Berlin - I can still remember the crushing feeling the moment I heard that the UK, my home country, had voted to leave the EU. It was like watching a self-destruct button being detonated in slow motion. How could people have made this drastic decision, to strip ourselves of the rights and privileges we had enjoyed for so long, backing a campaign that claimed the country had “had enough of experts”?
After four and a half years of mud-slinging and trade negotiations that reportedly came down to specific conditions on anchovies in their final minutes, Brexit is still a highly emotive subject. For those who long wanted to see it happen, this is a time of vindication and celebration. For the rest of us – especially the younger generation, aged 18-24 at the 2016 referendum and who voted more decisively than any other age group, backing Remain by 72 per cent – Brexit means a miserable loss of opportunity, future prospects, and in some cases, hope for the country we thought we knew.
I am fortunate among my peers because my Irish family background means I have been able to claim Irish citizenship. As a dual national, my Irish passport protects me almost completely from the implications of Brexit for Brits living in EU countries but does nothing to dissuade the deep concern I have felt since 2016 for what will happen next to the country I grew up in.
A result for the bigots
From early in the referendum campaign, Brexit evolved into a political symbol extending far beyond our membership of the EU. Leaving was sold as a solution that would allegedly “take back control” not just of the money we sent to the EU, which could be better used on our health service and deprived communities but, more importantly, of our borders.
At some point, British politicians won’t be able to treat the EU as a scapegoat any longer. Nigel Farage’s proud unveiling of a poster featuring almost exclusively male, brown-skinned refugees alongside the words “BREAKING POINT” and “TAKE BACK CONTROL” came to symbolise the misleading, bigoted attitudes that became central to parts of the Leave campaign – attitudes that claimed too many foreigners were coming to the UK, and it was all the EU’s fault.
This prevailing narrative fanned the flames of hostility and active racism towards foreigners in the UK, with a rise in hate crime and hostility toward anyone deemed not to be “British” enough followed the referendum result. It felt like the “Britain first” ideology had won.
The result wasn’t just emboldening for Britain’s bigots. At the time of the referendum, I was visiting Dresden, and on the first Monday after the result, I heard from a distance how it was applauded by speakers at that day’s Pegida rally. At some point, you have to wonder how good an idea actually is once you see the kind of people who are all for it.
But contrary to the slogans still being spouted by pro-Leave figures including Boris Johnson, we will still have to deal with the problems we had before Brexit and the new ones caused by it once the reality of our “new normal” really dawns on us – once we feel the pinch from the increased bureaucracy for businesses, loss of funding for the country’s poorest communities, and the absence of EU staff from hospitals and nursing homes. Who will be most affected by these problems, and who will then face the blame for them?
Don’t expect it to be Johnson and the politicians who have engineered Brexit and now entrenched the darkest aspect of the referendum’s anti-EU arguments into British society, with the Conservatives’ “hostile environment” policy now seeing the continued deportation of people who have lived in the UK since their childhood to Caribbean countries like Jamaica, where they were born.
It’s hard to think of a more costly bone former Prime Minister David Cameron could have thrown in calling the referendum, seeking to ebb the flow of voter defection to UKIP and solve the Tory party’s decades-old rift over Europe. The extent of what the whole country has lost as a result is truly astounding. An Irish national living in the UK now has more rights and privileges on voting and freedom of movement than a British national who lives there too.
Another union to worry about
There are legitimate questions over the future of the UK as we know it now too. Leaders in pro-EU Scotland (62 per cent favoured Remain in 2016) want a repeat of 2014’s independence referendum, with a recent advert calling on the EU to “keep a light on for Scotland”. In Northern Ireland (55 per cent pro-Remain in 2016), students will have their Erasmus studies in Europe funded by the Irish government, unlike their peers in England, Scotland and Wales. Brexit has given those in favour of a united Ireland a perfect opportunity to further their cause. Disquiet seems guaranteed at every turn.
I still have a stash of front pages from the German press reporting the referendum result. At the time, they echoed my dismay at the whole situation: the Berliner Zeitung quoted Peter Schilling’s Neue Deutsche Welle hit, saying we were now “completely detached” (völlig losgelöst) as if released into space. Our sister paper, the Berliner Kurier, waved us off with a haunting Photoshop creation of Johnson and Farage at the bow of the Titanic.
Now, these headlines feel prophetic. Although I’m not convinced of the odds of success for Britain’s enthusiastic pro-EU campaigners who want to see us rejoin as soon possible, I sincerely hope the country can avoid slipping further into insularity and intolerance as a result of Brexit. I’m just not especially optimistic right now.