Thomas Friedman: The United Kingdom has gone mad

Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)
Thomas Friedman. (AP Photo/Stephen Chernin)STEPHEN CHERNIN

Politico reported the other day that the French European affairs minister, Nathalie Loiseau, had named her cat "Brexit." Loiseau told the Journal du Dimanche that she chose the name because "he wakes me up every morning meowing to death because he wants to go out, and then when I open the door he stays in the middle, undecided, and then gives me evil looks when I put him out."

If you can't take a joke you shouldn't come to London right now, because political farce is everywhere. In truth, though, it's not very funny. It's actually tragic. What we're seeing is a country that's determined to commit economic suicide but can't even agree on how to kill itself. It is an epic failure of political leadership.

The United Kingdom, the world's fifth-largest economy — a country whose elites created modern parliamentary democracy, modern banking and finance, the Industrial Revolution and the whole concept of globalization — seems dead-set on quitting the European Union, the world's largest market for the free movement of goods, capital, services and labor, without a well-conceived plan, or maybe without any plan at all.

Both Conservative and Labour members of Parliament keep voting down one plan after another, looking for the perfect fix, the pain-free exit from the EU. But there is none, because you can't fix stupid.

The entire Brexit choice was presented to the public in 2016 with utterly misleading simplicity. It was sold with a pack of lies about both the size of the benefits and the ease of implementation, and it continues to be pushed by Conservative hard-liners who used to care about business but are now obsessed with restoring Britain's "sovereignty."

They don't seem to be listening at all to people like Tom Enders, CEO of aerospace giant Airbus, which employs more than 14,000 people in the U.K., with around 110,000 more local jobs connected to its supply chains. Enders has warned the political leadership here that if the U.K. just crashes out of the EU in the coming weeks, Airbus may be forced to make some "potentially very harmful decisions" about its operations in Britain.

"Please don't listen to the Brexiteers' madness which asserts that 'because we have huge plants here we will not move. ...' They are wrong," he said. "And, make no mistake, there are plenty of countries out there who would love to build the wings for Airbus aircraft."

I understand the grievances of many of those who voted to leave the EU. For starters, they felt swamped by EU immigrants. (The EU should have protected the U.K. from that surge; that was German and French foolishness.) There are reportedly some 300,000 French citizens living in London, which would make it one of the biggest French cities in the world.

I also get the resentment of Brits at having regulations set by faceless EU bureaucrats in Brussels. And I get their resentment at the globalized urban elites, who those in the rural areas here believed looked down at them. And I get the squeeze on middle-class wages here that gets blamed, unfairly, on the EU and immigrants the way President Donald Trump blames Mexicans. I get all of that.

But I also get what it means to be a leader in the 21st century. And it sure doesn't mean asserting your sovereignty over all other considerations or breaking out of the giant EU market, where the U.K. sends over 40 percent of its exports, without a serious national discussion of the costs and benefits.

Britain is ruled today by a party that wants to disconnect from a connected world. The notion that the U.K. will suddenly get a great free-trade deal from Trump as soon as it quits the EU is ludicrous. Trump believes in competitive nationalism, and the very reason he is promoting the breakup of the EU is that he believes America can dominate the EU's individual economies much better than when they negotiate together as the single biggest market in the world.

The best leaders in the world understand that all the big problems today are global problems and that they have only global solutions. I am talking about climate change, trade rules, technology standards and preventing excesses and contagion in financial markets. If your country wants to have a say in how those problems are solved — and your country's name is not the United States, Russia, China or India — you need to be part of a wider coalition like the European Union. The U.K. membership in the EU has given it an outsize voice in world affairs.

The best leaders also know a little history. Trump is fine with a world of competitive European nationalisms. So is Vladimir Putin. So, it seems, are the Brexiteers. How quickly they've all forgotten that the EU and NATO were built to prevent the very competitive nationalism that ran riot in Europe and brought us two world wars.

Britain is being led by a ship of fools — a Conservative Party bloc that is now radical in its obsession with leaving Europe and a Labour Party that has gone Marxist.

This is scary.