The UK: Britaly or the sick man of Europe? What our neighbours think of us

The own goal of Brexit

Sick UK

What a headline … “Reino Unido, atrapado en su propio laberinto político y económico” (the United Kingdom, trapped in its own political and economic labyrinth). Enough to make you feel proud to be British? Or to acknowledge that our friends and neighbours pity us for what is happening to the UK?

This was one of the lead articles in Spain’s El Mundo online on 3 September 2022. The summary offered under the headline was La carrera por el liderazgo en Downing Street agrava la parálisis en plena crisis energética y la guerra de Ucrania” (The race for the leadership in Downing Street exacerbates the paralysis in the midst of the energy crisis and the war in Ukraine).

So, discerning UK citizens were not alone in being concerned about the nonsensical, even negligent, focus on the Tory party’s internal wrangling in the midst of a growing crisis which is affecting everyone, and in particular the weakest, in our society.

The article goes on with “El fantasma del enfermo de Europa vuelve a acechar a las islas británicas.” (The ghost of the sick man of Europe is once again stalking the British Isles). The fact is that two months on from that piece, the UK economy is still suffering – worsening, if anything – while other major economies advance. And it is quite something when even the BBC hints at what’s behind the difference … Brexit! The fact that the Tory government continues to bang on about the ‘migrant crisis’ is proof of their need to distract their voters and try to mask the real truth about our dire situation.

In October El Mundo once again turned its spotlight onto our leadership fiasco, focusing on the unpopularity of Ms Truss with the headline “Los ‘tories’ debaten cómo deshacerse de Liz Truss” (The Tories are debating how to get rid of Liz Truss).

The French connection …

Fast forward a few weeks and we turn to France: on 9 November Le Monde ran a story covering the first resignation from Sunak’s government: “Royaume-Uni: première démission au sein du gouvernement du nouveau premier ministre Rishi Sunak.” (The United Kingdom: first resignation from the government of new prime minister Rishi Sunak.) The article doesn’t mince words in spelling out the reason: “Gavin Williamson, ministre sans portefeuille, a dû démissionner, quinze jours après son entrée en fonction, alors que des élus conservateurs l’accusent de harcèlement”. (Gavin Williamson, minister without portfolio, has had to resign, two weeks after taking up his post, after Conservative MPs accuse him of bullying.)

Just two days later, La Croix, a religious paper, carried an article on the subject of the consequences of political turmoil and, of course, Covid … and BREXIT! “L’activité du Royaume-Uni se contracte au 3e trimestre, la récession se profile” (Activity in the United Kingdom contracts in the third quarter, recession looms). In the article La Croix quotes Samuel Tombs, of the economic analysts Pantheon Macroeconomics: “L’économie britannique se retrouve une fois de plus en queue de peloton du G7, plombée par sa politique monétaire et budgétaire, et des dégâts de long terme importants provenant du Covid et du Brexit” (The British economy finds itself once again at the bottom of the G7 pack, dragged down by its monetary and budgetary policy, and considerable long term damage done arising from Covid and Brexit.)

Methinks we don’t protest enough … but we’re starting!

So, how are UK citizens reacting to all this? El Mundo had already reported on strikes in the UK; this report from 23 August was an example: Reino Unido también para por mar: la huelga de estibadores agrava las protestas del transporte” (The UK is also grinding to a halt at sea: the dockworkers strike is making the transport protests worse). Felixstowe, el principal puerto de carga, afronta ocho días de paro, que se suman a las protestas de colectivos como el ferroviario o del metro de Londres” (Felixstowe, the main cargo port, faces eight days of strikes, adding to the protests of unions such as the railways or the London Underground).

Whilst it seems that many here still react to the growing crisis with “It’ll turn out all right” or “Never mind …”, there are increasing signs of awareness and disenchantment with the antics of the Tories and of the ‘hit’ that most of us are taking as a result of their inept management of the economy. Some people are taking to the streets: on October 1 El Mundo reported on the demonstration protesting about rapidly rising energy bills: “Miles de británicos protestan en las calles quemando simbólicamente sus facturas de la luz” (‘Thousands of British people protest on the streets, symbolically burning their electricity bills’). According to the report, thousands protested in more than 50 towns and cities across the UK.

Then on October 22 the online newspaper El Español reported on the Rejoin March in London … within hours of it happening: “Miles de personas piden en Londres la vuelta de Reino Unido a la UE: ‘Queremos nuestra estrella’.” (Thousands of people in London demand the return of the UK to the EU: ‘We want our star’). The article cites the fact that 60 per cent of voters would favour a return to the EU. It also quotes one of the organisers of the march, who stated that it would be ‘patriotic’ to reverse the Brexit vote.

OK, so far we’ve seen how the Spanish and French press devote what we might feel is an unhealthy amount of attention to the (shit-show) farce which is British politics, and to the dire economic situation which is blighting ordinary Brits. Very embarrassing for us. However, an even worse indictment comes from Italy.


Italians are pretty good at not taking themselves too seriously; however, they are less likely to appreciate unwarranted criticism from others …

In 2012, Truss and Kwarteng, in a pamphlet called Britannia Unchained, used the example of Italy to warn what the UK would become if its bloated public services, low growth, and poor productivity were not sorted out. On 19 October 2022, The Economist used this as the focus of an article called Welcome to Britaly; the following day The Guardian described how the Italian Ambassador and many Italians had protested at The Economist’s exploitation of outdated stereotypes. Then on 22 October, the Italian paper Il Giornale reported how the Financial Times’ economics reporter Valentina Romei had reacted to the article in The Economist:Britaly? ‘Vi piacerebbe … ‘: così il Financial Times asfalta la copertina anti italiana” (Britaly? “You wish”: this is how the Financial Times bulldozed the anti-Italian cover story).“Un’autorevole firma italiana del Ft risponde all’Economist spiegando perché la fragilità economica di Londra è più grave di quella italiana” (An influential Italian reporter at the FT replies to The Economist explaining why the economic fragility of London is more serious than that of Italy).

This story was also taken up by El Mundo on 21 October, with the headline: Reino Unido: de ‘Brexitlandia a ‘Britalia’.” (United Kingdom: from “Brexitland” to “Britaly”). Thus the epithet coined by The Economist seems to have stuck. The article goes on “Seis años después del voto a favor de salir de la Unión Europea, el país se encuentra atrapado en su propio laberinto y más próximo a realidades como la de Italia, por la inestabilidad política.” (Six years after the vote in favour of leaving the European Union, the country finds itself trapped in its own labyrinth and closer to realities such as Italy’s, as a result of its political instability).The writer also points out that the Brexit vote was won “por cuatro escasos puntos”, (by just four points), and describes the United Kingdom six years after the vote as incapaz de encontrarse a sí mismo y menos aún de hallar su lugar en el mundo.” (incapable of finding itself and even less of finding its place in the world).

So, where does all this leave the UK? In the eyes of some of our neighbours, the UK is no longer a self-confident country, no longer worthy, for so many reasons, of the respect and admiration it had taken for granted. The UK has fallen off its pedestal and its crown has slipped; instead, it has become something of an Aunt Sally, the subject of bemusement and amusement. The sick man of Europe.


A Nov 20 article in El Mundo describes: El autogol del Brexit: Seis años después de que Reino Unido votase a favor de abandonar el bloque comunitario, se siguen notando las secuelas, sobre todo en materia económica (The own-goal of Brexit: Six years after the United Kingdom voted in favour of leaving the community block, the consequences are still observed, especially on the subject of economics). The article goes on with: “Los expertos lo califican ya de gol económico en propia meta. Los datos lo confirman: la inflación supera el 11% y la familia media británica va a perder el 7% de sus ingresos…” (The experts are describing it now as an economic own goal. The data confirms it: inflation exceeds 11 per cent and the average British family is going to lose 7 per cent of its income …).

Oh dear: Brexit is an own goal which will, sadly, carry on shaming the UK way beyond the World Cup fortnight!

For more articles by Mike Zollo, click here.