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Within the EU, the United Kingdom was for years Poland’s closest ally, according to Radosław Sikorski, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and current MEP. ‘Britain was inside the EU for us what the United States was in NATO—namely, the country that most consistently and most sympathetically acted on behalf of enlargement and of our inclusion back into the Western family of nations that we felt we belonged to all along. And so we now have this paradoxical situation in which Poland is staying and Britain is leaving.’ 

     And that, of course, brings us to Brexit. ‘Well, first of all, we feel guilty for Brexit,’ says Sikorski, who settled in the UK in 1981, went to Oxford, joined the notorious Bullingdon Club and became friends with David Cameron and Boris Johnson, ‘because at the cutting edge, Brexit was about sovereignty—misunderstood, in my view—and migration; and the Polish influx of about a million people happened because of a very friendly decision by the Blair government in 2004 for Britain to be the only country in the EU not to exercise a seven-year derogation on opening the labour market, which meant that everybody and his brother in the ten new member states who wanted to try their luck abroad didn’t spread themselves evenly over the entire European Union but came to Britain, which was wonderful for us, because Britain is a very welcoming place, you teach a global language, people like the atmosphere at work. But I can imagine that in some communities outside London, it changed the ethnic composition rather rapidly and so some majorities felt threatened.’

With the United Kingdom facing potentially momentous changes, historian and broadcaster Neil MacGregor talks to leading opinion formers in Germany, Egypt, Nigeria, Canada, India, Singapore, the USA, Spain, Australia and Poland to find out how Britain is seen in countries where it has had significant ties in the past. Throughout his travels, he uncovers bemusement and frustration, as well as admiration and affection, as Britain re-evaluates its relationship with Europe and the wider world

So how do Poles view Britain’s continuing intense debate about its relationship with the EU? ‘When I lived in Britain in the 1980s,’ says Sikorski, ‘I regarded myself as a Thatcherite and also as a Eurosceptic. That’s because I read the British press and I believed what was in it, and it was only when I arrived as a minister in Brussels that I learnt how the EU actually works. If you read British newspapers you would have the impression that a European directive is cooked up by faceless burocrats in Brussels and imposed on the member states, which is completely untrue. European directives are usually written by the civil service in Brussels at the behest of the member states and then require usually unanimous agreement, but at least majority agreement or double majority agreement, between the Commission, the Council—which is to say, the member states—and now approval of the European Parliament. What could be more democratic than that?’

     So Sikorski’s view is that the EU was systematically misrepresented in the British press? ‘In the British press, and not a sufficient number of mainstream British politicians took it upon themselves to tell the truth about the advantages of membership and how EU law is actually made. I also blame somewhat the European Commission, for not doing in London from the representative office of the Commission what the Commission does in all the other capitals, which is an outreach programme, batting for the Commission and for the EU.’ 

Neil MacGregor was the Director of the British Museum from 2002 to 2015. He was previously Director of the National Gallery in London from 1987 to 2002. His books and BBC Radio series include A History of the World in 100 ObjectsShakespeare's Restless WorldGermany: Memories of a Nation and Living with the Gods

‘In this conflict between European institutions and Britain,’ says Paweł Ukielski, political scientist and Deputy Director of the Warsaw Rising Museum, ‘most Poles are supporting Britain because they oppose European administration, but I would say that in Poland people were quite surprised that the British, who are perceived as a very well organised democracy, a system that is looking forward, who as Lord Palmerston said have no eternal friends or enemies, just eternal interests, did not make the decision with any plan. Very often it is Poland that is perceived as politically romantic and has no plans for the future—“let’s do it and we’ll see how it comes!”— and some Poles with surprise see that now the British did the same.’

     It is a point taken up almost word for word by ‘Radek’ Sikorski. ‘We’ve always admired Britain for its pragmatism, for its common sense, for its sticking to the practicalities of life. Historically speaking, we’ve been the romantics, you’ve been the pragmatists and now I have the feeling that it’s the other way round.’

     And what does that mean for Britain, and how do you see Britain in that light? ‘It seems to me that there is a sudden frivolity about the choices that have been made. There’s a certain reluctance to confront the real choices, namely that there is a trade-off between what they call “sovereignty” but really is not sovereignty because by the very act of holding this referendum you’ve proven that you’ve been sovereign all along. You know, I can tell you about not having sovereignty. If in the 1970s or 80s here in Poland we demanded a referendum on membership in the Warsaw Pact, you know what would have happened to us.  That’s what not having sovereignty means. With this act you’re just swapping one bundle of treaties for another bundle of treaties, and the point is that every treaty and every bundle of treaties has its advantages and its disadvantages, and you have to accept that there are trade-offs between liberty to do as you please while remaining sovereign and banging together for the common good. … And that’s the classic European bargain: you get a little bit less freedom of action for huge joint advantages, and if Britain doesn’t face that reality then I fear we will have a messy divorce, a messy resignation from our club, and an unfair blaming of the EU for what’s a mechanical outcome of British decisions.’

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Because our contributors come from opposite ends of the political spectrum in Poland, I hadn’t expected that all of them would see Brexit in the same way—as a break with centuries of British political behaviour, and as an emotional rather than a pragmatic decision. ‘It was an astonishment to many Poles who’d been considering British democracy as so old and so traditionally rooted that it’s impossible to shake it easily, and we see now that it is very possible to shake it,’ says Oscar nominated film director, Agnieszka Holland, ‘and it was a great failure of the British political class and British democracy.’

     ‘For 500 years,’ adds Radek Sikorski, ‘your national strategy was to prevent the continent from uniting to the exclusion of Britain: that was what the Seven Years’ War was about, the Napoleonic Wars, the First World War, the Second World War and the Cold War—and now you’re doing it voluntarily?! Why would you do that?’

     ‘You know, there’s a sense that this is an event from Monty Python,’ says writer and rights activist, Agnieszka Graff. ‘You’re cutting yourself off, you’re digging that channel deeper, and that’s an effort to go back in history to a time that’s just no longer there—it’s just not going to happen. Europe is not going back to individual countries having their own little individual borders: it just means Britain is really floating away as an island.’

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So that rhetoric of ‘Britain alone’, Britain being able to stand alone and flourish alone: how does Radek Sikorski respond to that? ‘Well, you can be alone but I don’t remember 1940 and 41 as being a very happy time for Britain. I mean, allies are difficult and cumbersome and annoying but life for countries without allies is even worse.’

     One thing that’s become clear in all these programmes is how far Brexit is understood not just in terms of the ambitions of the United Kingdom or the strengths and weaknesses of the EU but as part of a world-wide trend towards the politics of emotional rhetoric and simple solutions. ‘What happened in most countries where there was this rise of right-wing populism,’ says Agnieszka Graff, ‘is that the right-wing populists knew how to use emotions, and the people who opposed them insisted on being rational. And I think we are living in a populist moment where that’s not how you do politics, and I think a lot of British people were surprised by the effects of that vote; I wasn’t, maybe because we were already deep in our own populist moment at the time.’

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‘All those populist revolutions,’ says Agnieszka Holland, ‘and all those irresponsible leaders like Donald Trump, and Kaczyński and Orbán in our places, are the response to the deeper fears of the changes which modernity is bringing to the present, and the populists are the only ones who came with some kind of simple solution. It’s terrible: you are losing your power, you are losing your work to globalisation, to migration, to gender changes, to the internet revolution, and now “we have the solution for you”: it will be to build walls between sexes, between countries, between nations, between races, and those will preserve your traditional values and your traditional way of living—which is of course an illusion, because those problems are global and are impossible to be solved by national egoisms.’

     What I have learnt from this series is that since the Referendum of 2016, the respect which the world had for our parliamentary democracy, our uniquely stable constitutional system and our steady pragmatism in foreign affairs has been much diminished. Whatever the future holds, the world now sees a Britain that it did not know before, an unsettled Britain that appears to have been cut adrift from its constitutional moorings.

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