So they’ve actually gone and done it. BREXIT, a British exit from the European Union, – once seemingly unthinkable – has actually been voted in favour of.With a majority of 52% versus 48% the British people decided that national suicide was preferable to having the bendiness of their bananas regulated by pesky foreigners sitting in weird sounding foreign places like Brussels and Strasbourg. It has been a difficult few weeks for those of us Brits living and working and loving here on the continent of Europe. The overwhelming majority of us who were entitled to vote, voted Remain.
Some of us – myself included – took our civic duty so seriously that we actually flew over to England in person to vote. There are a significant number of us who, on account of our long years spent abroad, were shamefully disenfranchised and cast onto the sidelines left frustrated by the entire process. Notwithstanding the whys and wherefores of this depressing referendum happening in the first place, it is now time for those of us who hold a British passport to start thinking about what next? What next for those of us living in Amsterdam and the Netherlands? What next for Britain and its people? What next for the British state? What next for the economy on which we all depend for our livelihoods? What next for the EU? What next for globalisation? What next for our psyches?
These are all questions about which millions of words have been and will continue to be written over the years to come as this process plays itself out. It is painfully clear that Brexit – if indeed it really does happen – will become one of the defining “meta” issues of the next 10-20 years.We’ll be talking about this for years to come. Had the vote gone the other way I suspect we wouldn’t have been. Sure, we’d have still had to cope with anti-EU headbangers like Farage, Cash, Hannan & Redwood for whom a day spent not banging on about Europe is a day wasted.We’d still have to deal with our disgraceful press who have been deriding the EU and all its works for a quarter century and more – ever since the sainted Margaret Thatcher turned against it. But the economy would have taken a turn for the better, jitters around the world would have been stayed and the positive psychological impact would have been felt throughout Britain and its continent.A sunnier, more optimistic outlook would have prevailed and human flourishing would have advanced a few more inches.As it is, the forces of nationalism, of nativism, of anti-immigration have prevailed.The Leave campaign – led by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove – was one of the most deceitful political operations any of us can remember.There was the lie about £350m being spent to Brussels each WEEK.A lie and a proven lie.There was the lie about that non-existent money being spent on the NHS. It was rowed back within not days but hours of the Brexiteers victory.There was the lie about Turkey joining the European Union imminently which was going to flood Britain with Turks looking for a better life.Another proven lie.There were lies about budgets, about laws, about defence policy, about sovereignty … but above all there were lies about immigrants. It is absolutely clear that the Brexit campaign, having lost the argument about the economy, (in two words, we’re stuffed,) pivoted with absolute shamelessness to talking about immigration and proceeded to sway the vote accordingly in their favour. Scaremongering on an industrial scale has been led by the press for years (see Express front page montage) but Britons have now allowed the worst angels of our nature to be exposed for all the world to see.We seem to have become a pinched, ungenerous people… or maybe we always were?
What next for those of us living in Amsterdam and the Netherlands?
In the short term at least nothing will change.We are entitled to remain in our adopted (or temporary) homeland for as long as we possess EU passports. Post-Brexit we will most likely be stripped of our status as EU citizens and become citizens of just the UK (or whatever entity replaces it once Scotland has sugared off).We are then reliant on one of two things. First, we can hope that the ‘Vienna convention on the law of treaties’ protects our status as individuals due to so-called “acquired rights”.This was the argument that Brexiteers – including family members of mine who voted to leave – used to assuage those of us who were going nuts before June 23rd. However, it is unclear whether this is even true or yet another deception Brexiteers were trafficking in; ‘as pointed out by Sionaidh Douglas-Scott, a professor of law at Queen Mary, University of London, [it is unclear] whether these current free movement rights will be legally recognized as “acquired,” and therefore protected. Citing the UN’s Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, the leave campaign had argued that EU nationals’ existing rights would be protected in the event of a Brexit. For Douglas-Scott, this is a shaky argument:“the reference to ‘the parties’ in Article 70 is a reference to the parties to the treaty—i.e. States.Article 70 does not directly address individual rights,” she notes.’ So far, so murky.
Second, we could apply for Dutch citizenship – or citizenship of another country like Ireland which wants to remain a member of the EU and to which we may have some familial ties which entitle us to do so.The process of applying for Dutch citizenship is well established and it is all covered here quite comprehensively.
For now, the message seems to be, keep calm and carry on.We are going to be relying on our rights – property, legal etc – being protected by sensible politicians in the future.We rely on them to speak up for those of us who have chosen to make a home on the continent and also, one would hope, those EU citizens who chose to set up shop in Britain. Given that the levels of EU migration was THE issue that swung the vote in favour of Brexit, one wouldn’t necessarily be wise in assuming that politicians won’t cave in to pressure from the press and public into making swingeing cuts to EU migration numbers. Should they choose to do that then it is not unreasonable to expect retaliation from individual states’ governments.This could get ugly.
What next for Britain and its people
Inequality Britain is now heading for a reckoning (see below). The campaign itself was a kind of reckoning.The most interesting aspect of it was how it exposed all kinds of non-traditional dividing lines on top of the classic British one of class. Divisions between countries; Scotland & Northern Ireland vs England & Wales. Divisions between the prosperous cities – London, Oxford, Edinburgh – and the declining post-industrial ones – Burnley, Hartlepool, Blackpool. Divisions between city and country. Divisions between young and old. Divisions between rich and poor, university educated and the “poorly educated” to coin a Trumpian phrase.As one newspaper headline put it “if you had no money, you voted out”.This vote exposed how many millions of people have next to nothing in 21st century Britain.They literally have so little stake in the system that they see no problem at all with blowing it up and hoping to start again with something better.The tragedy of this entire campaign is that in order to make the case for leaving the EU the folks with nothing relied on men like Boris Johnson (Eton & Oxford), Michael Gove (Robert Gordons & Oxford), Nigel Farage (Dulwich College followed by the City) & Daniel Hannan (Marlborough & Oxford). Believe me when I say this; there is not a single union-friendly, socialist bone in any of those bodies. None of those people give two hoots about the people who they have exploited to win this vote. Not a single one of those men will be adversely affected by the economic headwinds to come. None of them is going to lose their home or income of any kind when a Japanese or American company chooses NOT to invest in Lancashire or Teesside but go instead to Limburg or Bohemia because those places are actually in the single largest market in the world. Most of these chancers and charlatans stand to gain immensely. I don’t believe that any of them have ever in their lives advocated taxing the rich some more so as to re-distribute that income to people who are less well off or pay for better public services. I don’t believe that any of them see any opportunity in Brexit other than to make us a low-tax fantasy island like Singapore on a giant scale and with better hills.And what, precisely do any of these arch-Thatcherites see as the problem here? The answer is nothing.They see no problem at all with having exploited the grievances of people who have been left with nothing as a result of Mrs Thatcher’s evisceration of Britain’s once proud industrial landscape.Their prescription is more of the same failed Thatcherite trickle down economic policy. Expect the reckoning for these folks to be deservedly grave.
Apart from the personalities involved in the Great Referendum Deception the country has now to reckon with its place in the world.We need to go back to square one in a sense.The winds of change have blown all the way from the African continent onto our doorstep. It is up to British leaders to shape the post-Brexit landscape.Who are we really as a people? What kind of country do we want to become? What should our economy look like? Are we happy with the levels of inequality that have been allowed to grow and fester? Can we even govern ourselves anymore? Do we need a new written Constitution? What role will the monarchy play once the Queen is dead?
The House of lords? What about the Union? Doesn’t England need a new governing settlement too? Are we heading towards a more federal system of nation states? In an age of rapidly accelerating global problems are we to be leaders in trying to fix those or are we going to retreat back into ourselves? Is the pro-growth economic model still workable? How many people should Britain be able to house in its land and how many houses do we need to build in order to accommodate those people? Where should we build them and at what density?
How about our infrastructure such as HS2 and Heathrow’s 3rd runway? The role of debt & fiat money in our economy? What should be the role of the City? What about all the tax havens we currently nurture and protect? Will we continue to be effective partners in NATO and on the UNSC? Will we even be rich enough to continue to contribute our fair share to solving global problems? The list of questions is literally endless.They should all be being asked and in actuality very few of them will be.
More immediately, will Theresa May become the leader we need in these uncertain times? We can only hope so but note with trepidation that leadership all around has been notable mainly through its absence.The number one job is going to be trying to somehow stitch the country back together again and erase this insidious division that has come into being between “remainer” and “leaver” … the “roundheads” & “cavaliers” of 21st century Britain.
The reckoning for Britain will be tough and likely to get tougher. Expect plenty of nationalistic distractions – sporting, cultural, event driven – to keep those questions from being asked.
What next for the British state?
Many of us – like your correspondent – who are both passionately in favour of European Union are ALSO passionately in favour of the Union between England and Scotland as well as the Union of the 4 constituent countries of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.We went through a bruising independence referendum in 2014 and ultimately won.We thought the question was settled for a generation. How wrong we were. Not only does it look like a pyrrhic victory in retrospect (does anyone believe we’d have voted for even more chaos to leave the EU had Scotland said YES to independence?) but it looks as if this particular can of worms has been definitively re-opened.
Nicola Sturgeon wasted no time in reaching for the can opener on June 24th and Scottish independence would appear to be firmly back on the agenda. Having voted more firmly in favour of remaining in the EU (62% of Scots voted to remain), than any other UK region, what right does the rest of the country have to pull Scotland out of the EU against their will? Certainly without further inflaming nationalist passions? It seems the Union is now to be in very grave danger indeed.
The EU referendum has added a further layer of complexity in the form of Northern Ireland and its border with the Republic to its south. Right now people can pass freely from one to the other as if in a little mini-Schengen zone on the island of Ireland.That is in spite of the fact that neither the Republic of Ireland or the United Kingdom are members of the Schengen free travel area.
Should Britain introduce stricter border controls between itself and the rest of the EU it would seem inevitable that we wouldn’t allow Northern Ireland to become a kind of open backdoor into the country for EU citizens.A major part of the Good Friday agreement was the freedom to travel between North & South Ireland without restriction; a major building block in the lifting of suspicions after decades of fear, police patrols, border tensions and terrorism during the Troubles. This part of our Union remains a worry even after all these years. Many will now be thinking; wouldn’t it just be better for the island to just get on with it and reunify?
I suspect that the British state will shrink in years to come – as with our economy – and thus all those claims about us being the “fifth biggest economy in the world” will ring ever more hollow. We’ll have a smaller country, smaller economy, fewer people and we’ll all be poorer and more suspicious of outsiders from wherever they may come.We’ll have to think of a new name for the country and most likely have to invent ourselves a new flag.
What next for the economy on which we all depend for our livelihoods?
Economic questions were ignored by a great many Brexiteers who felt that the (seemingly important yet utterly opaque) questions such as “who governs us?” “who’s in control?” and “are we sovereign over our own borders?” required privileging over pocketbook questions.And yet … and yet.The overwhelming likelihood will be that people are going to quickly lose their nerves about any recession that now comes into view. Many are now expressing “bregret” over their votes to leave on the basis that ‘they didn’t realise how bad it might get’.These people, frankly, should be forever disenfranchised in my not so humble opinion! The unfortunate fact is that the overwhelming majority of people who contribute to British capitalism, the City, business and all elements in the process of job-creation voted to Remain. It would be interesting to compare the total tax contributions into the Exchequer of Remainers vs Leavers (there I go again with that dastardly new division… see how hard this is!?)
For the optimistic Brexiteers a short, sharp recession followed by a glorious renaissance in British manufacturing and business is their own project Fantasy.The Daily Telegraph and similarly amoral newspapers are busy peddling this fiction. It is not clear what they base this notion on. Do they not realise that they and their ideology have stripped British ownership of many – if not most – of our greatest companies away? Even the Daily Mail’s Alex Brummer has dubbed this the “great British sell off”. As he wrote as late as 2012 (and its only got worse since) “this [sell off] has had a direct effect on jobs in the UK.Weighed down with often massive debts, new owners were far less likely to invest in the future of the firm and were instead more likely to close down factories and plants, throwing thousands of Britons out of work”.Would Mr Cadbury like some Polish made Dairy Milk with that cup of bitterness from Mr Mondelez? The simple fact is that many multinationals – from inside AND outside the EU – have bought up British companies and brands because of the profits to be made in Britain and the prospects for expansion into the rest of the single market.When those profits become less valuable – because it takes more pounds of profit to convert into one euro or one dollar of profit – and the single market is no longer as accessible as before, what will be the reaction? Increase prices to shore up profits (inflation alert!), re-locate manufacturing and jobs to within the EU’s single market, sell off brands to even more rapacious players (welcome to England Mr Romney!) or just sweat the assets without investing further in them and slowly watch them decline.And I would remind you that we’re talking here about the success stories.Traditional British industries – shipbuilding, mining, steelmaking – are all gone anyway but our new industrial strength lies in areas such as aerospace, automotive, heavy machine engineering or pharmaceuticals and these ALL rely on that crucial single market access to continue to thrive.The EU won’t allow access without free movement of people. So we are at an impasse. It is, in truth, a buggers muddle.
So what next for the EU, for globalisation and for our psyches? I will come on to these questions in part two of this piece at a later date. By then I hope some of the fog will have started to clear in the great British Brexit funhouse. Until then, enjoy the ride and whenever you bump into him, just say sorry to our Great British Ambassador to the Netherlands, Sir Geoffrey Adams; a man who tried valiantly, yet in vain, to save us from ourselves.