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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

George Soros: Brexit bogeyman or really 'best for Britain'?

Billionaire's backing for Britain to remain in the EU makes him a target for the Leave campaign

The billionaire George Soros, founder and chairman of the Open Society Foundations, delivers a speech entitled 'How to save the European Union' at the European Council On Foreign Relations in Paris on May 29, 2018. Francois Mori / AP
The billionaire George Soros, founder and chairman of the Open Society Foundations, delivers a speech entitled 'How to save the European Union' at the European Council On Foreign Relations in Paris on May 29, 2018. Francois Mori / AP

The refurbished Hotung Gallery in the British Museum is a setting that would make ardent supporters of the country's departure from the EU gladden with pride.

It is filled with artefacts from China and South Asia, including British imperial relics from the time when the country’s empire spanned the globe. For a nation seeking to re-embrace the world, the gallery illustrates a rich historical tradition.

It was also the staging point last week for a gathering of close allies of George Soros, the billionaire financier who has taken up the cause of reversing the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Mark Malloch Brown, the former UN deputy secretary general and Foreign Office minister, stood amid the ranks assembled between the marble pillars. His position was pointed out by Robert Malley, the head of the International Crisis Group think tank and former Obama administration National Security Council official. Milling quietly in the crowd was “inversely proportional” to his importance among those in the room, said Mr Malley.

As well as a co-chair of the ICG, Lord Malloch-Brown is the head of the campaign group Best for Britain, which Mr Soros is backing in a campaign to secure a second referendum on the issue. The initiative is due to launch its manifesto on Friday.

The Hungarian-born billionaire has been a controversial figure in Britain ever since his spectacular raid on sterling in 1992 drove the pound out of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and made his funds a reputed £1 billion (Dh4.9bn). He became the man who broke the Bank of England.

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At a conference for another think tank that enjoys funding from his Open Society Foundations, the European Council on Foreign Relations, Mr Soros spoke of his commitment to stop Brexit.

“Brexit is an immensely damaging process, harmful to both sides,” he said in Paris.

For the right-wing tabloid the Daily Mail, which brands opponents of Brexit “remoaners”, the comments were a red rag. It warned he was behind a six-month “sabotage operation” designed to destroy Brexit. “Two questions,” it wrote. “Why after the way Brussels has treated us should British taxpayers go on financing the EU? And what on earth do questions of British sovereignty have to do with Mr Soros?"

Lord Malloch-Brown defended Mr Soros' intervention, pointing to his long track record of campaigning across the world.

"He is someone who has devoted decades to an extraordinary global philanthropy which has fought for democracy and open values," he said.

The former diplomat dismissed criticism of Mr Soros' role in attacking the British currency a quarter of a century ago.

"He broke the Bank of England as a financier because the British pound was over-extended. It wasn't credible. He broke the pound, not the Bank of England, I should say.”

Paul Butters, a spokesman for Best for Britain, which was founded by the hedge fund businesswoman Gina Millar, said Mr Soros provided donations alongside 8,000 other donors. "We welcome Mr Soros' support and all he has done to make the case for Britain to remain in the EU," he told The National.

The £400,000 for Best for Britain is around half the £800,000 Mr Soros has donated to anti-Brexit interests.

The official Leave EU campaign uses Mr Soros as a bogeyman, condemning him as “vile globalist” and “scumbag” as it highlights his contributions to its rivals.

The 87-year-old is no stranger to withstanding controversy over his funding to political causes. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Open Society spread rapidly across the former Soviet Union.

The rise of the strongmen in the mould of Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, has seen its offices and satellites face an onslaught. Its presence in a string of countries has had to be cut back or shuttered altogether.

Election posters by Hungary's ruling party Fidesz party labelled George Soros, centre, and its political rivals as opponents of the government's asylum policies. Paul Peachey / The National
Election posters by Hungary's ruling party Fidesz party labelled George Soros, centre, and its political rivals as opponents of the government's asylum policies. Paul Peachey / The National

The land of his birth, Hungary, has turned hostile to Mr Soros, who is Jewish and escaped the Nazis as storm troops swept across the continent, finding refuge from the death camps in America.

The recent general election saw President Viktor Orban’s Fidesz Party win handsomely. The governing party ran billboards attacking Mr Soros, warning voters not to allow “his people” to take over. “Don’t let George Soros have the last laugh,” said one banner.

Mr Orban has made common cause with Benjamin Netanyahu in attacking Mr Soros. Eli Hazan, the international director of Likud, Mr Netanyahu’s party, said he had shared information about the tactics of the Soros-backed group V15, which had campaigned against Mr Netanyahu in Israel’s 2015 election.

“I sent Orban information about what Soros does in Israel about six months ago,” Mr Hazan said late last year. “We see Soros as a dangerous man who does unfair and indecent things.”

Michael Ignatieff, the former Canadian politician who runs the Soros-founded Central European University in Budapest, has warned that Mr Orban is driving his institution out of the country. “Mr Soros is a Hungarian-born philanthropist, setting up the Central European University was one of the best things he ever did, but I’m sure the fact that we were founded by Mr Soros is a problem,” he said. “I keep saying to Mr Orban, to the Hungarian government that I don’t take orders or dictation from the founder of the institution. I can’t get accredited as an independent institution if I do take orders from someone who gives me the money but that [argument] doesn’t seem to be making the difference that it ought to.”

The distortions of Mr Soros' Hungarian origins reached the level of the absurd last week with the row surrounding Roseanne Barr’s late night racist tweets. The comic, who has since lost her eponymous American blue-collar sitcom, lashed out at Mr Soros, accusing him of enriching himself from the Holocaust. His financial support for Hillary Clinton’s campaign has made him a target for Trump supporters like Ms Barr.

“George Soros survived the Nazi occupation of Hungary as a 13-year-old child by going into hiding and assuming a false identity with the help of his father, who managed to save his own family and help many other Jews survive Holocaust,” a statement from the billionaire's spokesman said.

The worldwide assault on what was once a progressive consensus leads Mr Malley to warn that President Donald Trump’s America First agenda ranks as just one challenge among many.

“President Trump is not responsible for the collapse of what has been mistakenly labelled the international liberal order. Rather, he is one of its most dramatic symptoms and accelerators,” Mr Malley told The National.

“The question now is what comes next — new rules of the game that are more equitable, inclusive and responsive to popular aspirations and frustrations? Or a Trump-like free-for-all that is inward-looking, rejects multilateralism and is allergic to the very concept of collective action to address global challenges — from climate change, to violent conflict, to famine, to trade?”

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