Stephen Clarke: ‘Brexit validated British society’s deep-seated prejudices’

A "Year in the Merde" author Stephen Clarke reflects the fears of the 48% who voted 'Remain'.

100 days after the Brexit referendum, British novelist Stephen Clarke spoke to EURACTIV France about the campaign’s lies, the British press and France’s “opportunistic” political class.

Stephen Clarke is the author of several works on French-British relations, including the bestseller “A Year in the Merde“. His latest novel, “God save le Brexit“, tells the story of a voter’s uncertainty faced with the Brexit debate.

He spoke to euractiv.fr’s editor-in-chief, Aline Robert.

What is your assessment of Brexit, 100 days after the shock of the referendum?

People voted for it, but it is a nightmare, really. Now Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will want to leave and the United Kingdom will disappear. England will be left on its own to withdraw into itself.

Why do you think the British people voted for Brexit?

They were lied to throughout the whole campaign. Many of them knew they were being lied to of course, the voters are not completely stupid. But they were exactly like Donald Trump’s electorate: they really wanted to believe. Particularly because the Leave campaign validated some of British society’s deep-seated prejudices, like xenophobia. The campaign really concentrated on this fear of “the other”, focusing on the Poles and Romanians. They even tried to make the Pakistanis and Indians believe that if they voted leave, Britain would open its borders to their compatriots. But this was obviously completely untrue.

Are the European institutions partly responsible for Brexit?

Of course, very much so. Europe communicates so badly. Brussels is a bubble of arrogance, full of people who think they are untouchable. They certainly have to take a share of the responsibility in this story. We need a campaign to defend the EU and denounce the false ideas peddled by the British press. I have spoken to EU civil servants about this, and they say, “If we communicate, the British media accuse us of broadcasting propaganda.”  The institutions lack courage.

So how do you think the EU should communicate?

Sometimes I ask British people which European laws they find particularly problematic. And they are never able to give me an answer. Because the decisions made in Brussels are legitimate, and they are often the right decisions. For example, the quality of bathing water in many of the countries swarmed by the Brits each summer has improved dramatically thanks to the EU. And when the EU funds projects to clean up sewage management in the Balkans, everyone benefits. Why don’t they make a big advertising campaign about that?

How do you think the EU is perceived by the British people?

They do not understand what the European leaders do. Nobody knows who makes the decisions, there are just too many of them. Europe was constructed in an obscure way, and now it has become incomprehensible. I do not know what the president of the European Commission is for, but it is the EU’s job to make me understand.

Are the British people happy with Brexit?

Between those that did not vote and those that have changed their minds after the political meltdown that ensued, I think the result today would be the other way round. But it is too late. Theresa May lacks credibility. She was not elected by parliament, but nominated by her party. Things often go wrong in the United Kingdom when this sort of thing happens. People make ridiculous decisions. Making Boris Johnson Foreign Secretary is a kind of punishment for him, he is hated everywhere.

The problem is that Labour does not have a secure leader, otherwise it would be able to mobilise and offer some kind of alternative. So Article 50 will be activated and the UK will have to leave, whether or not the EU is prepared to negotiate. And in my opinion, the Europeans will be out for revenge. This has already started: the calls for tender from the European institutions have started to ignore the British bids.  We will be marginalised very quickly.

But the EU has nothing to gain by weakening the United Kingdom. Quite the opposite in fact.

Yes of course, but the UK needs the EU much more than the EU needs the UK. Half of our exports go to the EU, while the UK is not the cornerstone of the EU export market. This referendum unleashed complete anarchy.

Do you think that Brexit will have an effect on French politics?

It certainly will. Brexit helps the other anti-immigration parties in Europe. Since the referendum, the National Front has become the leading political party in France. Though I have to say that France does not have an outstanding political class. A minister for the economy who resigns to campaign for the presidential elections, like Emmanuel Macron, is nothing but an opportunist. This kind of thing does not happen in the United Kingdom.

How would you explain this difference?

In France, politicians are celebrities, and journalists are almost obsequious with them. It is a real problem. They always ask questions like, “Mr minister, please explain to us why you are a genius.” They treat them like celebrities.  I fail to see why a former minister like Arnaud Montebourg is constantly being asked to give his opinion on anything and everything. And what is the point of a president who lives in the royal palace and eats off Louis XVI’s plates?

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