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Britain has never looked so foolish in the world’s eyes

Ihave always admired the British. We owe them afternoon tea, Monty Python and the Beatles. This is more than many nations have achieved in their history. I was also one of the few columnists in Germany who found it ridiculous to be angry at our British neighbours after they decided to leave the European club they had once helped to make great. I felt sorry whenever I saw the British prime minister stumble through a European summit, with her crooked smile and her even more crooked offers. Right now, though, I’m feeling less sympathetic. In fact, I have been catching myself thinking: “Go with God. But go!” Maybe this week could be the week things become clear. But who would bet on it?

The UK is making a spectacular demonstration of how to make a fool of yourself with the entire world looking on. What was once the most powerful empire on Earth can’t even find its way to the door without tripping over its own feet. When Theresa May arrives in Brussels with yet another proposal, you can be sure it won’t be worth the paper it’s written 24 hours later. She either presents ideas that Brussels has long ago rejected, her plans have been rejected by her own party, or Boris Johnson tears them to pieces in his newspaper column.

No deal is better than a bad deal? If you are convinced of this: go ahead. A hard Brexit will cost the rest of us a lot – there’s no question about that – but it is nothing compared to what is awaiting you Britons.

So there you are: left in your water-damaged homes, without fuel and aspirins, but with extremely bad-tempered Russians as neighbours. And they will realise they have invested far too much money in the English real estate market and will be incensed because their investments are going down the drain.

When I mocked the Brexit chaos in Der Spiegel recently, I received a lot of mail saying that this wasn’t fair. One line of attack was that only the English had voted to leave the European Union, so it was not a British decision. Second, the government in London wouldn’t speak up for right-thinking people who want to stay close to the EU.

I can only say: sorry, folks, but it doesn’t work to declare the government a kind of foreign power, whose rise can’t really be explained. We Germans have tried to pull this nifty trick a few times ourselves. Unfortunately, in a democracy any government that has come into office not through a coup but through free elections is regarded as an expression of the will of the people. That is why we are talking about representative democracy.

Almost everyone who has had a say in this adventure seems to belong to the British establishment, meaning they went to an outrageously expensive private school and completed their studies at Cambridge or Oxford. What in the name of God do they teach them? It certainly can’t be skills that prepare them for the real world. Or would you trust a manager who regularly shows up to negotiations so haphazardly that they have to be broken off again after just a few minutes?

Wherever you look, you see buffoons. Of Johnson you can at least say the man knows something about intrigue. He’s also a brilliant writer, which naturally endears him to a columnist such as me. But, hand on heart, what does it tell us about a country when a man like Johnson is regarded as one of the clearest-thinking minds in the circle of power?

Two weeks ago May had a chance to present her ideas for an orderly exit to the other 27 EU heads. She left them confused, and trying to figure out the meaning of her presentation over dinner. Angela Merkel indicated that she didn’t really understand what May had said, but that she would ask the Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier to explain it to her. I didn’t make that up; Bloomberg reported it.

The disadvantage of being intelligent is that it hurts when you act stupid. The fool doesn’t feel this pain because they don’t have to pretend. For a nation, the problem begins when the level of stupidity at the top is unusually high, because the smarter people have thrown in the towel. This is generally the point at which decline becomes inevitable.

 Jan Fleischhauer is a columnist for Der Spiegel

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