Tales from a Brussels bar – Brexit 3
The bar was quieter tonight. The usual suspects were there – we had planned to discuss Brexit again. But no-one wanted to tallk about it immediately – Maj and co. had gone off to play darts, others were watching the cricket. So I was left with my glass and my thoughts.
Brexit was a difficult decision, I thought. We’d heard the economic argument, and we’d heard the democratic one. Now we had to decide which was more important, and the day was approaching fast.
Maj came back and sat down next to me. As usual, he sensed my thoughts. “It is a tough one,” he said. “They say this is the decision for a generation, so we have to try and take into account what might be best for the whole country, rather than just think of ourselves.”
Stassos was there as well, staring moodily into his glass. “That’s all very well,” he said, “but it’s not easy when you look at the people making the arguments … none of them are exactly what you’d call inspiring leaders, are they?”
“I mean,” he continued, “the economists, government leaders and big business will all vote for what makes them comfortable. Which nearly always means the status quo …. if you’re sitting in clover, you’re not going to vote to replough the field, are you?”
I shifted uncomfortably on my seat. Never mind next year’s crop prospects, I thought, what about in ten years time, or twenty years? Would the great cooperative still be holding together then? Would Stassos’ home country still be a part of the EU? Or would the Union look very different?
“Even though it’s a tough decision, we shouldn’t be afraid of making it,” Maj interjected. “Everyone is saying that a vote for Brexit would be a complete disaster for Europe, but in reality Westminster would simply spend the next ten years debating how to leave the EU.”
We laughed. It was true. Whatever happened, the political classes would find a way to make sure they stayed in work.
But Ton had joined us. “You know,” he said, “you Brits are not alone in questioning the value of EU membership. It is quite noticeable how sentiment in Europe has shifted in the last few years.”
Ton wasn’t a regular, but had been in Brussels a long time, so was usually worth listening to. “When we launched the single market, and the euro, they were exciting times! EU laws and standards were becoming internationally accepted norms – we felt that Brussels was setting a new kind of moral leadership, where European values meant something.”
We stared at him, a Eurocrat? Excited? It was impossible to imagine.
He coughed as if in apology, “It’s true! A lot of us then felt that we were leading the world! Everything was rosy, countries were queuing up to join the EU, everyone wanted to be a part of it.”
“Now it’s all so different,” he sighed. “Europe is mired in continuous recession, the economists hail a rise in GDP of 0.1% as a breakthrough, and as for the migration crisis, it’s such a political hot potato that no-one wants to talk about it. For EU employees, even mentioning the subject in public is likely to lead to an uncomfortable interview with your boss.”
“What is really worrying people in Brussels,” Ton continued, “is the possibility that Britain leaving the EU might start the great slide into breakup. They’re afraid that a successful Brexit might bring calls for similar referenda in France, in Holland, and even in Germany. EU institutions are not popular at the moment, and some of my colleagues think that they’re staring over the edge of a cliff.”
”No-one wants to see the EU break up,” interrupted Maj. “Well,” he said, catching my eye, “no-one who has the interests of European citizens at heart, I mean.”
“But you cannot seriously ask the Brits to vote based on what might be good for the rest of Europe,” he continued. “We can try to be objective, but everyone is going to put the views of his own tribe first.”
Yes, politics is still about the tribe, I thought. Are we supposed to vote based on the greatest good for the greatest number, I wondered. Or do we focus on what staying or leaving would mean for each of us as individuals? And if we thought about the group, should it be what was best for the family, the city, the region or the country? No wonder so many people were undecided, I thought.
“At the end of the day,” Maj said, “we each of us have to make our choice based on guesswork. There’s no crystal ball, or if there is it’s gone pretty cloudy. Do you think in the long term the UK would do better outside the EU? And would that choice be better for you personally? Or do you think, as someone once said, it’s better be inside the tent pissing out rather than outside pissing in?”
“And is the democratic argument more important than the economic one?” he continued, “or should the prospect of a mini-recession for a time push you towards staying in?”
“In the end,” he said, “you might as well wet your finger and hold it in the air to see which way the wind is blowing. It’s about as accurate as the advice we’re getting from the two sides in the debate.”
In the pause that followed, I considered what he was saying. It was true, I thought, nobody could give any certainty about the right course for Britain. In the end, we each of us had to vote based on what we felt was right, either in our head or our hearts.
I considered my own situation. What do you do, I thought, when life seems to have become a living nightmare, if daring to express an opinion meant constant harrassment, when jet aircraft patrolled the skies above European cities 24 hours a day, and the sky seemingly rained biowarfare agents and hostile insect life wherever you went. I could hear the intermittent thumps against the outside of the bar window even above the cricket commentary.
Was this really Gaia’s revenge on an over-fecund humanity, I wondered, or simply man-made targeting of awkward individuals in the tribe?
What do you do when people appear to have lost their respect for government institutions, when neighbour seems to prey on neighbour and criminality is on the rise in an increasingly cowed and fearful society? Are you going to vote for bigger and more remote government, I wondered, if existing institutions had failed to understand or deal with the issues that mattered to ordinary people.
No, I thought, you’re going to vote for less government. Because smaller and more local governments are easier to kick out when they get things wrong. Let them get too big and too remote, I thought, and they become too good at protecting themselves when they deserve to be ejected.
It wasn’t really surprising that so many Brits are thinking of voting for Brexit, I thought. After all, the power of the commons in British history went all the way back to Edward the Third, nearly 700 years ago. Even subconsciously, we’ve been suspicious of overly powerful central government ever since.
It would be a shock for Brussels, I knew. But it could be that this was exactly the kind of shock the EU needed if it was to change and start building a Europe for the future. Perhaps Churchill’s original vision for Britain’s relationship with the EU was the right one, I thought, with a strong European Union and a Britain cooperating with it, but free to act as an independent agent when required.
Forget the European empire building and the unspoken idea of turning national parliaments into regional governments, I thought, it would never be accepted. Not in Britain, and probably not in other EU countries either.
But time was getting on, my glass was empty and I didn’t feel like a refill. “Yes,” said Maj sadly, seeing me look at my watch, “it’s been good, but maybe it really is time to leave.”
© Philip Hunt, 2016.