“Dense Fog in the Channel: Continent isolated.”
This mythical British newspaper headline may never have existed, but it precisely illustrates the view from the mainland of a hazy state of confusion across the Channel. From the mainland, we see the United Kingdom retreating into a stifling fog of its own making, through which the mainland is squinting for glimpses of rationality. For the past six months I have watched the unfolding of events in the UK from my home in Leuven, Belgium where I live in a young, energetic, highly intelligent student community. They bring their own unique perspective to the debate on affairs in the UK. The emotional reaction is what you really notice – their attempt to puzzle out our self-imposed quarantine. In this article I will share their views and reactions towards the events taking place in the UK, and particularly the emotional response within this student community.
The view from the international community on the mainland
Firstly, there’s the fascination and bewilderment. My Europe is perplexed by what’s happening in the UK. Why, they wonder, does the population so passionately support such a destructive and divisive action? What do the people actually want to gain from Brexit? Why don’t they care about the damage to businesses and the economy? And ultimately, why did the Cameron Government trust a decision of such magnitude and complexity to an unprepared electorate?
Following the perplexity, there’s the sadness. My Europe is watching our brutal act of self-harm, and it brings no pleasure to watch it all unfold. There is sometimes a sense of hurt. The UK has attained a uniquely advantageous position within the Union: it has enjoyed the privilege of opting out of the monetary union, and the passport free Schengen zone; it has maintained sovereignty over monetary policy and justice and home affairs legislation; it is not bound by the public deficit cap set at 3% of GDP. In addition to its special status, the UK has prospered from EU membership. It has benefitted from free trade within the EU and had access to EU external trade agreements which have been negotiated on bilateral terms. EU law has tightened consumer protection and employment rights, set environmental and food quality standards, all of which contribute to the safety and wellbeing of UK citizens. The EU is one of the most powerful and influential actors in the global arena. Being a strong player within the Union, the EU provides a platform for the UK on that global stage. After the UK has profited so greatly from EU membership, my Europe is offended by the rejection.
The last emotion you notice is the shock. In the midst of such turmoil, why, they wonder, are the British public so complacent? Where is the resistance? Don’t they care that their economy is floundering? That the Chancellor has set aside £3 billion of tax payers’ money to cushion the economic blow, on top of the billions already wasted in the process of administering the act? Don’t they care that they are going to lose their power and influence in the global political arena? Don’t they care that while Europe continues to trade freely within itself and with its many external trade partners, the UK will become isolated from the world’s already complex network of trade links?
What’s also noticeable is what they don’t say. With all attention on government rhetoric, nobody appears to have heard the impassioned voices of the fervent anti-Brexit movement in the UK. And of course, nobody congratulates the UK on the ‘new opportunities’ that await. Nobody is impressed at this bold, reckless leap into the unknown. At best there is sometimes a sense of nostalgia. The EU will continue to thrive without the UK, but it won’t be the same. Europe is compassionate and sentimental. We will be missed.
The view from the British national on the mainland
So how do I respond to my Europe, as a British national, living on the mainland in an international community? My answer: the people don’t care because they don’t understand that they have been conned. After all, these dire consequences were known before the 23rd June 2016, but the media and pro-Brexit politicians have continued to manipulate the public view throughout the past 20 months since the referendum. The manipulation of public opinion has been conducted with masterful deceit. There was little ideological opposition to the EU before the referendum. Nobody explained why it would be so wonderful to be ripped out of the single market and customs union, what great fortunes would result from having our EU citizens’ rights annihilated. Indeed many of these inevitable outcomes were denied as ‘project fear’. Nationalist sentiments were stirred through claims to sovereignty and patriotism, with meaningless slogans promising to ‘take back control’. An anti-immigrant sentiment was whipped up with baseless rhetoric sketching a distorted picture of the UK at ‘breaking point’ with ‘mass immigration’, so scapegoating the very people whose contribution to our country has assured our public services, advanced our economy and enriched our diversity. And the majority of media sources have perfidiously added fuel to the doctrine, throwing in hyperbolic slurs which label pro-EU campaigners as anti-democratic ‘remoaners’ and politicians as ‘enemies’ or ‘traitors’.
The many advantages of EU membership have been twisted to support a skewed argument that we’ll somehow profit from our isolation. In any future trade agreement with the EU, the UK will have to maintain standards set by the EU, but without a voice in setting those standards; maintaining access to the single market will mean respecting the four freedoms. These conditions always existed; indeed the prominent promoters of the Leave campaign should be utterly disgraced by the reality that is now emerging. But instead of reflecting on these facts and considering whether this is the right way forward, the stance of the Leave supporters has grown stronger – ‘look at those EU bullies’, they say ‘enforcing their rules and quality standards. How lucky we are to be leaving the EU’. When you’re faced with such a warped view of reality, it’s not so difficult to understand why the people (especially the young who are going to be most brutally hit) are just rolling over and taking the beating.
Amidst the perplexity, the sadness, the hurt and the shock, the EU will reap any benefits it can afford. Brexit is bad for all of us, but from the view of the mainland, it is a British problem. Nobody likes it; nobody will profit from it. But crucially, nobody will be harmed more than the UK itself. The Eurosceptic sentiment which has swept over many parts of Europe in recent years, has subsided as it witnesses the chaos unfold in the UK. A growing sense of unity, of Europeanness is unfolding. To the blessing of other Eurosceptic member states, the UK jumped first. And no one else is about to follow.
Hania, Berkshire for Europe member now living in Leuven, Belgium