Britain faces a tough challenge to retain global influence after its departure from the EU under a prime minister who has a well-known reputation for “lying”, France’s former ambassador to the UK told Agence France-Presse (AFP) in an interview.
Sylvie Bermann, who was ambassador to London from 2014-2017 and witnessed the 2016 Brexit referendum at first hand, has raised some eyebrows in the UK with some decidedly undiplomatic comments in her book “Goodbye Britannia” published in French in January.
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She professes her love for the “dynamic, traditional and modern” London, the squirrels and foxes in its parks and streets, British culture and the country’s sense of humour.
But in the book she also makes no attempt to hide a deep frustration with much of its political class and in particular those who led the country to Brexit, calling Prime Minister Boris Johnson an “unrepentant liar”.
“Why, when you are very dynamic and successful and influential in the EU, why do you decide to leave?” Bermann, who also served as ambassador to Moscow and Beijing, told AFP at her home in the heart of Paris.
“It will be more difficult. And there will need to be much more effort (by the UK) to have a true influence in the world.”
She said that this will be particularly hard in the geopolitical context of the “Cold War” between the United States and China, with the two protagonists looking to the EU rather the UK.
“There is a triangular (China-EU-US) relationship and it is harder for the United Kingdom to play a role,” she said.
She said Britain’s much touted “special relationship” with the United States “is above all special for the British” rather than the United States.
“The United States often used the British as a bridge or relay with the EU. Obviously it is a role that is now lost.”
On top of this, there are difficulties in trade relations, as shown by Britain’s threat this week to break the terms of the Brexit withdrawal treaty by unilaterally delaying checks on food going to Northern Ireland.
“These are consequences of the choice made in the referendum,” she said.
Bermann acknowledged that in the fight against Covid-19, “the British vaccination campaign is better than the European one. Bravo for that” with far more people given the jab than in big EU member states.
But she added: “This is not totally due to Brexit as the vaccine orders were made while the UK was still subject to European rules.”
In her book, Bermann says David Cameron, the laid-back ex-premier who called the Brexit referendum, “will forever be responsible for Brexit”, but adds it would also “probably never have happened” if Brexit had not been championed by Johnson.
“Boris Johnson… is a man who uses insults towards the European Union, starting with the French who he did not hesitate to call ‘turds’. He is above all an unrepentant liar,” she wrote in the book.
“I am surprised everyone made a fuss as I said he was lying because it is well-documented, of course,” she told AFP, referring to how he had created a “euro myth” with sometimes fabulous tales in his stint as Brussels correspondent of the Daily Telegraph.
She said no one understood at the time of the referendum that the world had entered a “new era of populism” that became clear with the election of Donald Trump as US president later in 2016.
“That is why Cameron was so confident (of winning). He told the EU leaders he would win and until the end he thought it would be ‘Remain’. It was a miscalculation.”
Bermann expressed sadness over Brexit, recalling that when she arrived as ambassador London was still abuzz from the success of the 2012 Olympic Games which were seen as a celebration of modern British identity.
“There was a real fascination for the country. Everyone was puzzled by the decision, it was a surprise in Europe but also in China, India, Japan, Singapore.”
She described Brexit as an “amputation” for the EU.
“The British are sovereign in their decision but they can’t think it is not our business but it is our business as it is a divorce and a divorce from us.”