Saturday 25 January 2020

Europeans fear death of a dream as UK shuffles aside

From Poland to Paris, ordinary EU citizens are worried about how life will look after Brexit, writes Paddy Agnew

Last week Boris Johnson quit as UK foreign secretary, his attempts to secure a hard Brexit frustrated. Photo: Bloomberg
Last week Boris Johnson quit as UK foreign secretary, his attempts to secure a hard Brexit frustrated. Photo: Bloomberg

Paddy Agnew

Brexit is a vital question in Poland, it is not just an academic consideration. "We have 700,000 Poles stuck in the UK and, when Britain leaves, what is going to happen to them?"

The speaker is old friend and colleague Jacek Palasinski, experienced Warsaw-based correspondent of Polish channel tvn24. In the early 1980s, because of his support for Solidarnosc leader Lech Walesa, he was forced to flee his native, then Eastern Bloc communist Poland, hidden in the boot of a car, bound for Italy.

Almost 40 years later, he is increasingly pessimistic about the future of the European Union which has provided wealth, well-being and security in post-communist Poland. British and Irish observers might sometimes wonder if their obsession with Brexit and the potential damage it could yet inflict on the European 'dream' is equally shared by other EU countries. They need worry no longer. Just about everyone is terrified - everyone, that is, other than the Brexiteers.

Arguably, terrorism, migration, climate change, youth unemployment, the faltering euro, the rising cost of EU living, the need for EU reform and the eternal sense that Eurolandia has given birth to the Father and Mother of All Gravy Trains would seem like long-term issues that should worry EU citizens much more than Brexit. We all know that the EU has serious problems, as perhaps perfectly symbolised by the sight last week of European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker staggering around at a Nato summit, tired and emotional with his "back" problem.

All that is not to say, however, that from Warsaw to Paris, ordinary EU citizens are not worried about the demise of the European dream. For that reason, Brexit is much more than a distant Anglo/Irish, post-colonial issue of interest only to the Brits and Irish.

Jacek explains: "Young Poles, people who have travelled, look at Brexit and they think the Brits get crazy, they shoot themselves in the foot and they cause huge damage. The Brits do not realise that in the end, they will do more damage to themselves than to anyone else.

"This last week, Britain has issued a white paper on Brexit two years after the referendum. They are starting to try to understand it. This is a very late understanding. They [the British government] are just stupid. Only now, they ask themselves, what does this [Brexit] mean?"

Jacek worries that Brexit could become contagious, a massive boost for all sorts of populism, in whatever form that takes, from Hungary to Italy to Austria and on. He, like many others, is sceptical about the anti-immigrant rhetoric from Messers Salvini and Orban. There are more than one million Ukrainian workers working in Poland but, in an expanding country of 40 million, that is not a problem. Young Poles, he says, are much more worried about the "political" future of the EU.

From his home on the outskirts of Paris, another old friend, Catalan journalist Eusebio Val Mitjavila, someone who has worked as a Bonn, Washington and Rome correspondent, shares the concern about Brexit "contagion". France, the French ruling class and French public opinion, obviously, are all desperately worried by the impending Brexit. Media interest is relentless, as evidenced, says Eusebio, by a desperately serious two-hour-long Brexit discussion programme on the mainstream TV channel La Cinq just the night before.

There was a time when people might have been tempted to think that Brexit was merely some sort of British idiosyncrasy, like stones and pounds, feet and inches or driving on the left-hand side of the road. In March, novelist Colm Toibin, speaking about the Irish reaction to Brexit, told The Guardian: "There is a certain amount of glee - if you don't own an export company - at the sheer, sheer foolishness of it."

Eusebio detects little glee, now, either in his Catalan homeland or in France. Spain, like Italy, has always been very pro-EU, he says. Those Spaniards who grew up in the Spain of dictator Franco learned to look on the EU as an example of modernity, the way forward toward a more democratic future.

European law and the European Court of Justice, the latter much loathed by the Brexiteers, are viewed in a much more positive light by a huge variety of workers, starting most recently with Ryanair pilots and going all the way back to the Belgian footballer Jean-Marc Bosman in the 1990s.

Over the last 50 years and in their different ways in the wake of trauma that ranged from World War II to Stalinist pogroms to British occupation, just about every EU country (Ireland very much included) has experienced a huge ontologically strengthening moment as it sits at the European table with its peers. For Europeans like Eusebio and Jacek, the idea that the UK might just turn its back on this is deeply disturbing. Eusebio adds, too, that this does not help Spain as it attempts to deal with Catalonia's secessionist urge.

Eusebio argues that France is also battered by internal tensions, as recently highlighted by rioting in the north-western Atlantic city of Nantes in which one man lost his life, killed by police. That death prompted familiar grim images as once again, the outside world questioned French law enforcement tactics in immigrant neighbourhoods. Images of burned-out cars, smashed bus shelters and shattered store fronts served only to remind the French of the country's struggles with policing in minority neighbourhoods.

"France might be about to play in the World Cup final in Moscow with a multi-ethnic team which seems to reflect a united country, but this is an illusion. In such a context, the last thing the French want is for the unity of the European Union itself to be questioned by something like Brexit," says Eusebio.

As he reflects on the challenges facing the EU, he is just one more observer to point out how the biggest losers in a weakened, less united Europe will be the so-called 'Erasmus generation'. These are, of course, the young Europeans of many different nationalities who have long looked on London, above all, as an arrival point on a journey of language learning, the first time leaving home, timid self-discovery and cross-cultural awareness. Eusebio himself has two young sons working in London who may shortly be forced to up sticks and move.

That version of London as the must-stop-there home to Europe's not so gilded youth found a rather sentimental reflection in these thoughts on the front page of Turin daily La Stampa last Friday: "Guys, we had a good time. We went to London at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, that's the way it was for us and those younger than us right through to today. You set out, unplanned, for an adventure, or maybe just for a holiday.

"Today, you can go to London and travel round from early morning to late at night speaking Italian; you find Italian everywhere, in the chemist's shop, in restaurants, in museums, there are even Italian taxi drivers.

"London is an incredible, euphoric mix of races, a wonderful cocktail of different bloodlines and intellects, a city where people are always on the move, driven by the energy of building sites, by day and by night. London is an open city and maybe it will never be so again.

"London has become a city which like almost the entire wealthy world simply does not want the poor, they scare people. Lads, we had a good time. As for you, you will have the borders back and you know who to thank for it..."

Not everyone is quite so melodramatic. Tobias Pilar, Rome correspondent of the Frankfurter Allgemeiner Zeitung, points out that the UK economy represents €2.3bn of an overall €15.3bn EU GDP. His point is that the EU can survive the departure of the UK.

Germany's priority is to preserve the integrity of the EU, not to sort out a better Brexit deal. The issue is not one of how much will we pay for a BMW car, but rather how much will we pay for the European dream. If that means trade barriers to the UK, so be it. The idea of the Brexiteers that this was a Wednesday cattle market, where prices and exports would take precedence, is simply mistaken.

Is the fog about to descend on Dover again? Once more, the 'Continent' could be isolated.

Sunday Independent

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