The Warning of an Empty Lectern: Why Boris Johnson’s Brexit Humiliation is Dangerous for All Europeans
Dutch writer Chris Keulemans reflects on the battering Britain’s standing has taken with the rest of Europe – but warns there is no room for complacency anywhere.
Luxembourg is a beautiful city, draped across the hills overlooking the valley where the Alzette and Pétrusse rivers meet. Its citizens are on average the wealthiest in Europe. Cultural life is rich and well-accommodated. Even the poorest neighbourhood looks clean and safe.
Yet, there is a lifeless feel to the city. I once went looking for signs of a counterculture. All I found was a brick wall in a park. Someone had painted on it, in tidy white letters: “I am too bored to write anything on this wall“.
The city’s former mayor, Xavier Bettel, is now the country’s Prime Minister. On Monday, at an outdoor press conference, he pointed at the empty lectern beside him. The British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, had chosen not to appear with his host following their working lunch with Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission. Bettel was not amused with his absent neighbour. “You can’t hold a future hostage for party political gains,” he warned.
Johnson later told broadcasters that the press conference had to be cancelled as “there was clearly going to be a lot of noise and our points would have been drowned out”, according to the Guardian.
We no longer look up to the Brits we meet. Instead, we feel the urge to put an arm around their shoulders.
Protests are rare in Luxembourg. On this occasion, 75 people had shown up, mobilised by David Pike, a classical baritone singer with joint Canadian, British and Luxemburger nationality. “We are British and quite often dual nationals,” he said. “I’m not a protestor. I have never been on a protest. These people don’t go on protest, they are professionals, boring people. People who are concerned about this catastrophe.”
A British Prime Minister who shies away from 75 boring people – what does this convey to the readers and viewers of the European media that are, by and large, attempting to maintain a certain degree of seriousness in their reporting on Brexit?
The Dutch, German and French correspondents who I follow share certain characteristics in their work. They are good at explaining the quirks of the British parliamentary system, or what remains of it. They are not alarmist, although they understand the consequences of a ‘no deal’ will be damaging to businesses and citizens across Europe. They are high on adrenaline – this story might be the best they will ever get to cover. And: it can be sensed that they are constantly on the verge of bursting out in hysterical laughter.
The effect on the general audience, as far as I can judge, is the opposite: indifference. A shrug at every new improbable twist. A sense of slightly malicious relief, maybe, now that those smart alec British finally don’t look so smart anymore. The ego boost of seeing your neighbours going through deeper shit than you are.
what the papers don’t say
Personally and professionally, we remain connected. We admire Stormzy in his union jack vest all the more. We watch The Crown even more closely, wondering how this young queen would end up approving of Parliament being shut down. We no longer look up to the Brits we meet. Instead, we feel the urge to put an arm around their shoulders, like we did with the Americans we met after Donald Trump was elected.
This sense of silent superiority is dangerous. The schadenfreude could feed into the wave of aggressive national pride that is being revamped across Europe.
Boris Johnson losing at home could mean a victory for his brothers and sisters of the Nationalist International. And then we’ll need more than 75 boring people and a baritone singer in the streets.