Tales from a Brussels bar – Brexit 1
It was a fine Spring evening in Brussels, the sun lingering on the pavements – quite the best time of the year in the city. Steve the Bar had put a couple of barrels and stools outside, allowing some of the shyer denizens of the establishment, unaccustomed as they were to daylight, to emerge blinking into the evening sun.
I preferred the welcoming dark of the interior, and found plenty of like-minded company – the group was already ensconced by the back door. Joining them, beer in hand, I groaned inwardly to hear the topic of discussion. They were talking about Brexit …..
There was a difference though – we were in the company of famous Nige, who, glass in hand, looked to be in his element in the pub. “The fact is,” he was saying, “Britain will never really control her own destiny until she gets out of Europe.”
No surprise in that opinion, I thought. Ironic though, considering his political party only existed because of its support within the European Parliament. Take Britain out of Europe and there’d be no raison d’etre for his party – it was like turkeys voting for Christmas. Still, I thought, logic never held back a powerful ego.
“And the migration issue is not being resolved,” he was saying, “people across Europe are pushing their governments to the right because of the failure to sort out migration at EU level.” Yes Nige, I thought, you’re always happy to jump on the latest political bandwagon.
Paul interrupted, “I just think that we’re different people in Britain – we don’t trust big centralising governments.” Apart from the one in Westminster, I thought. “Anyway,” he continued, what’s the EU ever done for us?”
I spluttered into my beer. Oh God, I thought, that old chestnut has come up again. Fortunately Maj, ever a reliable source of wisdom and common sense, was ready with a reply.
“Quite a lot when you think about it,” he said. “What about the Blue Flag beaches, showing the water is clean enough to swim in? That’s because of EU standards on sewage treatment being imposed across Europe.”
“Or the roaming charges on your mobile phone,” he continued, “the EU is forcing mobile networks to scrap them completely by 2017. You think these companies would have done so on their own?”
“And what about the euro. Do you remember what it was like crossing Europe before? Five or six envelopes of different currencies – you needed your wife’s handbag just to carry them all – and lost money every time you exchanged them.”
“The thing is,” Maj went on before Paul could reply, “a lot of the benefits of being in the EU are intangibles – things like standards for example. Standards in air pollution, standards in metal fatigue, standards in chemicals safety, even standards in toy quality – that’s why the buttons used as eyes in Chinese-manufactured toys can’t be pulled out and swallowed by our kids. That’s the economic power of being one big market.”
There was silence while we pondered his words. But not for long. “That’s all very well,” responded famous Nige. “I can see the economic benefits of being the big banana, but what about the people? What do you do if your community is becoming destabilised by too rapid social change?” We all knew he was talking about Europe’s most divisive social issue – migration.
We waited. Sure enough he had the answer … “I’ll tell you – you have to control your own borders,” he said. “Greece is unable to control its borders, one offhand comment by Angela Merkel has brought a million additional migrants to Germany, and the whole of the rest of Europe is paying the price.”
“And,” he said, holding his finger in the air to forestall any interruption, “in case any of you are ready to start calling me a racist, let me remind you that no less a person than the Archbishop of Canterbury has said that it’s not racist to be concerned about large-scale social change.”
You had to hand it to famous Nige, I thought. You might not agree with his views, but he could hold his own in the tap-room verbal brawl with anybody.
But Paul wanted to come back to the economy. “I just think that we can do better on our own. We’re being held back by other EU governments that won’t change their ways – let’s get out of the EU and go it alone. Britain’s always been a trading nation – we should leave and go our own way.”
Several nods along the bar confirmed Paul’s view had some support. But newcomer Scott intervened at this point. “I’ve spent years working in EU research, as you know. Most of the EU staff I work with are honest, conscientious and hard-working, but I don’t want to work on European projects any more. There’s just too much venality at higher levels in Europe, and a lack of auditing in the finances – does anybody know when the last audited European accounts were signed off?”
He had a point – no-one seemed to know. But Maj came retorted, “I’ll admit we’ve had some notorious examples of corruption in the past – the European Commissioner’s dentist story for example.” I chuckled into my beer, remembering the case that caused the mass resignation of the Santer Commission.
“But that is the past. The European Parliament’s stronger teeth have checked some of the European executive’s old ways, and bolshy MEPs with the support of outspoken NGOs have forced greater transparency, and a cut in corruption, throughout the institutions.”
“And,” he said, looking meaningfully at Scott, “I think you’ll find that the poor auditing and sign-off on some European projects is more to do with those that are financed at national level than through any of the central research programmes. The Framework programmes for example are evaluated so carefully that it’s practically impossible to get up to any mischief.”
“So what do you think about Brexit?” Paul asked Scott. “Stay or leave?”
“I don’t think we have any choice but to remain,” Scott replied. “I know Europe isn’t perfect, far from it. But the leave alternative would hit the UK economy. All the negotations that would ensue on trade, travel, import/export regulations and tariffs could take as much as five to ten years to work through. Britain could go its own way, but for a time it would be much harder. On the economic argument alone, I think we have to stay in Europe.”
I looked glumly into my glass. Scott made the remain choice sound about as attractive as a prison sentence, yet many of us agreed with him that the alternative could be worse.
But time was getting on, the flighty young ones had come, brought a temporary buzz with their chatter, and gone again, leaving the bar to the regulars. Time we were all abed, I thought, making to finish up and go.
Maj was not happy however – he hadn’t been able to bring the evening to a satisfactory conclusion. “Come along tomorrow night,” he suggested, “and we’ll continue the discussion. I’ll bring my mate Kris, and what he doesn’t know about European decision-making would fit on a postage stamp. It should be an interesting evening.”
And with that promise of Brexit 2 on the morrow, we parted.
© Philip Hunt, 2016.