On the eve of the EU Referendum I published a blog post, A European Life, that concluded: “My whole life has been lived in the context of this complex and sometimes conflicted continent and whatever the result of the referendum tomorrow, I am just one of very many British people who are not about to leave Europe. We are Europe.” Now, one year into the Article 50 period, one year from the deadline date of 29th March 2019, has anything changed?
In the time since the referendum people have left Britain, meaning many skilled and unskilled positions are now unfilled, damaging the NHS, other public services, agriculture and education. Businesses have planned to close or reduce UK operations, and EU agencies are moving out of the UK. Costs for consumers and businesses have risen. Many have take up the possibility of a second nationality.
There is much more damage to come, as UK citizens – young and old, rich and poor, leave and remain voters – now realise that they may soon be deprived of numerous everyday benefits of EU membership, such as EHIC health coverage, mobile phone roaming, easy car insurance, integrated air and rail travel, study exchange, and funding opportunities for education, culture and research. The freedom to work, study and make a life in all countries of the European Union is due to be restricted, affecting professionals, skilled workers, musicians, performers and other artists, students, and the retired.
But even greater damage is being done. It is now clear that Britain is no longer the country of ‘fair play’; no longer even pretending to be an open society; no longer a country governed by the mission to make common cause with other peoples. Britain, in spite of all the talk of becoming more ‘global’ and of forging ‘new partnerships’, is strangling itself in red, white and blue bunting, betrayed by a propagandist national broadcaster, and unable to counteract its own self-doubt and self-deception. The entrenched xenophobia, the lack of historical awareness, the almost feudal deference that pervades all aspects of British life from politics to humour show Britain as a country that has never taken the trouble to understand its cruel, militaristic, class-ridden past.
If the Brexit fiasco does nothing else – and even if those who look to stop or reverse it are successful – this must be the time when the country begins to question the things that have held Britain back from a mature involvement in the world. It must include education and awareness programmes similar to those conducted in countries that have suffered from repressive and unequal regimes. We need a full public debate on the unreconciled history of Empire; a critical examination of the role of monarchy and unelected legislators in Britain’s constitutional arrangements; a comprehensive public engagement to understand and counteract the effects of media bias and the extent of digital intrusions into private and personal lives.
If nothing else, Brexit must mark the end of the years of denial, must make us all accept that Britain is not so Great after all and we all need to do something to make this a better country, a country that looks for collaboration not conflict, equality not superiority. It will take a lot of work, but we can recover from the shame, disgrace and international ridicule that the Brexit period has heaped on this country, and we must begin now. We must all make sure that we play our part with good spirit and good will and we must prove our commitment with honesty and humility.
We are Europe and will remain so.