The psychological consequences of Brexit are the most devastating, and are only just starting to sink in… JOHN KAMPFER on the loss of freedom of movement.
In the first week of January 2021 when I arrive at the airport, will I be asked the purpose of my visit? Will my passport be stamped? How long will I be allowed to stay? I posited these questions to a senior British diplomat in a European capital a couple of weeks ago. ‘Haven’t got a clue,’ he replied. He wasn’t saying this to make a point. He genuinely didn’t know and was contrite enough to admit it.
Vagueness and uncertainty are not accidental consequences of Brexit. They are part of the plan to distance ordinary Britons from the European way. Brexit is not an economic project (the damage it will do is taken as read, even by its advocates, but thankfully for them the mayhem will be subsumed into the pandemic).
It is a political project, but it is actually more pervasive than that. It is a sociological and psychological project to reposition the island away from near neighbours to whom access we took for granted.
This will have a profound impact, particularly on the younger generation. Many people have yet to grasp how different it will feel. Back to the future.
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I am old enough to remember what it used to be like to travel ‘to the continent’ in the late 1970s and early 1980s. For all but the very wealthy, there were two choices: the package holiday or the car-ferry for the ‘daring’ traveller.
My parents would stock the Vauxhall with English essentials and plan meticulously for the three-day annual summer holiday to northern Italy. The black passport would stipulate the maximum amount of currency that could be brought.
The ferry journey was the start of the adventure. The stop-overs, just north of Paris and then just south of Lyon, were booked with military precision. Once we arrived in the Italian village, we were greeted as exotic species.
‘Il dottore’, as my GP father was known, was well liked, not least because he practised the language assiduously but haplessly, with the aid of his pocket dictionary.
On the rare occasion we needed to phone home, we would have to book a call at the village post office, while my siblings and I played pinball in the neighbouring bar. It was otherworldly – or perhaps that is my memory playing tricks with my childhood.
We will not return to that, at least not in practical terms – although some of the symbolism will be eerily reminiscent of a past most outward-looking Brits thought they had long discarded.
Documentation will be required for taking pets; health insurance must be bought; drivers will require an international licence. But travellers are unlikely to opt again for jars of sandwich spread.
Even with Covid and the global emergency, cut-price airlines will not vanish, even if flight shaming leads to an increase in train travel.
What goes through the head is what matters. A few years ago, when I was representing the UK’s creative industries, I was asked by a Commons select committee what the biggest difference Brexit would make.
I responded that it would be the effect of removal of freedom of movement on the mindset. It was one thing to permit someone to work in a country, I told them, quite another to welcome them.
The young French woman working in a pub in Brixton to subsidise her music would be a thing of the past. The young Italian graffiti artist wouldn’t bother coming. Why? Because they can do it in Berlin or Lisbon or Athens with no hassle.
Being a Spaniard in Sweden will continue to be what it is now – neither exotic nor alien. Europe will stay as it is, an extraordinary melting pot.
Not for the Brits. Nor for Europeans in the UK. Does it matter? Not remotely, according to Priti Patel and politicians like her. Indeed, the erection of barriers is for them something to celebrate. When the home secretary told MPs that Britain would no longer differentiate between EU citizens and those from other countries, she said so with pride. Why, she would argue, do Europeans deserve preferential treatment?
I first heard this line of thinking when chairing a debate on Brexit, during the referendum campaign. Speaking for the Leave camp, a certain Munira Mirza, now the influential head of the policy unit at Number 10, suggested that the EU was a racist construct.
I was dumbstruck. She developed her argument, which went approximately like this: once Britain leaves the EU it will become a global hub, no the global hub for international talent from around the world. It will make it easier, not harder, for people to come. But it will not discriminate in favour of Europeans, who tend to be white.
Therefore, I prodded, both government and voters would be happier than they have ever been with more people from Africa, the Middle East, Indian sub-continent and elsewhere than they have ever been? Therein lies the rub. Making it harder for one group does not lead to easier access for another, especially when one of the driving forces behind Brexit was small island hostility to immigration.
A softening of tone is already much in evidence towards one group of countries (predominantly white). Government ministers have been ordered to prioritise and heap praise on the Anglophone world.
It is the Brits, alongside the Americans and Canadians, talking tough on Russia. It is the Brits, alongside our friends in Australia and New Zealand, giving them hell in China. All of this, of course, belongs to the Johnson fantasy-land of the UK as a global superpower, standing up for rights in a way that the unprincipled Europeans would not do.
Watch it, long term, have an effect. It is to these countries that Brits will turn for their political and cultural bearings, particularly as their language skills continue to deteriorate from the embarrassing to the non-existent.
The Brits will still go on holiday to Europe, Brexiteers and their families among them. Stanley Johnson will enjoy his house in Greece. Nigel Lawson, having tried and failed to get French residency, has been forced, red-faced, to sell up. But he’ll sneak over from time to time to a nice chateau.
Once the more onerous paperwork is sorted (there is a burgeoning industry of property solicitors to help), second homers in Umbria and Provence will relax. Young people will continue to go clubbing in Ibiza and Leipzig. Stag and hen parties will continue to descend on Tallinn and Ayia Napa.
In the end, the bare bones of agreement on the basics will not be hard to find. Once the transition period expires, tourists from the UK will get the same treatment as others, visiting for up to 90 days in every 180 days without a visa (far more than most people need). But they will not be allowed to work or study, at least not legally.
They will once again be foreigners; Brits not Europeans. The politics of psychology and identity will become embedded. We will once again be different – just as my parents were all those years ago.