I start to write this on the return leg of a short break in Hamburg. Three lovely days were spent in this mighty maritime city, but the experience was tinged by an overwhelming sense of melancholy due to the thought that, with Brexit looming, this could well be the last time I visit Germany as an EU citizen, as an equal, with all the rights and privileges that that esteemed status affords.
As a staunch Remainer, lifelong Europhile and proud citizen of nowhere, I thought I’d try to give expression to at least some of the emotions and instincts I have around the UK’s pending inglorious exit from the EU. So this isn’t a post about bikes: as important as they are, there is (slightly) more to life.
First of all, I cannot emphasise enough how much I detest Brexit and everything that surrounds it. The outright lies, the manipulation, the instrumentalisation of people’s primal fears that helped secure the outcome; the shoulder-shrugging at the finding of electoral fraud against Vote Leave; the cowardice of the key proponents of the Leave vote; the venality of the Tories who continue to put party before country; Labour’s acquiescence and lack of principled opposition; the right-wing press’s blatantly fascistic bluster; the lack of good grace among many Leave voters/referendum-winners. And so on. If you disagree that any of those is a thing, you’re unlikely to identify with anything that follows.
For me the fundamental tragedy of Brexit is about a loss of identity. A diminution of status. A wrenching away of fundamental rights and freedoms. From the Leaver side we frequently hear assertions in the vein of: “I’m British, not European. End of.” That’s fine. However, I’m British and European. Passionately, viscerally so. As emphatically as you are “just” British. Always have been, always will be: Europe runs through me like “Blackpool” does through rock. See – I can even express it with a parochial simile, it’s that natural and fundamental. Yet still, two years in and counting, no one can give me a single compelling reason as to why I’m being forced to relinquish my rights as an EU citizen in the complete absence of anything even vaguely equivalent, let alone better.
Identifying as a European does not cancel out identifying as British. They’re complementary, not mutually exclusive. Different levels, like “Mancunian” and “Northern”, can and do coexist. European is just one step beyond the traditional nation state which, in the 21st century, we should surely be capable of thinking past. Of course the British Isles is an absolutely wonderful place, with stunning scenery, a rich history and engaging people. Elsewhere in this blog I sing its praises – cycling-touring here is truly wonderful, for instance. But at the same time, so of course is Europe, this amazing continent that stretches from the Arctic Circle in the north to the Mediterranean in the south, from the Atlantic in the west to the Balkans in the east. As members of the EU, we are equal citizens of all that. Why don’t we think it’s worth being part of? (And woe betide anyone who pulls the “We’re not leaving Europe” line: the EU is how the countries of Europe arrange their affairs. We are leaving that, thus we are leaving the consensual construct of Europe.)
Personally, I’ve felt drawn to the European ideal from the very first time I visited France on a school exchange, when I first dipped my toe into another culture and discovered how even a smattering of a foreign language can bring you closer to people and give you an insight into how they live, think and interact with their world. For a kid from Bury, that was quite an eye-opener.
Thereafter I was fortunate to attend university in the days of student grants. I studied German at that momentous period in modern European history in the early 1990s, with a year spent in eastern Germany just a year or two after reunification. This was an opportunity to experience living, breathing history at close quarters, to live among people who (or at least whose government) up to very recently had quite literally been the enemy. An opportunity to absorb a German, and a specifically East-German, reception of literature, history, society, culture and politics. To observe how a country with Germany’s complex, horrific history tries to construct a contemporary national identity, or at least sense of nationhood, that resists falling back into the destructive patterns of the past, that acknowledges yesterday’s horrors and consequently roots itself in today and looks to tomorrow – this being in stark contrast to the prevailing English identity, which draws largely on feudal roots (the royals), colonialism (albeit without acknowledging the bad stuff), a few historical military successes and one fluke sporting result in the 1960s. And by comparing the different approaches to a national identity, we relativise our own experiences. Is Britain really inherently great, or do I just think that because I was born there? (Clue: it’s the latter.) So: opportunities to compare and contrast – soberly, objectively – what works here, what’s better there. And that’s the mindset I’ve had for decades: openness to other cultures enables us to expand our own minds, compare experiences and try different ways of doing things. And for all its faults, a key function of the EU is precisely that. To bring nations and their citizens together – as equals. But for some reason we now think that stepping away from that and closing our minds is the way to go. Seems daft in the extreme.
On graduating, I took the opportunity to apply my knowledge and skills and started to work as a translator. EU freedom of movement meant I could take up a job in Germany on equal terms with Germans. Bad management of the company (not by me!) duly led to redundancy and unemployment – and again, my equal rights as an EU citizen meant I was entitled to benefits the same as any German. Yes, yet another Leaver lie up in smoke: I have actually claimed benefits in another EU country. Not only that, but I was able to secure German government enterprise funding to set up a business that’s still going 15 years later. Today, back in the UK, I take advantage of the EU’s free movement of capital and services every day to sell my services across borders and receive payments (almost) as easily as I do domestically. Frictionless trade within the single market works really well, and again: no one can give me a single compelling reason as to why it should now be harder for me to run my business in the complete absence of anything even vaguely equivalent, let alone better. No matter how free trade between the (now marginal) UK and rest of the world is spun, we will never be able to resist the gravitational pull of the market of half a billion EU citizens on the continental mainland. Divesting ourselves of that is economically brainless.
So in a nutshell that’s my relationship with the EU. I’ve never been part of any kind of Brussels gravy train, which is commonly how benefiting from the EU is portrayed. I’ve simply taken the opportunities that are (soon: will have been) open to everyone. And that’s what breaks my heart about Brexit. Unless by some miracle Brexit is cancelled before March 2019, we will all revert to being “just British” with the loss of all the benefits of EU citizenship, whether we want to or not. All because of a referendum outcome that’s little more than a rounding error.
I’ve discussed the madness of Brexit with many friends in Germany, who watch us go with deep sadness. You know that friend who’s fundamentally sound but drinks too much and is their own worst enemy? The one you’re always trying to talk sense into before they do themselves a serious mischief? That’s how we’re seen, except we’ve done ourselves the mischief, despite all their warnings, and we only have ourselves to blame.
I see it slightly differently. The metaphor of a divorce is often used for Brexit. To me the UK is a portly, balding middle-aged man who, after decades of marriage, fancies his chances on Tinder and splits from his wife, only to find himself alone in a bedsit wanking to Internet porn. Perhaps an attractive young thing will swipe right on his photo one of these days. And perhaps we’ll all get a unicorn on 29 March 2019.
What a fucking stupid idea.