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Analysis

Brexit Britain squanders goodwill built up over centuries

by Alan Wheatley | 11.09.2017

Footage of a forlorn Theresa May at a Brussels summit, fumbling with her papers for want of friends to chat with, speaks volumes about Britain’s diminished standing in the world even before we leave the EU.

But Brexit is doing more than rob the UK of a voice in the running of Europe. It is undermining the respect and (perhaps grudging) admiration that many foreigners feel for Britain. As such, a valuable source of our soft power is draining away, adding to the economic and political losses that we are incurring.

When I was chatting to people during a recent walking holiday in the Balkans, they could not understand why Britain is marginalising itself. Of course, they’re not the only Europeans to be scratching their heads. And because Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro would like nothing more than to join the EU, their puzzlement is understandable.

But there was more to it than that. Those I spoke to felt almost betrayed by Britain. The gist was this: why was a country that championed the eastward expansion of the EU and had sent its troops to fight in the Balkans – many is the Kosovo baby named after Tony Blair – now turning its back on us?

Kosovans in particular sympathise with the desire to “take back control”. After all, more than  13,000 people died in the 1998-99 war that Kosovo fought to “take back control” of the province from Serbia. But the UK’s circumstances are wholly different. “If you do something wrong and your values let us down, who do we look up to?” one Kosovan student asked me.

May is dangling the prospect of continued military and security cooperation with the EU after Brexit, but the first reaction of several people I spoke to was that Britain’s withdrawal was bad for Europe; in the face of transnational problems such as illegal immigration and terrorism, the answer is more Europe not less Europe.

These are not abstract problems in the Balkans. In western Kosovo, Italian and Austrian soldiers are part of a Nato contingent guarding the 14th-century Serbian Orthodox Christian monastery of Decani. The monastery has been attacked several times by Albanian extremists since the war ended and the monks woke one morning in 2014 to find the walls daubed with graffiti declaring: “The Caliphate is coming.”

Inside or outside the EU, Britain is not going to turn back Islamic terrorism. Nor, on one level, do the views of foreigners in faraway lands count a jot. But they are telling nonetheless. By the very act of leaving the EU, Britain is squandering the goodwill it will need to prosper on the outside.

To judge by a small sample of Balkan admirers of Britain, many people will no longer look automatically to us for principled, common-sense leadership. The cost of Brexit cannot be counted solely in shillings and pence.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

Tags: , Categories: EU Politics