of the election, Emmanuel Macron crushed Le Pen by proving how incoherent her idea of a French paradise outside the eurozone actually was. It took a year for her to recover, and two years for her party – now renamed National Rally – to produce a programme admitting that leaving the euro was “not a priority any more”.
But for us, this has been the only silver lining of the Brexit saga. Watching the long descent of Westminster into something resembling hell has been an exhausting experience. Theresa May’s very British resilience was impressive, but we ended up pitying her. Nigel Farage’s type was all too familiar to us: we well understood just how dangerous he was. Some of us once found Boris Johnson funny; we long ago stopped laughing. John Bercow’s ties and desperate calls for order made a good show, but on the whole, this was a cast with too many villains and too few heroes.
Once, we used to hold up British parliamentary life as an example, and watch prime minister’s questions in the House of Commons with envy: for us, accustomed to semi-monarchical presidents of the Republic, this was the very Rolls-Royce of liberal democracy. Now that Rolls-Royce looks more like a dodgem.
We have come to dread seeing old British friends, now so obsessed with Brexit that it is all but impossible to talk of anything else. We wondered how it was possible for such brilliant public servants and such a legendary diplomatic service to be unable to come up with better plans and bring them to the negotiating table.
And we could not understand how a former empire could dream of becoming “Singapore-on-Thames”. All our myths, in short, have been destroyed. Instead of taking back control, the Brits seemed to be losing their minds.
Then France had its own crisis: the gilets jaunes. It was violent, ugly, destabilising. Maybe Brexit was Britain’s gilets jaunes moment? The UK version of a widespread crisis of representative democracy? Less violent – but, in the end, more destructive.
Watching this final episode, of the election of a prime minister by 0.2% of the population, many of us came to this conclusion: this is a British crisis, not a European one. And you will never solve it without leaving, one way or another. So please, go now. Check the freezing temperature outside, fix your problem. And then come back. The door will stay open, because we do want you back. Just calmed down a bit.
As told to Jon Henley
Germany: ‘Johnson is seen as treating Europe as a big joke. Quoting witty lines in Latin won’t change that’
Khuê Pham, editor, Zeit magazine
It has been difficult to write with the eye of a neutral observer about an event, Brexit, that can feel like a personal affront. After Berlin, London was my second home town, a place where I had gone to university and lived for four years. Yet the vote to leave made me realise that perhaps there was a side to Britain I had overlooked.
I learned a lot since then – not just about Britain, but also our blindspots as reporters. I saw parallels to Brexit not just in Donald Trump’s election victory later that year, but also in the rise of Alternative für Deutschland at the 2017 elections in Germany. All three raise questions of social inequality that we have failed to address until now. The problem is that we are still looking for ways to resolve them. People are more disillusioned about politics than ever, and yet we are nowhere nearer to cleaning up the mess.
For our readers at Die Zeit, Boris Johnson is by far the most intriguing character in the Brexit drama. He makes them come out in a rash – it’s as if they are allergic to him. They feel he has been disdainful towards Europeans, treating Europe as a big joke. That view will stick around even as prime minister – quoting witty lines in Latin won’t change that.
I wrote a profile of him during the referendum campaign, and the impression I had then was of someone who doesn’t actually have a very strong opinion on Europe at all, and who isn’t really interested in the detail part of politics, which requires hard work. His stint as foreign secretary only confirmed that, so I am really surprised how many British commentators now endorse him as a prime minister.
Britain’s soft power has already started to diminish. Caught up in Brexit, the UK government doesn’t have the bandwidth to play a role in European politics any more. I think the German public has started to lose interest in the latest details of the negotiations – they used to think of Britain as being very cool, now it’s seen as a big mess.
I am not very hopeful about good relations between Britain and Germany in the near future. Merkel is on her way out and there’s no strong candidate to succeed her. The danger is that in a year’s time both Britain and Germany could be in a volatile state, both with leaders who need to prove to the electorate that they can be tough in negotiations. I fear the UK will come to miss Merkel as a pillar of stability.
As told to Philip Oltermann
Japan: ‘The Japanese have always seen Britain as a gentle, stable country, but that has changed’
Nobuyuki Suzuki, media and entertainment news editor, the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper
I’m very concerned about the prospect of Britain leaving the EU without a deal on 31 October. This is unprecedented. I’m afraid that Japanese companies will continue to rethink their investments in Britain, as Nissan and Honda have already done.
Japanese companies invested in Britain because it was a member of the EU. But agreeing a Japan-UK free trade deal after Brexit would take a very long time, and during that period it would be difficult for Japanese firms to continue operating in Britain.
With or without a deal, leaving the EU is a bad idea and I hope, somehow, that Brexit won’t happen. I don’t think David Cameron ever thought that Britain would vote to leave, but voters were influenced by fake news claims about membership of the EU and what leaving would mean. They were persuaded that Brexit would be easy.
I feel very sorry for British voters. A lot of people who voted to leave saw themselves as victims of globalisation. If I was a British factory worker and I had lost my job, I would have been tempted to support leaving the EU. The gap between rich and poor was growing. Immigration was also an issue. People looked around and thought: “I want to go back to the way Britain was.” I don’t think voters were given enough information about what the issues were before the referendum, and there should have been much more discussion of the risks and benefits of leaving.
The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is considering calling for a referendum on revising Japan’s postwar constitution (to legally recognise the self-defence forces, Japan’s de facto military). If Brexit has taught us anything, it is that the media have to do more to ensure that the public has a proper grasp of both sides of the argument.
We run a lot of Brexit stories in the Tokyo Shimbun. It’s one of the hottest foreign news stories around. The tone of our coverage is almost always downbeat and we talk a lot about how chaotic British politics has become.
The Japanese have always seen Britain as a gentle, stable country, but that has changed, first because of Brexit and now because of the rise of Boris Johnson.
Johnson doesn’t fit the stereotype of an English gentleman. He reminds a lot of people in Japan of Donald Trump, both physically and in terms of his political style.
Johnson looks a little wild, and he speaks his mind. We don’t have politicians like that in Japan. What he says about politics doesn’t really matter to the Japanese… instead we are intrigued by the fact that he doesn’t speak or behave like a conventional politician.
As told to Justin McCurry
India: ‘If Britain wants a deal with India, it will have to relax immigration. This is non-negotiable’
Mihir Sharma, author, Bloomberg columnist, and senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
I visit the UK regularly and was there during the referendum. I was surprised but not shocked at the result. The Westminster system, which we share, is meant to conceal the real “will of the people”. It’s a bad idea to combine that with referendums. You might discover what people actually want, which is usually something politicians, and reality, can’t deliver.
The result, observing the saga unfold from afar, is high comedy: a political class that is trapped by its own promises and lies into delivering the undeliverable and which is now losing all credibility as a consequence. It’s been strange to watch the incredible arrogance on display in England (not Britain), which reveals itself in this belief that they will somehow be a desirable location or partner for other countries once they leave Europe.
Such a giant and inexplicable act of self-harm would be sad if it happened to a country less sure of itself, but when it happens to England, it is amusing as well.
Britain confuses its standing with that of London. London is a great global city. Britain is a small European country with ideas above its station. People will continue to shop in London. Companies will locate less in Britain. The Indian government will pay less attention to the British prime minister and more to Brussels and Berlin.
It seems to me that too many people in London seem to believe, deep down, that Brexit won’t happen. They don’t seem to realise they are now strangers in their own country.
As a political analyst, I have learned quite a few things from Brexit. For one, I see it as a warning of the danger in allowing a single issue to take over all politics, all economic planning, and in fact all conversation. Brexit has dumbed Britain down.
For another, politicians need to realise that in democracies like Britain or India, people are always angry: whether at austerity, or decreasing living standards, or immigration, or religious diversity. Anger just needs a target. The Brexit referendum gave them one: the EU. The country that invented the Westminster system, intended to control popular anger, seems to have forgotten how to run a democracy.
India, like others, has noticed for the first time that Europe exists independently of Britain. India thought of Europe as Britain’s backyard. Brexit means we will now develop independent relationships with European countries. Britain, and London, will become less important.
If Brexiters think that negotiating a trade agreement with India is going to be easy, they are in for a nasty shock. There is a far stronger belief in Britain than in India in the power of nostalgia and a “shared history”. It won’t impact trade negotiations at all. If Britain wants a deal, it will have to concede India’s demand for easier work visas for professionals and students. It will have to relax immigration. This is as non-negotiable for New Delhi as it is for Brussels. I’m sure Brexiters will be fine with that!
Britain’s reputation for common sense and pragmatism has been severely damaged by Brexit. I doubt it will survive a Boris Johnson premiership.
As told to Amrit Dhillon
South Africa: ‘There’s a gleefulness in watching the British realise the ineptitude of their own politicians’
Khadija Patel, editor-in-chief, the Mail & Guardian newspaper, Johannesburg
People find Brexit inexplicable and are getting bored by it. There’s some interest in the political spectacle, but the importance of Great Britain in the consciousness of South Africa has waned. Yet there’s a gleefulness in watching the British realise the ineptitude of their own politicians. I guess we suffered when they were colonial rulers, and Boris Johnson [encapsulates] everything you might lampoon about Britain and its idea of itself.
In South Africa we have problems with our own politicians, and it is almost consoling to see that we are not alone. Britain is trying to figure itself out in 2019 and is suddenly realising that it’s not that important any more.
Britain has come to think of itself in very noble terms, and to do that it has had to fundamentally erase its dealings with the colonies. Its history has been written that way. I am a fourth-generation South African of Indian descent, so my own history is riddled with Britain’s colonialism, and all that is glossed over.
Of course we were surprised by the referendum result, but when you zoom out a bit it all makes sense. We have seen similar shocks elsewhere – Trump, Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil and so on. The global trend towards populism is scary. It fundamentally undermines democracy.
I’m going to be interested in how Boris Johnson deals with Africa… I don’t think that [South African president] Cyril Ramaphosa or [foreign minister] Naledi Pandor are going to respond very well to him as a serious interlocutor with proposals about strengthening ties between our two countries.
Britain will never hold that soft power again, no way.
As told to Jason Burke
Russia: ‘Our leaders see Boris Johnson as temporary – a clown. They’ll wait for the new leader’
Alexey Venediktov, editor-in-chief, Echo of Moscow radio station
The economic leadership of Russia is not happy [about Brexit]. They think turbulence is not in our interest because Russia has a fairly weak economy at the moment. It changes the rules now, while we are weak. They’re concerned about the future.
But the political leadership see a united front of western countries against them, and they see any weakening – the separatist movement in Catalonia, the rise of Salvini in Italy, the growth of the far right in the Netherlands and Germany, the exit of the UK from the EU – as a positive, because it makes our opponents look at themselves, not at us.
I don’t see a possibility [for relations to improve]. The bilateral relationship isn’t determined by whether or not the UK is in the EU. Our relations of late have largely been determined by the Skripal case, and the British leadership is now seen as the most actively hostile European government to Russia.
[Of greater importance to diplomacy is] Vladimir Putin’s personal relationship with a leader, as we saw with George W Bush. Despite political differences, they had [a rapport] that helped smooth over many of the problems between Russia and the US. Unfortunately, the view of Boris Johnson in the leadership is quite negative. They don’t think he is serious. They think he’s a clown. And second, they think he has little support in his party and his country. So he’s temporary… we’ll wait for the new leader.
As told to Andrew Roth
The United States: ‘Trump’s US doesn’t look as desperate for friends as the UK does in its split from the EU’
Jen Kirby, foreign and national security reporter, Vox
Brexit, and the rise of Boris Johnson, is a drama Americans know they’re supposed to pay attention to, if only we weren’t so consumed by our own. We get that the drama is related. No one thought Britain would vote to leave the EU, until it did. No one thought Trump would win the presidency, until he did.
What happened in the UK in June 2016 later looked like the harbinger of America’s political upheaval. Or maybe it felt more soothing that way. Here, America may not have wanted to be first.
If the comparisons between Trump and Brexit seemed straightforward – the rise of populism and rightwing nationalism; the distrust of institutions and the “elite” – it became clear the events connected in deeper, murkier ways. Misinformation became a feature of both the referendum and the presidential campaign: the UK had the Brexit bus, the US had (well, still has) Trump’s twitter feed. Fake news was amplified on social media, including by Russian trolls. Cambridge Analytica appeared as a villain in both. So, somehow, did Steve Bannon.
Johnson’s ascension to prime minister feels a bit like we still don’t get it, that all the forces that made Trump and Brexit possible have only hardened in the three years since. Johnson, Americans know, is the guy that sold Brexit, and Brexit really has not gone well. But his party, at least, is buying into his vision, even doubling down on it. It puts a knot in our stomach about 2020.
Johnson isn’t exactly “Britain’s Trump”. Their commonalities are mostly superficial: born in New York, both have populist appeal despite a privileged upbringing; both court controversy and are owners of questionable hairstyles. But Johnson appears more savvy, more shrewd, more deliberate. He’s Trump, if Trump were in on the joke.
The end result might be the same for both nations: leaders who cater to the voters who buy into their rhetoric, leaving everyone else to condemn their lies. Two men who should be cast off as ridiculous were they not so capable of tapping into anger, resentment, racism.
Johnson and Trump will meet as heads of state at the G7 later this month, and the next, weirder stage of the special relationship will begin. It could be short-lived. Trump’s presidency has strained democratic alliances, and amplified some uncomfortable bonds, from Jair Bolsonaro to Mohammad bin Salman. But the US under Trump doesn’t look as desperate for friends as the UK does in its breakup with the EU. The Brexiters seem to think that the US will be a better substitute for the EU. But Trump can’t be trusted, particularly not on trade, where his one organising principle is that everyone’s out to take advantage of the US. And even if Trump gets along with Johnson now, he might be looking over his shoulder for someone better, or, really, just Nigel Farage.
Brazil: ‘The UK appears fixated on its own problems – it is losing relevance quite quickly’
Fernanda Mena, columnist, Folha de São Paulo
Many of my peers, upper-middle-class Paulistas, are anglophiles, people who appreciate Britain as the homeland of ideas of liberalism, free markets and multiculturalism – all reinforced by the soft power of British pop culture. We have always seen London as one of the capitals of the world – very cosmopolitan and full of youth culture.
And as Brazilians we know that Brits in general are better educated than us. So it was quite shocking to see people being driven by lies to vote for Brexit – and betraying all those principles of multiculturalism, liberalism and free markets.
I was incredulous when I heard the result, but looking back at the time I spent studying in London, there were one or two things that could have given me a sign of what was to come. For example, the scandal that broke in 2009 about Primark paying very low wages to Manchester textile workers – we never thought of the British working-class as being as exploited as workers in eastern Asia. And of course this has to do with globalisation.
A link between Brexit and Brazil is the use of social media to target uncertain and vulnerable voters with fake news. It happened here in Jair Bolsonaro’s election – and maybe it is not a coincidence that Bolsonaro is close to Steve Bannon, who was key in Trump’s election.
It looked mad that Britain wanted to leave the world’s largest trading bloc. In June, Brazil, as part of the Mercosur economic area, signed a major trade deal with the EU, so I think the relationship we have with the UK will be much weaker. My impression with Brexit is that a lot of companies will leave the UK. The UK is still the fifth-largest economy but for how much longer? It appears so self-centred, fixated on its own problems that it is currently out of the global debate – it is losing relevance quite quickly.
As told to Ian Tucker