In Madrid last week, a senior politician told me that he was watching the Brexit crisis with growing astonishment. “England, the mother of parliaments,” he said, shaking his head. “We’ve looked up to them for so long.” Meanwhile, an Italian friend who arrived in London on a delayed train — French customs officers are having a pre-Brexit strike at the Gare du Nord in Paris, delaying London-bound trains and demanding extra compensation — was also amazed. “We think our democracies are weak, elsewhere in Europe. But even if you took a bunch of Italians, Poles and Hungarians, kept them up all night and got them drunk, they still wouldn’t come up with anything as disastrous as what we are seeing in the House of Commons.”
Another week, another history-making vote: On Tuesday, the British parliament rejected, again, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, an arrangement that would have given Britain a reasonably smooth transition period out of the European Union. It was a deal that pleased no one, but some saw it as a way out of a dilemma. The fact is that the British narrowly voted to leave the EU, but they have never agreed about which kinds of relationships should replace it. More than two years have passed, and in that time the disagreements have simply grown deeper and more bitter. Now, without May’s deal, the choices are stark. Either Britain crashes out of the EU on March 29, with no transition period and no treaties at all — or Brexit is delayed. More votes, to be held later this week, will determine which it is to be.
But before we get to that moment, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the damage already done by the Brexit debacle, and I don’t mean the harm to the economy. Far worse is the damage done to Britain’s reputation a serious international player, a competent negotiator of treaties, a reliable ally, a voice for sense in the world — and a representative democracy. My Spanish and Italian acquaintances are not alone in their astonishment: All across Europe, people are reassessing their views of Britain, its politics and above all its politicians. Since the referendum in 2016, all of the key Brexit-negotiating jobs have been held by people who campaigned in favour of leaving the EU. Universally, they turned out to be ill-informed and second-rate. European negotiators in Brussels, accustomed to clever British diplomats, have been amazed by how ill-prepared the Brexiteers have been, how little they understood about Europe, about treaties, about trade. It will be a long time before the assume, as they once did, that Britain is a serious country to reckon with.
But in the long term, the damage that has been done to British democracy inside Britain might be even worse. The astonishing display of incompetence — the defeated votes, the confused explanations, the constant uncertainty — will not increase the respect that people have for politics or politicians. It won’t inspire them to vote, or to become engaged in public life, or to respect those who do. Back in December, Sir Ivan Rogers, Britain’s former senior civil servant in Brussels, made a widely quoted speech in which he declared that “the debate in this country — on all sides — continues to suffer from all manner of delusions, fantasies and self-deceptions”. British politicians, he said, “can no longer get away with strutting and fretting or with sound and fury. It’s time to wake up from the dream and face the facts.” Three months later, the dream continues; the facts have not been faced. The problem is not Europe: The British Parliament is simply incapable of deciding what it wants to do.
One of the reasons why many British voters chose to leave the European Union was because they distrusted European institutions. Of all the many costs of Brexit, this was one I did not foresee: That it could wind up damaging the nation’s faith in its own institutions too.
Anne Applebaum is a Pulitzer Prize winning American journalist, historian and author.