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Reflections on Brexit day

It is one thousand, three hundred and seventeen days since the Brexit referendum. And I am still angry.

There is no economic bonus to weakening links with your strongest trading partners. There is no benefit to sowing dismay and fear about their right to live in their own homes among EU citizens who have been in Britain for years. There is no upside to opting out of the largest conflict resolution project in history, which has reconciled France and Germany after centuries of war, and then provided a foundation for the reintegration of Central and Eastern Europe. It is a historic mistake.

It was always going to happen, of course. The drumbeat of lazy, mendacious journalism pioneered by Boris Johnson had critically undermined the EU’s credibility in Britain. To quote Alastair Campbell's pithy presentation to the Leveson enquiry,
“Several of our national daily titles – The Sun, The Express, The Star, The Mail, The Telegraph in particular - are broadly anti-European. At various times, readers of these and other newspapers may have read that ’Europe’ or ’Brussels” or ’the EU superstate’ has banned, or is intending to ban kilts, curries, mushy peas, paper rounds, Caerphilly cheese, charity shops, bulldogs, bent sausages and cucumbers, the British Army, lollipop ladies, British loaves, British made lavatories, the passport crest, lorry drivers who wear glasses, and many more. In addition, if the Eurosceptic press is to be believed, Britain is going to be forced to unite as a single country with France, Church schools are being forced to hire atheist teachers, Scotch whisky is being classified as an inflammable liquid, British soldiers must take orders in French, the price of chips is being raised by Brussels, Europe is insisting on one size fits all condoms, new laws are being proposed on how to climb a ladder, it will be a criminal offence to criticise Europe, Number 10 must fly the European flag, and finally, Europe is brainwashing our children with pro-European propaganda!”
I knew in my bones that it was coming when Nigel Farage thrashed Nick Clegg in a televised debate in 2014. We can debate where the crucial moment was. 1992, when John Major negotiated the Maastricht Treaty and opened the internal Conservative warfare? 1997, when Michael Heseltine decided not to run for the Conservative Party leadership and William Hague defeated Kenneth Clarke on an openly anti-EU platform? 2002, when Tony Blair decided not to spend his political capital on fighting and winning the referendum he had once promised on the UK’s membership of the Euro, but instead opted to invade Iraq? 2005, when David Cameron withdrew the Conservatives from the European People’s Party? 2011, when he spectacularly botched a summit? It all points the same way anyway; there was no point at which it looked like the momentum could be reversed.

I want to be clear that I accepted the referendum result, though I disagreed with it. It seems to me that having made the stupid decision to put such a complex issue to a popular vote, you have to accept what the people say. Yes, there were lies (told by both sides, though many more by Leavers), some very dodgy funding and very dubious decisions about the franchise. But the UK needs to face the facts of its own broken political system. The result was as legitimate as most British electoral outcomes are; it was still wrong.

The most shocking revelation of the last three years has been the British government's utter failure to negotiate smartly with the EU, with the House of Commons, and with itself. (See my thread here.) I had expected a sensible UK government approach, rooted in legal reality rather than chest-beating, which would fairly rapidly assert the need for a jazzed-up EEA-style arrangement (or at least some coherent vision) and sell that both to the EU and to its own people, with a negotiating team that at the very least reported regularly to a cross-party body of some kind and which might have even included opposition politicians. Instead we got negotiation by soundbites, delivered by megaphone, while the EU quietly decided what it wanted and then offered it to the UK on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

A lot of that is of course down to Theresa May personally, whose extraordinary decision to launch the Article 50 process a year before deciding her own government's position was the single biggest driver of uncertainty. But a lot of blame attaches also to the Brexit hardliners, whose erotic fascination with a No Deal outcome drove the devastating instability of the final twelve months of negotiation (and did not strengthen the UK's position in the slightest; rather the opposite). I should note also that the government's secretive approach to the negotiations led to Northern Irish and Scottish officials commenting to me that they were getting better information about the state of play from Dublin than from Whitehall.

The Remainers must also accept blame. There was a moment in September 2019, after the Supreme Court judgement, when a new referendum could have been called by the formation of a government of national unity. But the leadership flaws of Corbyn and Swinson (holding my hand up; I voted for her) meant that this was never tested in the House of Commons. (I attach less blame to the SNP, who are playing a different game and playing it rather well for now.) The Remain side had their chance - had several chances, though this was the best - and blew it. (And I suspect that they would probably have blown a second referendum if they'd managed to call one, so perhaps it's just as well.)

Johnson loyalists may bluster that now that he is in power, everything will be all right. Bear in mind that after three months of doing the square root of nothing in terms of negotiations, he then generously conceded to Ireland and the EU pretty much the deal that the EU had put on the table in the first place before allowing Theresa May her backstop. The policy outcome was probably the best on offer, given the red lines that the British had drawn for themselves, but the process does not reflect well on Johnson's character (note particularly, but not only, his treatment of the DUP). His approach was as amateurish as May's, but both nastier and, in the short term at least, more effective. He was, of course, able to hypnotise most of his party into believing that a substantial retreat was in fact a triumph of negotiation, which is good tradecraft; but that is not the same as statesmanship. We will see how he progresses now that Brexit is moving to the next stage, which will be truculent and difficult (and that's just the UK deciding its own position).

Has there been an upside? Well, Brexit has been good for business in my line of work (contra those who muttered that I was only opposed to it to protect my supposedly lavish Brussels lifestyle). I've been looking back on what I have written about it. A lot of it's on Twitter. Some of it's on an APCO microsite. Some of it's on Facebook. My three most important pieces are probably the open letter to British friends that I wrote shortly before the referendum; the piece I wrote the day after with a colleague; and my op-ed in the Irish Times last July. I stand by most of what I wrote. (I was wrong to suggest that British MEPs would be deliberately marginalised in the European Parliament; though of course, a large number of them marginalised themselves anyway.) My employers' clients - and potential clients - have been very interested to hear my analysis of what is coming next. I may be a sore loser (OK, I am a sore loser) but I've been invited to give talks on Brexit in Brussels, Birmingham, Belfast, Rome, Istanbul, Nashville (Tennessee) and Portland (Oregon). My Belfast lecture from 1 May last year is probably the best summary of what I thought about the whole thing.
I've discussed it on various media, including Chinese television (6:45-8:15, 13:34-14:46, 16:45-19:10 and briefly 25:40-25:55).
The extra elections caused by the Brexit debacle gave me more exposure to BBC Northern Ireland viewers.
But that doesn't really make it all worthwhile.

And it has sharpened my own feeling about the United Kingdom as well. On referendum day I held three passports, one for each of my citizenships - the British and Irish that are my birthright, and the Belgian that I acquired by naturalisation in 2008 (none of the three countries has a problem with multiple citizenships). But my British passport expired in 2017, and I have not renewed it. The Brexiteers have made it clear that my values are not theirs. I am not wanted by the UK, and I am lucky enough to have alternatives. I am sorry for my British friends who do not have the option. I offer you love and sympathy, but it is as a foreigner rather than a fellow-citizen. I choose not to stand up and be counted with your country any more.

Brexiteers, you won. You have made your country a smaller-minded and less important place. For the sake of your mythical sovereignty, you have managed to re-create the old border in Ireland and also produce a new border between Northern Ireland and Britain. You have sniggered at the problems of EU citizens, resident in the UK for years, who struggle to retain the rights that you promised would be untouched by your project. I will be polite and professional with you; I hope to work positively on projects of common interest in the future. But I do not forgive you.


Posts from This Journal by “brexit” Tag

  • Five years on from the referendum

    Re-upping my post from 31 January last year: Brexiteers, you won. You have made your country a smaller-minded and less important place. For the sake…

  • Northern Ireland, Ireland, England and Brexit

    So, I had an article in the Irish Times yesterday: It was a topic that had been on my mind for a while - the massive expansion in the…

  • Commemorating Jo Cox

    I did not know Jo Cox, the MP who was brutally assassinated by a right-wing activist shortly before the Brexit referendum. But we both moved to…


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 31st, 2020 10:28 am (UTC)
I have long been critical of the EU project. I voted no against the Swedish membership in the EU in 1994, and also against Sweden joining the eurozone in 2003, and I do not regret doing so.

But the EU changed since then, and so has the world. Step by step, EU managed to change itself, by fits and starts and with plenty of zigzags, from something highly technocratic and driven by economics above all, towards transparency and democratic structures. I think a healthy eurosceptic critique of the EU was and still is necessary, and the EU today is better and more democratic for it.

But sadly, as the EU has become more democratic, the same is not true for several countries in it, and I think England is one of the worst examples, just as Hungary is (even Sweden hasn't been immune to this trend). Except the rise of the modern English fascism was driven by a takeover of the media, rather than within the fields of politics, and I think that has masked some of what happened.
Feb. 1st, 2020 07:31 pm (UTC)
Where you didn't renew your UK passport, I rushed to renew mine while it would still have a red cover. I don't know a better way to signal my commitment to being a European.

I fear for both my countries. It is a sad day.
Feb. 2nd, 2020 07:27 am (UTC)
I’m getting an Irish passport.

And I can’t believe where we are; but have to accept it.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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