The anniversary of the Brexit referendum will barely register a ripple in Europe, where Britain was once seen as a place of dynamism, excitement and promise
It is obviously a very subjective generalisation, but no European nation really cares that much about how they are being perceived by the rest of Europe. In the UK, however, the issue often appears to be an unhealthy obsession.
Even after its self-detachment from the EU, this island continues to care about what the rest of Europe thinks of it. There is something in the British psyche which seems to always revolve around itself. Britain always stands at the centre. Even if, geographically and now politically, it stands at the edge of Europe.
So, how is Britain seen by Europe ?
Well, the truth is Europe doesn’t care all that much. It is certainly not obsessed with the fate of the UK. There are a lot of other things that appear more preoccupying than this strange neighbour who has decided to try a new kind of adventure: making everything more difficult and complicated.
Travelling, trading, fishing, farming, studying, every single thing has become more difficult. Even sending a simple parcel from the UK to the EU or the other way round has become a complex, and increasingly expensive, task. I should know, my German parents-in-law have this year decided not to send to the UK the traditional parcels we have received for every single one of our birthdays over the last 25 years. It is too expensive for them. And I have still not seen one single tangible improvement thanks to Brexit.
Europe doesn’t care partly because Britain has always been seen as a difficult member of the EU. A country always trying to block decisions, to contribute as little as possible. A country never sure about what it wanted, always one foot in and one foot out. Today, Britain stands with its two feet outside. So be it, is the main feeling in Europe. Furthermore, its departure has not brought the EU’s collapse. Actually, some things have even been easier, like the European recovery plan post-Covid, which would probably never have been adopted with Britain still a member.
And, as incredible as it may seem to Britain, Europe has other things on its mind. Like coming out of a pandemic. In Germany, Angela Merkel is moving to the exit, after 17 years in power. For Germany, and for Europe, the change of chancellor might be a turning point. France is already looking at May 2022, when the president will be elected. Will Marine Le Pen, leader of the far right, manage this time to take the ultimate step and win, which, for France and Europe, would be an earthquake?
On June 23 this year, Europe will neither celebrate, commiserate or probably even remember what happened five years ago. On the day, Europeans will get on with their lives, enjoying the first glimpse of a return to a post-Covid life. I doubt many Europeans will even think of Britain or Brexit on that day.
I, however, will. On that day five years ago, or rather on that night, I was just doing my job, the job I had then been doing for 20 years in this country, reporting the news. I wrote that it was a historical and defining moment, though I didn’t anticipate the impact it would have on me personally.
I had arrived in London in 1996, was married to a German, had three children born and raised in the UK, perfectly trilingual. We were the typical Europeans, and used to joke that instead of having to choose between Germany and France as a place to live, fate had brought us to Britain, as a perfect compromise.
But with Brexit everything changed. It made us realise that nothing, and certainly not the EU, should be taken for granted. It made us realise that our lives in the UK had to change. For the first time, having worked here, paid our taxes here, raised our children here, we had to justify our presence. We had to ask to stay.
Formally it was not difficult, we just had to register to get our ‘settled status’. Yet we were made to feel like foreigners, the same way many foreigners from outside the EU feel. For us, it was a first in our lifetime. And it made us feel more Europeans than ever before.
In my first winter after arriving in the UK the country had been struck by a cold snap. I remember calling France from a red telephone booth with a window broken, feeling I was about to freeze to death. But Britannia was cool in much more than just a meteorological sense. At the time, everything about the place was becoming cool.
The music, the movies, even the politicians – a year after my arrival, Tony Blair, who seemed so modern, had been elected – everything about Britain was cool. I was the envy of my friends. Whenever I mentioned I was living in Britain, people would tell me how lucky I was. Britain seemed easier, more vibrant, more energetic, more positive, more everything. The signing of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, 1998, felt like a momentous day, a huge sign of hope that, yes, with goodwill, you could bring people together and build peace. That was then.
Twenty five years on, living in London is not cool anymore. Not at all. The only reactions, when I tell Europeans, are a slight shrug of the shoulders, a raised eyebrow, a sorry smile. “Is it not too difficult with that Brexit ?”ask some, with commiseration. Stories about the Europeans citizens incarcerated on arrival and sent back to the EU haven’t helped. Britain is not cool anymore and it often feels hostile.
Europe doesn’t care much about Britain because, five years on, she still doesn’t understand Brexit. You can have read as much as you want about the deprived areas in the north or the Midlands, the fishermen feeling threatened by foreign fleets, older generations engulfed in some kind of nostalgia for the empire – it is still difficult to comprehend what happened.
For the European eye, Brexit still looks like a huge gamble, a funny mixture of relentless anti-EU propaganda and a largely unrelated desire for better public services, better transports, more accessible homes and anything else that can improve your quality of life. In 2019, British voters gave Boris Johnson a significant majority to deliver Brexit and with it to deliver that better life.
There is still time to achieve those dreams. But the fact is, five years on, and even when taking into account the unexpected Covid blow, few Brexit promises appear to have materialised.
Instead, Cassandra got it right so far. Brexit means more red tape, more paperwork and difficulties for companies trying to find workers. Rushed trade deals, oversold as fantastic opportunities on the other side of the planet, will likely sacrifice the livelihood of British farmers. With many in Scotland dreaming of independence, Brexit may end up splitting the Union. Youngsters throwing Molotov cocktails in Northern Ireland are a stark reminder of the Troubles.
We recently met a young French student on an Erasmus year – the last ever – at King’s College London. She was the only applicant of her whole university year in Lyon. Usually there would have been at least 10. Studying in the UK is just no longer a cool thing to do.
Among the rare Brexit promises that do seem to be getting delivered – triggering a fair degree of amusement in continental Europe – is a floating gin palace as the only tangible expression of Global Britain.
Over the last months, I have read about the “shellfish war”, which followed the “scallops war”. And a new front has opened with the “sausage war”. But you can only ever read about these “wars” on one side of the Channel. For one factual article in a French or German newspaper, you get ten aggressive front pages in the British press. Who is obsessed with whom?
The theatricality of these last five years, the staged drama of the negotiations made for good reading and quite a few bursts of cynical laughter, but it left a bitter aftertaste. Trust is gone. Enthusiasm is gone. Envy is gone. And interest is gone too. Britain doesn’t make Europe dream anymore.
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