What Europeans Talk about when They Talk about Brexit
Some years ago, a UK tabloid ran a contemptuous article claiming that the majority of Belgians weren’t proud to be Belgian, and that surveys revealed Belgians to be the world’s least patriotic people. Statistics like these make me proud to be Belgian, but they also miss the point, because Belgium is something of an abstraction even to Belgians, whose sense of cultural and linguistic belonging starts at the regional level rather than the national, and where political power lies not with the nation-state but with the regions and provinces.
When people talk of Belgium and Belgians, they need to specify which Belgians. Words like ‘patriotism’, ‘control’ and ‘sovereignty’ mean very different things in a country less than two hundred years old, which was created as a post-national state. Those words, which are batted about ad nauseam in Brexit debates, come pre-packed inside inverted commas in Belgium. Our families and communities, not to mention many of our trees and houses, have longer histories than our country. My family home in Bouillon, on the French border, is decked with photographs of relatives who were born before Belgium was created. There are wooden clogs under the stairs that are older than Belgium. My family is working-class and post-industrial: Walloon first, European second and Belgian third. Their Belgitude, which they celebrate when the ‘diables rouges’ are playing in the World Cup and disdain for royal weddings or the king’s Christmas message, is part of a modular identity, and like so many of the things that define us, they don’t notice it and find it boring to talk about.
When Belgians – whether from the Flemish, the Walloon or the often overlooked German community – watch the Götterdämmerung of ineptocracy that is Brexit, they are baffled but entertained. There may be some well-deserved Schadenfreude as they watch what happens to a country that becomes addicted to fetishising its own nationhood and imbibes too many of the clichés it once produced for export: commonsensical, mild, tolerant people led by pragmatic, cultivated politicians upholding the dignity of their office in the Mother of Parliaments. My cousin points out that the English (and he does say les anglais, not les gallois or les écossais) are the last people to believe those myths. In Scarface, Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer) tells Tony Montana (Al Pacino) not to get high on his own supply. Cataclysms like Brexit, and politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, are what happens when an entire country gets high on its own supply, but everyone else stopped buying long ago.
I was in Brussels recently, taking my son to watch Anderlecht play, when I heard some English people in a café asking the waiter why no one liked the English. They were nice people asking a genuine question, but often it’s the wrong people who ask the right questions. The waiter replied, politely and in perfect English: ‘We can read your newspapers and watch your television; we hear what your politicians and your journalists say about us.’ That summed it up: all this time we Brits thought we were talking to ourselves, and we were, but everyone else was listening in. Belgians are not surprised by Brexit: it’s just the coagulation as policy of what’s been flowing as attitude for decades.
In the UK things seem to be happening both very fast and very slowly, as if Brexit had created its own durée: every hour there are new crises, new declarations, new denunciations, and yet things are no further advanced than the day after the referendum. I found more preparation for Brexit on Zeebrugge port’s website than I’ve seen, read or heard from British politicians or (most of) the media. Zeebrugge will be ‘entirely Brexit-proof’, the port authority says. The view from Belgium is that the only place that isn’t Brexit-proof is Britain itself.
Since the two most pressing issues for Bulgarians – EU funding and citizens’ rights – were by and large ironed out by the time of the European Commission meeting last March, Brexit news has mostly been light relief in the Bulgarian press. Westminster and Brussels feel very far away, even though it’s predicted that a third of Bulgarian businesses will lose out after the UK’s departure, and that the price of imported cars and medicine will rise significantly.
Bulgarians abroad are a bigger concern. According to official records there are eighty thousand Bulgarian citizens in the UK, but the actual number – including unregistered and seasonal workers – is probably closer to one hundred thousand. About half of them are expected to leave the UK after Brexit because they will fail to meet the new settlement requirements. But they won’t solve Bulgaria’s demographic crisis: most won’t return home but will remain among the 2.5 million Bulgarians working abroad (3.5 million work at home). What their departure will mean for Britain – which faces labour shortages on its roads, in its fields, restaurants and hospitals – isn’t a Bulgarian concern.
Of all the EU states, Bulgaria is one of the least attached to the UK in economic terms: Britain receives 2.4 per cent of Bulgaria’s exports, with 70 per cent going to the rest of the EU. But Brexit may have a significant impact on Bulgaria nevertheless. The Eurozone used to account for 72.8 per cent of the EU’s GDP; post-Brexit the figure will be 85 per cent, pushing non-Eurozone countries like Bulgaria even further into the periphery.
Croatia has more experience than most of entering and exiting alliances. After the collapse of the Habsburg Empire in 1918 it became part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. In 1939 it gained a degree of independence as the autonomous Banovina of Croatia. In 1941, it became the Independent State of Croatia – a Nazi puppet state. After the war it was the sixth republic to join the newly founded Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia ultimately fell apart, and Croatia, following fast on Slovenia, left the alliance in 1991. Until then the only model of independence it had known was as that sorry wartime nation, and so it brought back all its symbols: the flag, the money, the coat of arms, the rhetoric and aspirations, the whole ideological package, all the ghosts of the past. These ghosts were in part responsible for the war in the former Yugoslavia between 1991 and 1995. Croatia became the 28th member of the EU in 2013. Although it acceded later than Bulgaria and Romania, the government took great pride in getting there before Serbia.
Most Brexit-related articles in the Croatian press refer to Croatia’s alleged concern about what will happen to Croatian citizens living in the UK. This is something of a joke. The Croatian political elite, beginning under Franjo Tudjman, the country’s first post-Yugoslavia president, has sold off everything that could be sold over the last 27 years of independence – there has been nepotism, corruption and all the rest. After they had destroyed everything they could possibly destroy, their unemployed and hungry citizens fled the country because any job in Ireland, Iceland or on the Faroe Islands was better than digging through rubbish bins in Croatia. It’s hard to take seriously the pretence that they are now deeply worried about the impact Brexit will have on the status of Croatian citizens in the UK.
Croatia simulates statehood at a symbolic level. Yet another statue to Tudjman has just been put up in Zagreb – there are now said to be eighty. The ‘father of the Croatian people’ is needed to give substance, in bronze and marble, to this little state. The generations born behind the Wall, and who eagerly awaited its fall, were promised a new world of prosperity, democracy, freedom, tolerance, equality and security. They were promised that there would never again be a war in Europe – and yet there was, five years of it, in the former Yugoslavia. They were promised that there would be no more hunger and humiliation – yet even at the turn of the millennium 10 per cent of the Croatian population was undernourished. They were promised that the swastika would vanish from Europe – and yet in Croatia they can be seen everywhere. An extra big one has been mowed into the pitch at Split’s football stadium.
Variants of the Take Back Control mantra have resonance in Danish politics, most notably (on the left) in the Red-Green Alliance, for which the EU is the neoliberal devil incarnate, and (on the right) in the Danish People’s Party, in the name of ethno-nationalist conceptions of ‘independence’. But no opinion poll, no government and no national newspaper has declared in favour of Leave. Brexit, however, accorded only on-off attention by, say, the French press, has had consistent coverage. On the day of the British referendum, Politiken carried pieces headlined ‘Don’t Go’ and ‘Please Stay’. In the days that followed, the paper published a series of analytical articles that put the hysteria of much of the British press to shame. Not surprisingly, a major concern was with the implications of the referendum result for Denmark, which, having joined the EU at the same time as Britain (and negotiated similar opt-outs), was often billed as that strange animal, a ‘natural ally’.
Following the announcement of Theresa May’s so-called deal, the conservative daily Berlingske featured a wobbly looking May as the Dancing Queen on its online Brexit page, which listed 24 articles, among them – oddly – a translation of Niall Ferguson’s contribution to the discredited field of historical analogy (Brexit as the modern equivalent of Henry VIII’s break with the papacy). The main emphasis, though, was on Danish financial interests. The headline that no doubt mattered most in this pro-business paper was ‘Brexit Puts Pressure on Danish Investments in the UK’.
The leftish Information provides the most useful articles. One has a headline in English, though anchored in the land of Elsinore: ‘To Be or Not to Be, That Is Not the Question’. The real ‘question’ doesn’t concern the merits of Leave or Remain, but the complexities of a twin crisis, in both the UK and the EU. Another piece, published shortly after the referendum, describes the division of a nation into Leavers and Remainers as afgrundsdyb. Meaning ‘abyssal’, the term, I am told, hints at the unfathomable as well as the unbridgeable, while evoking something that is certainly dangerous to approach.
Two days before the Brexit referendum Le Parisien reported that 34 French businesses had written an open letter intended for the British press – the Sun was mentioned, along with the Times and the Telegraph. ‘French bosses beg the British to stay in the EU.’ Among the signatories were multinationals including Orange, Airbus, Dassault and Danone. ‘We love you but we are in business, not just in love,’ they said. Remain was still sure to prevail, and on the day of the vote Le Parisien turned with relief to a familiar, cherished domestic issue: the ‘crusade’ against flavourless tomatoes.
After the first stunned reactions to the result, L’Humanité – still a Communist Party paper, if no longer officially – announced that it was wrong ‘to punish the British’ for their democratic decision. The paper – profoundly suspicious of Brussels – didn’t like the tut-tutting and veiled threats already coming out of the Elysée. On 24 June the left-wing online-only Mediapart ran a piece by François Bonnet, one of its editorial staff, headlined ‘Brexit, a Welcome Catastrophe’. Brexit voters had thrown a spanner in the works, but was anyone surprised? The Dutch had rejected the proposed EU association agreement with Ukraine in April; in 2015 Greek voters had rejected the terms of the EU bailout; and, in case we’d forgotten, the French had rejected the EU constitutional treaty in 2005. (Bonnet had a point, and it’s worth adding that, since Maastricht, the results of three referendums which challenged the grand designs of Brussels have been ignored – in France and the Netherlands in 2005, in Greece in 2015 – and three have led to a second vote: Denmark in 1993; Ireland in 2002 and 2009.) Mediapart likes to stress the undemocratic nature of the EU: ‘stolen from its citizens’ by ‘the markets’, ‘finance oligarchies’ and the political class in the ‘Brussels bubble’. Brexit could act as ‘an accelerator’, Bonnet argued, forcing the European left to get its house in order and reform the EU.
By autumn 2016, Britain’s shuffling exit was of no great concern: French editors were still looking over their shoulders at the European refugee influx. France had around 85,000 new asylum applications and the press was wondering how to report on the migrant camps in Calais. A bank of fog – and tear gas – on the French side of the Channel made Britain’s gathering domestic row over Brexit hard to see clearly. In October 2016 the camp was dismantled and at least two thousand migrants were dispersed to alternative accommodation in France. Through 2017 and 2018, as migrants made their way back to the coast, journalists wondered exactly what the appeal of Britain was. The answers were nearly always the same: plentiful low-wage jobs in the grey economy, English as a lingua franca, relatives and friends already in situ. Strange even so, a source told France Culture last year, when you bear in mind the ‘extreme xenophobic climate’ in Britain since the referendum.
This simplified portrait of the UK as an ultra-liberal, Anglosphere economy that has turned its back on freedom of movement soon gives way to a sense that Britain on the verge of Brexit is a bit of a dump, stuck with the worst of both worlds: on the one hand xenophobia, on the other extreme free-market, state-lite policies that let the weak go to the wall – or rather, straight to landfill. In a letter from London in November, Le Monde’s correspondent Philippe Bernard was dismayed to discover that refuse collectors in the UK now carry out checks on large bins meant for commercial waste and recyclables, in case they load a homeless person into the compactor. Veolia staff kept discovering people sleeping in the containers, he reported, and are now trained to look for telltale signs of occupancy – a bottle or an empty cigarette packet – by the side of the bin they’re about to clear. Bernard ends his letter with a look at the UN special rapporteur Philip Alston’s blistering report on poverty and human rights in the UK, and repeats Alston’s warning that Brexit will do nothing to remedy the plight of Britain’s poor.
‘Just left Frankfurt. Great meetings, great weather, really enjoyed it. Good, because I’ll be spending a lot more time there’ (Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs).
‘It never entered my mind that populism would defeat capitalism in its country of origin’ (Jürgen Habermas).
‘Perhaps the British have to go in order that one day they may properly return’ (Jochen Buchsteiner, Frankfurter Allgemeine).
‘He wears old-fashioned clothes and does not like foreigners very much’ (inaugural description of Jacob Rees-Mogg in the Tageszeitung).
‘The irony is that the two most disappointing areas of the EU – the common currency and Schengen – were the two areas from which Britain had most insulated itself’ (Jakob von Weizsäcker, chief economist, German Ministry of Finance).
‘The Leavers have no real arguments, just a sudden sense of superiority that I seek to understand’ (Karl Heinz Bohrer, Die Zeit).
‘When a nation like England, a tenth-generation democracy, presents itself as such an agitating mass, where two ignorant snobs, like adolescents, undertake a suicidal nocturnal joyride, regardless of random passers-by, then one must not only start to wonder about the constitution, but to worry more generally about the democratic adequacy of humanity’ (Peter Sloterdijk).
‘Brexit shows that the Brussels bureaucracy, that alleged monster that employs no more civil servants than a central German city administration, has done a great job. The extent of interconnectedness at all levels has to be renegotiated: supply chains, industry standards, food and pharmaceutical standards, security architectures, rural and air transport structures, fishing rights, research collaborations, student exchanges, a vast frictionlessness system is now in jeopardy’ (Gustav Seibt, Süddeutsche Zeitung).
‘If the occasion were not so sad, one would have to say as continental Europeans: splendid, dear Britons, your debates have not been so interesting to us since Edmund Burke dissected the French Revolution’ (Gustav Seibt, Süddeutsche Zeitung).
‘The fact that the German European “discourse” assumes as a matter of course that the end of European unification will be the end not only of the German nation-state, but of all nation-states, keeps raising alarm bells in other European countries’ (Wolfgang Streeck).
‘This is why we outlawed these crappy referendums. First the British, now the Turks!’ (man at my local bakery in Berlin).
Brexit has contributed to a gradual but tidal change in the way Germans see Europe. On the one hand, it is another element in the chaos they see unfolding around them: the failure of the Arab Spring, the implosion of Syria, the botched intervention in Libya, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the election of Trump and, closer to home, the gilets jaunes. These have only increased the preciousness and value of Europe for Germans. The sense that Europe must be Germany’s future has become, if anything, stronger after Brexit. Discussions about a European army that would have been heretical a decade ago now seem normal in Berlin. On the other hand, Brexit has damaged any lingering German idealism when it comes to the EU. If the question for Germans used to be not whether the European project would be achieved, but when, they now grasp that it will need to be fought for inch by inch. There has been a pragmatic turn across the political spectrum. The keenest Europeans among the Greens and the SPD have given way to those who merely provide lip-service. The European project now often seems more modest: a system that allows at least some Europeans to prosper and protect themselves in an economically and morally underperforming world.
There has long been a sense among German Europhiles that Britain would eventually let them down. It had tried to outfox the European project from the beginning. In the 1950s, the Foreign Office plotted to sow division on the European question in Bonn: they wanted to bully Adenauer, an ardent Europhile, out of the European Coal and Steel Community, and to buy off his economic minister, Ludwig Erhard, a free-trade fundamentalist who sympathised with Britain. As a direct counter, Britain founded the European Free Trade Area, EFTA, a club of free-traders that now includes Norway, Liechtenstein, Iceland and Switzerland. The much vaunted Norway+ plan would effectively mean Britain rejoining its own original anti-EU guerrilla camp. I expected a bit more vituperation in the German press about this sort of thing, but I’ve mostly seen elegiac columns and post-break-up sadness and stoicism, even wistfulness. Some Berlin bureaucrats still speak of the virtue of the echt British practice of ‘muddling through’. Self-denying master of Europe, Germany knows that Brexit is a wake-up call of some kind, but it still takes what Hegel described as the valet’s perspective on the future of the continent.
Two years ago, David Cameron saw himself out of office, respecting the result of the referendum he had unwisely called. For three years now, Alexis Tsipras has clung to power in Athens by disrespecting the results of his own referendum. The Eurozone’s one-time guerrilla leader has become its most efficient deliveryman of austerity. The Brexit maelstrom has given him an opportunity to brandish his ‘experience’ and ‘perspective’. ‘Some of our comrades considered Grexit a revolutionary choice,’ he chided Syriza’s central committee in December. ‘But look at Britain now. Who is winning?’
In Greece anti-EU sentiment still predominates. Sympathy for Brexit does not. ‘We are watching a great and proud nation paralyse itself with a metaphorical dose of novichok,’ Pavlos Papadopoulos wrote in the centre-right Kathimerini. ‘There is no similarity between Brexit and Grexit,’ Tasos Pappas observed in the centre-left Efimerida ton Syntakton. The feeling I sense around Athens is one of displaced embarrassment – Fremdschämen. A friend of mine recently attended an event held by the British embassy, during which, the embassy advertised, it would answer questions from British nationals living in Greece. The result was a farce. The embassy staff couldn’t answer a single question. My friend left the event shortly after a Leaver, now living on his pension somewhere along the Aegean, inquired when he could trade in his red EU passport for a new blue British one.
Like a patient undergoing impromptu amputation with a handsaw, Greece now gets to overhear the patient with a sprained ankle in the next room curse at the nurses for the uncomfortable wheelchair. The irony is not lost on Greeks that on their road to near-exit, the country’s GDP was gutted by a quarter, and Athens and the islands became refugee staging grounds. The Greek press asks itself what will be the fate of Greek shipowners in London? What will the Aegean do without English holidaymakers throwing up margaritas on its beaches? Among the chattering classes of Kolonaki, one detects occasional pleasure that the British government now resembles a shambolic Greek ministry, rotten with infighting and nonsensical press conferences and disingenuous public pronouncements.
Attention in Greece is focused on next year’s elections. On track to be the only Greek prime minister to serve out a full election cycle, Tsipras will almost certainly be voted out next May, and replaced by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, the former McKinsey consultant who climbed to the head of New Democracy, the party once run by his father, by persuading Greeks that he is a credible reformist. In Greece, as in Ukraine, as in India, as in Malaysia, the dynasts have spent their off-season studying the game of the faux-populists, and now have them in their sights.
Membership of the EU has allowed several hundred thousand Hungarians to escape by emigration the increasingly punitive conditions of life under Viktor Orbán. One of the most striking features of Hungary since Orbán’s election in 2010 has been the remaking of the media landscape, so that only a few independent media organisations now survive. In quick succession, Hungary lost its two major daily newspapers: first the left-leaning Népszabadság, bought out and then closed down in October 2016, then its conservative counterpart Magyar Nemzet, following a personal disagreement between Orbán and its billionaire owner. Local and regional newspapers have been consolidated into media clones differing only in title, with their text and pictures following a single template. A recent innovation is the Central European Press and Media Foundation, established by allies of the government, which has been buying up media outlets.
At the time of the UK referendum, coverage in Hungary’s leftist or centrist organs such as Népszabadság or Magyar Nemzet was not dissimilar to that in the mainstream Western European press. One headline in Népszabadság optimistically advised Hungarian students planning to study in England: ‘Don’t Panic!’ But as Orbán’s grip has tightened, Brexit too has been made to align with his preoccupations.
On 12 December what has become known as the ‘slave law’ was passed in the Hungarian Parliament, allowing employers to request employees to work up to four hundred hours of overtime and to delay paying them for it. The right-wing newspaper Magyar Hírlap alleged that the ‘violent’ demonstrations that followed had been organised by the ‘Soros immigration network’, and reported the Fidesz politician Balázs Hidvéghi as saying: ‘They’re creating havoc on the streets, provoking the police so as to discredit our nation.’ Magyar Idők – an arm of Orbán’s Kulturkampf – complained of ‘central Asian’ conditions in parliament (the opposition launched a protest using sirens and whistles), reminding MPs that there are ‘rules to be followed’. At the same time it alerted readers to the presence of ‘foreign persons’ among those taken into custody during the demonstrations of 12 December, insinuating that at least one belonged to a ‘Soros-supported’ organisation.
On 13 December, Hungary’s government-controlled television news devoted approximately a third of its foreign news bulletin to the terrorist attack in Strasbourg and also showed footage of anti-terrorism units operating at Hungarian Christmas markets. The news announcer then segued to Brexit, reminding viewers that ‘migration is one of the main themes of Brexit as well,’ and that the UK ‘firmly rejects Brussels’s plans for immigration’.
In the Czech Republic – where I live – two of the three main daily papers are owned by the current prime minister, the agriculture billionaire Andrej Babiš, who has just been censured by the EU, accused of a conflict of interest between his political role and his stake in Agrofert. Online news is dominated by the virulently xenophobic, Breitbart-inspired Parlamentní listy, which provides news of ‘Muslim atrocities’ in Western Europe alongside alt-right-style talking points. Compared with the apocalyptic strand of civilisational pessimism in the Czech blogosphere, the ‘Babiš press’ may appear to represent the voice of moderation – yet these papers are far more likely to offer a platform to the anti-EU right than to proponents of more conciliatory approaches.
The media landscape in both countries makes clear that the fear that ethno-national identity will be dissolved by a united Europe, a fear stoked by populist leaders, maintains its grip on a surprisingly large spectrum of the opinion-forming elite, as well as on the public at large.
‘There may be a risk of further frying the brains of the nation with Brexit information overload’ (Irish Independent, 11 December 2018).
Border crossings: In mid-December, the Irish army mapped the 310-mile border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and identified almost three hundred crossing points – nearly a hundred more than they expected. The taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, continued to insist that his government had made no contingency plans for policing the border in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Asked about the possibility of a hard border on 11 June, Varadkar had insisted: ‘That will just never happen, ever.’
Brussels: A recent poll conducted by the Irish Independent suggested that 76 per cent of people think the EU has treated Ireland well since the 2008 financial crash.
Chips: On 10 December, the Irish Times reported that the ‘humble chipper’ could be another casualty of Brexit. Ireland grows 350,000 tonnes of spuds a year for its domestic market, but Irish potatoes have a high sugar content and brown too quickly to make good chips. In 2017 Ireland imported almost 72,000 tonnes of potatoes from the UK, typically Marquis or Maris Piper.
Cute hoors (Irish slang for crafty, cunning or sly individuals): In 2017, 50 per cent of Irish beef exports – valued at €1.25 billion – went to the UK. On 6 August, the Irish Examiner ran a story about Irish meat companies buying up subsidiaries in Britain. The benefits are manifold: profits can be hedged against currency fluctuations, and transfer pricing arrangements between farmers or abattoirs in Ireland and wholesalers in the UK allow Irish companies to sell to their British counterparts at artificially low rates and avoid the high tariffs that are likely in the event of a return to WTO rules. Company profits can be declared in Ireland and benefit from its lower corporation tax.
The DUP: ‘Probably the worst £1 billion Theresa May ever spent’ (Irish Times, 17 December 2018). Arlene Foster’s party is lambasted for its ‘No Surrender’ stance on the Withdrawal Agreement. In September, a poll commissioned by the campaign group Our Future Our Choice Northern Ireland found that 68 per cent of those questioned thought the DUP was behaving ‘very badly’. Among under 24-year-olds, the figure rose to 79 per cent.
The economy: The Irish Department of Finance calculates that, even in the event of a transition deal, Brexit could lead to Irish GDP dropping by 4.5 per cent over the next decade, with a predicted loss of 40,000 jobs. In December, leaked papers from Westminster estimated that a no-deal scenario could cause Irish GDP to fall by 7 per cent (as against a 5 per cent drop in the UK).
German solidarity: During the October summit at Salzburg, Angela Merkel promised Leo Varadkar that the EU’s solidarity with Ireland on the border predicament would be ‘like nothing he’d ever feel again’. Varadkar’s reaction was mixed: ‘I thought it was very reassuring but also a bit ominous.’
The Irish Sea: ‘Fish don’t do borders’ (John Lynch, a fisherman, quoted in the Irish Times, 14 December 2018).
Jeremy Corbyn: ‘Delusional’ (Irish Independent, 12 December 2018).
‘The fact that there has been no leadership from Corbyn on Brexit will be something the party and the country may rue for decades’ (Irish Times, 17 December 2018).
Markets: On 16 November, the Irish Times announced that ‘Brexit bedlam’ had wiped €3.3 billion off the value of Irish shares. Ten days later, the Irish Independent reported that shares in Ryanair had fallen by 12 per cent over the previous quarter and by 29 per cent since January 2018.
Passports: By the end of October, Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs had recorded 158,763 applications for Irish passports from citizens of Northern Ireland and Great Britain since January; in 2012, there were 86,770. On 26 November, an 86-year-old emeritus professor of Queens University Belfast – ‘intensely upset about Brexit’ – became the oldest of three thousand people from more than 120 countries to be awarded Irish citizenship. Irish officials anticipate a further 40 per cent hike in applications next year if Britain leaves the EU without an agreement.
Theresa the Dancing Queen: ‘Breathtakingly naff’ (Irish Independent, 8 October 2018).
Tories, historical sensitivities of: Michael Gove once characterised the peace process as a capitulation to the IRA, and then likened it to the appeasement of the Nazis. In June, Boris Johnson said concerns over the Irish border were ‘pure millennium bug stuff’. In August, Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested that, post-Brexit, people could be ‘inspected’ at the border as they had been ‘during the Troubles’. In September, Karen Bradley admitted that she hadn’t known the people of Ulster tended to vote along sectarian lines when she became secretary of state for Northern Ireland. In December, Priti Patel said that the threat of food shortages in Ireland should have been used to Britain’s advantage during negotiations with the EU. The Irish Independent accused her of dangling ‘the threat of another famine in front of the Irish, like an absentee landlord chuckling maliciously over starving tenants’.
United Ireland: According to the Belfast Telegraph of 10 December, 60 per cent of Northern Irish people think that a united Ireland is more likely after Brexit. On 15 September, the Irish Times quoted a survey that predicted a united Ireland would cause living standards in the Republic to fall by 15 per cent.
Universities: On 1 November, Trinity College Dublin sent an open letter to the Financial Times noting that applications to it from Northern Ireland had fallen by 20 per cent in 2018. TCD blamed a ‘worrying Brexit effect’ for endangering the cross-border collaboration that the university had worked hard to cultivate since the end of the Troubles.
Xenophobia: In December, the BBC correspondent Nicholas Watt talked to an unnamed ‘Tory grandee’ who insisted that ‘the Irish really should know their place’ when it came to Brexit. (‘You’d swear we created the problem,’ the taoiseach had complained in October.) On 16 December, Fergal Keane assured readers of the Irish Independent that the Tory ‘voice of ethno-feudalism’ spoke for only ‘a tiny minority’ of the UK population. In Ireland, there’s bitterness about perceived British ignorance on the border issue, but also about the way Ireland has been smeared throughout the Brexit negotiations ‘as both schemer and doormat’ (Irish Times, 20 October 2018). But while Tory paralysis on the backstop might generate a twinge of Schadenfreude, a no-deal Brexit is unthinkable. As Colette Browne wrote in the Irish Independent on 12 December, ‘if the Brits go down, they’re taking us with them.’
Italians have been less interested in Brexit than in their own government’s struggles with Brussels. At the end of September, ministers in Rome agreed a budget deficit target of 2.4 per cent of GDP for 2019. The European Commission was never going to accept a figure above 2 per cent, and sure enough, on 23 October it rejected the draft Italian budget. (All countries in the Eurozone have to submit their budget plans for approval; this is the first time that one has been rejected.) The Italian government argues that the deficit is justified by the fiscal stimulus the budget will provide. The Commission doubts that the expensive measures – cutting taxes, lowering the pension age (so you can retire when your age and the number of years you’ve worked add up to one hundred) and introducing a means-tested ‘citizenship income’ for the poor – are likely to do all that much for the economy.
Brexit does make it into the headlines when it seems there’s something concrete to report. When May reached her agreement with the EU on 26 November, the centre-left La Repubblica, published in Rome, sagely observed that ‘now she has to convince London.’ Two days later, the top story from the UK was that Kate Middleton had been overheard speaking Italian to a fan in Leicester. She said: ‘Ciao.’
On 3 December, Goldman Sachs warned that Italy was ‘casting a dark cloud over European markets’. Milan’s Corriere della Sera, the centrist paper of record and the country’s bestselling daily (circulation 300,000), drew up a list of ten things that will change in London after Brexit: ID cards won’t get you across the border any more, you’ll need a passport; plane tickets will be more expensive; Eurotunnel is to be renamed Getlink; Crossrail will be even later in opening, in part because of Brexit-related funding cuts; a weaker pound will mean more Italians can shop at Harrods; commissions on currency exchange will go up; the government may introduce a tourist tax; mobile phone roaming charges may return; Greece may get the Elgin Marbles back from the British Museum (illustrated with a photo of the National Gallery); there will be fewer Italian restaurants.
On 4 December, Macron’s problems in France occupied the headlines. In news from the UK, Kate Middleton’s views on Meghan Markle’s pregnancy were given higher priority than the contempt of Parliament proceedings or the ECJ advice on the unilateral revocation of Article 50. According to Corriere della Sera, the Italians were ready to compromise on the 2 per cent budget deficit. La Stampa (centrist, Turin) reported that the European Commission was asking for another €12 billion in budget cuts, which would hit pensions.
On 10 December, La Repubblica noted that May’s government was in chaos and the Brexit vote had been delayed; EU markets were in the red, the stock exchange in Milan was down 1.8 per cent.
On 12 December, the Italian government proposed a 2019 deficit target of 2.04 per cent. The European Commission said it still wasn’t good enough.
In La Repubblica on 14 December it was reported that Brazil has ordered the arrest of Cesare Battisti, a former member of the Armed Proletarians for Communism who was given refugee status by the Brazilian justice minister in 2009; that the Italian budget was to be rewritten again, with savings of €6.5 billion; that Chérif Chekatt, the suspected Christmas market terrorist, had been shot dead by police in Strasbourg. Way down the page: May returned from Brussels with nothing but crumbs.
‘Is It Over for Dover?’ – a headline in the Norwegian newspaper Klassekampen (‘Class Struggle’) on 11 December. In the article below, Roy Potter, a Dover resident, is recorded as saying that he has no fear of the future, but wants a Norwegian EEA-style agreement with the EU after Brexit. Norway has twice refused to join the EU, both times voting ‘No’ in referendums which saw the vast majority of the political class, backed up by finance and the media, advocate fiercely for membership, in the face of implacable opposition from a grassroots alliance of farmers, workers, NGOs and leftist groups. Today polls regularly show that more than 70 per cent of the population wants Norway to stay outside the EU; almost as many support EEA membership.
The article in Klassekampen is and isn’t representative of Norwegian coverage of Brexit. It’s representative because it links Brexit to Norwegian politics. There has been almost no discussion of the EU or Brexit that hasn’t somehow also been about Norway, but the fact that the UK Brexiteers are nearly all right-wing makes the Brexit debate difficult to calibrate, because in Norway the conservative right is overwhelmingly in favour of joining the EU. The untypical part of the Klassekampen story is that it makes a positive case for the UK joining the EEA. Erna Solberg, Norway’s conservative prime minister, along with most of the opposition, have so far decided that the EEA arrangement, which they negotiated and which they defend to the hilt as being in the best interests of Norway, is a terrible idea for Britain, although British membership of the EEA would be good for Norway according to almost every political and economic measure.
Aslak Sira Myhre
Reading about Britain in the liberal Polish press I always feel a weird cognitive dissonance. I can never find a version of the country that remotely resembles the one I knew in the time I lived there. For years, these papers – Gazeta Wyborcza, Polityka, Tygodnik Powszechny – have used up acres of newsprint defending the Polish version of capitalism and holding up rich Western European countries as a benchmark, so they have no way of comprehending the present crisis in the British psyche. These days, one has also to take into consideration Poland’s huge shift to the right. What passes for ‘left’ or ‘liberal’ in Poland would be deemed ‘conservative’ or ‘right-wing’ in Britain. In Poland, Thatcher is seen as a conqueror of communism and Blair is assumed to have a following. For the Polish press to understand the UK’s current travails would involve recognising the harm done by neoliberalism, and that the supposed ‘boom’ years under the Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform) government of 2007 to 2015 were largely brought about by EU subsidies and by exporting unemployment. Under the current Law and Justice administration, the national discourse has been coloured by the government’s intense hatred of its technocratic predecessor, especially its presiding genius, Donald Tusk. Tusk’s role in the Brexit negotiations, as president of the European Council, has confused matters even further. The predominant narrative is of Poland ‘getting up from its knees’, with hard economic realities ignored – or misunderstood entirely.
‘Brexit means Brexodus. But Poles have nothing to fear in coming back to Poland, which is improving as a job market’ (money.pl).
‘Brexit will accelerate the creation of a two-speed Europe … We are facing marginalisation … The UK was the only major EU country supporting Warsaw in its opposition to the cancelling of sanctions against Russia’ (Newsweek Polska).
‘Tusk’s Meanness to May – He Planned Special Meeting to Crush Her’ (Niezależna).
‘I think it is Tusk’s great failure that Brexit is happening at all. They are leaving because the EU doesn’t stretch to their aspirations and because they were let down by EU leaders – and one of the main leaders was Tusk’ (Jacek Czaputowicz, the foreign minister, in OKO).
‘As a historian, I fear that Brexit will not only be the beginning of the EU’s fall, but also of the whole of Western political civilisation’ (Donald Tusk).
Coverage of Brexit has been remarkably consistent across Portuguese newspapers. This is in part a consequence of there being few foreign correspondents: most papers rely on wire services. But it also reflects a high level of ideological homogeneity. Despite a punishing programme of austerity imposed on Portugal by Brussels and Berlin – only recently eased – bien pensant opinion remains squarely on the side of the union: all major media stick closely to a pro-EU line.
While the country’s largest daily, the tabloid Correio da Manhã, has given Brexit only passing coverage, other major papers have devoted serious space to it. In the week leading up to my writing this, Brexit has featured on the front page of Público three times and on the front page of Diário de Notícias four times. Unsurprisingly, some of the coverage has focused on the economic impact of Brexit. Jornal de Notícias warned that the UK’s withdrawal ‘could provoke a minor economic crisis’ in the north of the country, which produces significant quantities of textiles and wine for export to the UK. Público noted the National Statistics Institute’s prediction of a 0.26 per cent decrease in Portuguese GDP for every 10 per cent reduction in the export of goods and services to the UK, the country’s fourth largest export market. A fall in the number of tourists visiting from the UK is also of concern. ‘We are preparing ourselves for all scenarios,’ the foreign minister, Augusto Santos Silva, promised in Jornal de Notícias.
Several papers have carried surprisingly detailed reports on May’s recent travails – ‘European leaders want to help Theresa May fight the parliamentary rebellion in London,’ Público reported – though there is incredulity at her insistence that more concessions might be sought from Europe. ‘Reopening negotiations is absolutely taboo,’ Público insisted, while the business paper Jornal de Negócios quoted President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa’s remark that Portugal is ‘in solidarity with the … common position of the European Union’.
Opinion pages warn of the ‘devastating consequences’ that will follow the UK’s ‘leap from the precipice’ (Público) and counsel a change of course. Diário de Notícias published a letter from Ian McEwan, Armando Iannucci, Gary Lineker, Natascha McElhone and Patrick Stewart pleading that Portugal and the EU ‘give the UK time’ for a new referendum. In the same pages, Leonídio Paulo Ferreira chastised Corbyn: ‘He limits himself to helping to beat up May, either promising to vote against the EU agreement or threatening to present motions of no confidence in the Conservative government’; António Saraiva Lima, who dislikes Corbyn’s ‘passive stance’, said much the same in Público.
Given how much Portugal has suffered from the EU’s austerity policies, one might have expected some recognition of the popular discontent that underpins support for Brexit in the UK. Yet the opposite is the case. Rui Tavares in Público is typical in arguing that while many thought Brexit represented a rebellion against ‘a distant and arrogant elite’, such a view is ‘all crap’. In fact, Brexit has become ‘the symbol of the unwillingness of the peoples of Europe to leave the European Union’. After all, ‘about 90 per cent of Poles and Hungarians want to stay in the EU.’ Brexit represents ‘the tantrums of an adolescent who leaves home [only] to regret it after his first night away and is surprised to discover that the complexities of the modern world are always the same: that it is necessary to pay a deposit to rent a house, that to drive a car without insurance is potentially ruinous etc.’ Brexit may still go ahead but, Tavares assures his readers, it will not spell the end of the EU: ‘The great project to end the EU failed.’ What is most striking about these interventions is that they seem directed at a putative British audience. But perhaps their real point isn’t to counsel concrete political action in London so much as to warn Lusitanian readers against any flirtation with Euroscepticism.
The sole exceptions can be found in Expresso, Portugal’s biggest weekly and home to two of the few Eurosceptic columnists in the country. Where others have May valiantly battling to make the best of a bad situation, Daniel Oliveira sees ‘a mediocre opportunist’. But the EU is also blamed: ‘The European Union has already said what it always says – there is no plan B. Perhaps this pride in the absence of political options explains why it is in the present impasse.’ Francisco Louçã, founder of the left-wing party Left Bloc, places Brexit within its broader political-economic context. Popular revolt is growing and ‘the fact is that the entire decade since the financial crisis of 2008 is now taking its toll: poor workers opposed to globalisation, migrants fleeing poverty, young people tired of precarity and marginalisation at work or in the city, victims of the speculators’ makeover of urban space, these multitudes are affected by the politics of the abyss and they are beginning to speak.’ But the EU is unable to respond to social unrest, knowing ‘only one answer, the self-satisfying litany that is precisely one of the causes of popular disaffection’. That litany is now smugly repeated by most of the Portuguese press too.
The mainstream Spanish press has deplored Brexit – on the UK’s behalf. A typical conclusion, from the newspaper ABC, is that Britain stands to gain ‘the illusion of being master of its own destiny’ while losing 8 per cent of its GDP. Yet Spain is one European country that could benefit. As El País pointed out, in order to join the EU Spain had to soften its stance on Gibraltar; Britain’s decision to leave ‘has inverted that situation’. Two days after the UK referendum, the then conservative government in Madrid pounced on the chance to gain at least co-sovereignty over the ‘British colony’, setting a proposal before the UN. But in November it was discovered that the promise of joint Spanish and British decision-making over Gibraltar had been quietly dropped from the proposed withdrawal document drawn up by May and the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. The prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, stung by the betrayal of Spain’s ‘good faith’, threatened to derail the agreement. An 11th hour statement from Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, reaffirming that after Brexit the two countries would wield equal clout, averted this.
For centre-left papers like El País, supporters of the Socialist government, this was an unprecedented boost to Spain in the three-hundred-year-long dispute over the Rock: May’s assurances to Parliament that ‘nothing has changed’ were just an attempt to ‘camouflage concessions’. But for the centre-right and the nationalist right, Sánchez had been gulled. El Mundo and ABC preferred to believe May, with ABC noting that Tusk and Juncker’s statement was ‘only an expression of political will’, since it wasn’t included in the withdrawal document. El Español despaired: ‘Spain has lost three things: the possibility of recovering sovereignty over her territory under British occupation, her battered honour, and what remained of her international prestige.’ Time will tell who’s right.
Gibraltarians rejected co-sovereignty in 2002 and voted by 96 per cent to Remain, which gives an idea of the predicament Brexit will put them in. Various unsympathetic papers revisited the Rock and the adjacent Campo de Gibraltar, an impoverished, drug-ridden area that sends 14,000 workers into the colony every day. El Mundo chronicled the Spanish state’s neglect of the city of La Línea de la Concepción, on the border with the Rock, and its forlorn bid to become an Autonomous City like Ceuta and Melilla. For ABC, Gibraltar’s ‘colonisation, or simple purchase, of the hinterland, is our true shame’. The novelist Almudena Grandes let rip in El País: Gibraltar is an imperial relic that matters only for ‘its disgraceful condition as a fiscal paradise’ – Spanish firms domiciled there avoid millions in tax – and, painful to admit, for the resulting jobs. A Gibraltarian put the point with telling bluster to another reporter: ‘If it weren’t for us, they’d starve from Cádiz to Málaga.’ Mounting Spanish nationalism will doubtless muddy the waters further.
Lorna Scott Fox
Swedes are going through their own political crisis just now, without a workable government in sight; but their press still finds time to marvel at the chaos of Britain’s shenanigans over Brexit, sometimes derisorily but more often in genuine puzzlement and sorrow. Sweden was a late recruit to the European enterprise, joining only in 1995 (on the basis of a 52 per cent referendum vote), and its once dominant Social Democratic Party has always been ambivalent about membership. For the most part Sweden’s doubts about the EU closely resembled the UK’s, which made them close allies when they were both members – and the imminent loss of an ally is a matter of concern to the Swedes, though few want to follow suit. If anything, Britain’s current experience has stiffened their resolve to stay – though some polls suggest that this could change.
For the moment, however, the mainstream Swedish press is focused on what is described as the ‘brexitdrama’ being played out in the House of Commons, with all its very British absurdities. Boris Johnson especially is a genuine puzzle. Few Swedes appear to be too worried about Brexit’s impact on the 7 per cent of their trade that is with the UK; but many are concerned politically for their British friends – Dagens Nyheter predicts a ‘brittisk tragedi’ – and worry about the ‘extremely precarious situation’ in which the prime minister, Stefan Löfven, fears a British withdrawal will place the European project. Sweden’s state secretary, Annika Söder, has made it plain that she would like to see Brexit overturned – ‘Wouldn’t that be a good idea?’ Much is made of the extraordinary number of Britons suddenly applying for Swedish citizenship. More generally, the papers worry about the global rise of nationalism and populism that Brexit represents, and which currently affects Sweden too: the anti-EU and anti-immigrant Sverigedemokraterna party (SD) has much in common with Ukip. It is calling for a ‘Swexit’ referendum. One of the SD’s MEPs, Peter Lundgren – a dead ringer for the rightist MP Svend Åge Saltum in the Danish TV series Borgen – recently described Britain as a ‘beacon of light’ for Eurosceptics across the continent. But the SD – despite its 17.6 per cent vote in the last election – is widely regarded as too osvenskt (unSwedish) to play any part in government, which is one of the reasons for the present constitutional stalemate.
Being a Brit in Sweden can be embarrassing just now. We’re one of the Swedes’ favourite peoples, admired for our history and culture, and loved for Engelsk humor. Shocked they may be; but a diet of Monty Python and Fawlty Towers means that Swedes are not altogether surprised.
Bernard Porter and Kajsa Ohrlander
21 December 2018
Vol. 41 No. 1 · 3 January 2019 » What Europeans Talk about when They Talk about Brexit
pages 5-10 | 9297 words