Brexit, Britain, and Mainland Europe

I have noticed on Twitter a certain propensity among the metropolitan elite, particularly journalists, to claim that Britain is now the laughing stock of Europe and that everyone on the Continent thinks Brexiteers to be delusional. I imagine that in their world this is actually true: most of them will speak French, German, or Spanish and will spend much of their time in Europe for work or visiting families and friends. Only you can be sure they’ll be swanning around the nicer areas of Paris, Berlin, Frankfurt, and Geneva with wealthy, middle-class journalists and the sort of “businessmen” whose nose is never more than half-an-inch from a politician’s arse. They sure as hell won’t be hanging around a Portuguese dock or drinking vodka in a Latvian bar with a bunch of ethnic Russians.

From what I can tell, Europeans don’t seem particularly interested in Brexit. I think everyone was rather surprised initially, but now they’re so resigned to Britain leaving that it barely gets mentioned. I work in a very international company with major operations in the UK, and talk of Brexit is conspicuous by its absence. When the subject comes up, usually over lunch with colleagues who ask me for my opinions on the matter, there is some disappointment but in general they don’t see it as a big deal. For a lot of mainland Europeans, Britain was never really part of the club anyway. We were always complaining, we seemed to prefer the company of Americans, and a few are not even sure why we joined in the first place. It’s a bit like Australia being in the Eurovision Song Contest, nobody is quite sure what they’re doing there. The attitude of everyone seems to be slight confusion as to why Britain voted to leave but now they have, can we just get on with it ASAP and if we can still work, travel, and trade that would be grand.

Unlike perhaps our lofty metropolitan elites, the mainland Europeans appreciate that Britain is quite different. The mainland Europeans, particularly the French and Dutch, still have bad memories from the war and are willing to do anything to avoid a repeat. They truly believe the EU is responsible for keeping the peace, whereas in the UK we think that was down to Nato. There are reasons for this.

Britain had the enormous advantage of not being occupied during WWII, which had a major effect on how we viewed the war afterwards. We lost a lot of men and saw our cities bombed, but we never had to deal with the messy compromise of an occupation. The excellent book Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of WWII goes into some detail on this subject, and explains the effects of prolonged occupation on a population. At some point people cooperate, because they have to: the book cites an example of a French baker accused after the war of selling bread to the Nazis. He asks what choice he had, and points out that he was also providing bread to the French population who would otherwise have starved. It discusses the issue of young women who engaged in relationships with the occupying soldiers, and met the full fury of their countrymen when the war was over. One girl protested that as far as she could make out the Nazis were the local government and had been for some time, and plenty of other people were interacting with them. How is having a relationship with a soldier of the de facto regime a crime? She had a point.

Few people in the occupied countries wanted to dwell on matters of collaboration and cooperation after the war: there was a period of retribution, much of it vicious and used as a pretext for power-grabs and the settling of old scores, but the various governments quickly found themselves establishing a semi-believable narrative that made them look good and running with it. To be fair, they had little choice: the late 1940s was not the time for hand-wringing, there were nations to rebuild and Soviets to keep out. This is why the French, even to this day, skip over the small matter of the Vichy regime when celebrating Charles de Gaulle and the heroic Resistance. It’s why the Dutch never point out that quite a few of them welcomed the Nazi occupation initially, seeing them as Germanic cousins. Britain avoided all of this, and their particular tale of heroic resistance and defiance against all the odds was much easier to weave.

Britain also didn’t get wrecked like Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, parts of France, and other countries on the mainland. Our cities took a pounding, particularly London and Coventry, but there was not the sort of devastation seen in those cities which first saw aerial bombardment and then ground fighting as they were liberated. We also didn’t have the hunger: there was a famine in the Netherlands in 1944-5 which claimed the lives of 22,000 people. There were major food shortages in Austria and Germany after the war, and it was years before food supplies were back up and running across the continent again. Britain had rationing, but nobody starved.

The mainland European view of the war is very different from the British: our culture makes light of the war – Dad’s Army, and ‘Allo ‘Allo being two examples – because for us it was a jolly old ruck with the Bosch that we won. Our families, homes, and communities weren’t wrecked, for the large part. So when we talk about keeping the peace in Europe, we’re not haunted by the same memories as mainland Europeans. We saw the priority as keeping the Russians from occupying all of us, hence Nato. If Europe got demolished in the meantime, then meh. Whereas for the Europeans, particularly the Dutch and French, they are equally if not more concerned about keeping the peace among themselves because that is what caused so much destruction last time. It’s hardly surprising, then, that they see the EU as a greater guarantor of peace than Nato.

The way people think, vote, and behave differs wildly between nations, regions, groups, and individuals and there are usually very deep cultural and historical reasons for these differences. It is not a lack of intelligence, information, and values which drive the French to maintain a political and economic system which is unfathomable to an Anglo-Saxon: they simply have a different history and culture than us. This is why I find the self-righteous posturing of London’s elites over Brexit so irritating. They may share pro-EU views with their counterparts in mainland Europe, but they have no idea why. If they did, they’d understand why so many people don’t share their views. They hope that by writing puff-pieces about pro-EU attitudes on the mainland while sneering at their own people they will ingratiate themselves with the former and show themselves to be superior than the latter.

Neither will happen for the same reason I will always be considered a Brit and never a Frenchman: culture and history matter and shapes who you are, even if you detest them and wish you were someone else.

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22 thoughts on “Brexit, Britain, and Mainland Europe

  1. I think there’s also a trade/culture thing. You go to Colmar in the Alsace and it doesn’t look like France. It looks like Germany. You have restaurant menus in 2 languages and people switching from French to German because it’s a nice day out for Germans to go there. To people there, going to Colmar is like someone in Bristol going out for lunch in the Cotswolds. If you run a shop in Lille, you could quite easily get it refurbished by some blokes in Ghent. 50 miles? My neighbour does shopfitting and travels further than that. No-one is going to do that from Calais to England because it’s £200 for every day you work and at least an hour getting across the channel, but far longer if they get nervous about travel. You can’t compete with even lazy French shopfitters.

  2. BiW,

    Indeed, the very fact that Britain is an island makes such a difference to the mindset. The delight in having “no border” between Germany and France seems strange to a Brit who has to negotiate the Channel no matter what political regime is in place.

  3. Mind you, the “no border” argument is not much of an argument for the EU. There was effectively no border in 1900: people swanned about pretty freely in much of Western Europe. The phenomenon of heavily policed borders is courtesy of Kaiser Bill, Herr Hitler, Comrade Stalin, General Franco, and their like.

    Hell, I entered Switzerland in 1967 without showing my passport.

  4. The really committed “pro-Europeans” I meet, particularly the younger ones, have no second (European) language. They’d struggle to order a baguette in a French bakery. Yet they define themselves as ‘European’.

    It’s a peculiar mindset, an almost instinctive denial of English or British identity.

  5. The really committed “pro-Europeans” I meet, particularly the younger ones, have no second (European) language.

    Oh hell, the hardcore Remainers I see on Facebook have no intention of living or working in Europe – they go there only for holidays – and speak only English.

  6. The bit that I don’t get is that to my way of thinking the recent election result did not in anyway change the previous Brexit vote, which was to simply leave the EU. If anything the pro-EU Lib Dems and SNP lost seats with some big scalps in Clegg, Salmon, Robertson and the like taken, the UKIP vote has now went back to the working class long term Labour voters, so based on the election results leaving the EU is still very much the peoples position.

    Even if the Brits crash the negotiations and tell them to Foxtrot Oscar on departure fees what they gonna do, the EU is a failed program and it will only get worse. I reckon it will do the UK a power of good to start believing in itself again and maybe getting back to being a traditional two political party system aint such bad thing either.

  7. based on the election results leaving the EU is still very much the peoples position.

    Indeed, but the metropolitan elites are clutching at any straw they can to avoid Brexit actually happening, which they believe will diminish their status in the eyes of their beloved European elites. I have genuinely no idea why most of them don’t move to France or Germany if they like it so much. That’s pretty much what I did.

    I reckon it will do the UK a power of good to start believing in itself again and maybe getting back to being a traditional two political party system aint such bad thing either.

    Agreed.

  8. “There was effectively no border in 1900: people swanned about pretty freely in much of Western Europe.”

    And the whole world was governed by thirteen empires, which despite their failings managed to maintain administrative order, economic exchange and interdependence of societies. Europe was the worlds principal banker, it’s manufacturer, the consumer of it’s materials, with it’s people, goods and money travelling between countries with relative freedom.

    We seem to do well at making it hard these days.

  9. “…while sneering at their own people…”

    You’d think that after Brexit, Trump, etc. the elites might have noticed that patronising and sneering at their fellow-countrymen doesn’t always achieve the result they seem to expect.

    But apparently it’s just instinctive behaviour on their part, they can’t help themselves, the poor dears.

  10. “But apparently it’s just instinctive behaviour on their part, they can’t help themselves, the poor dears.”

    But think of poor Clegg, we have voted him out and he can’t get a non-job in the E.U. as a consolation… What would Pillock (Kinnock for those that don’t remember Private Eye) and wife have done if they did not have the E.U. to give them a job… Mandy? etc.

  11. What would Pillock (Kinnock for those that don’t remember Private Eye) and wife have done if they did not have the E.U. to give them a job… Mandy? etc.

    Indeed, one of the most infuriating aspects of EU membership is being lectured to by third-rate politicians who their electorates utterly rejected – or their fucking wives!

  12. The French folk I talk to don’t care if we stay or leave. An occasional “ever deeper union” type might welcome us leaving.
    It’s Brussels. They realise that brexit blows a bloody great financial hole in their corrupt cartelist for the centre & bribery for the periphery system. And eventually their own pensions.
    Hence the discussion is framed as alimony payment, not significant stuff like R&D, trade, common rules about medicine and health, etc.
    Reminder: we were never married, we just cohabited. Here’s a fiver. Fuck off.

  13. As for the closing of the non-jobs in the EU, I am pretty confident that those that cant automatically prequalify for commission work will certainly capitalise on the “revolving door” and move into the even bigger corporate or lobbyist sector. They say that the commission is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the EU gravy train. Clegg and co could quite possibly be lining themselves up for plush lobby transitioning roles to oversee the transfer of some lobbying efforts from Brussels to a post Brexit London. The deep pocketed Euro lobbyists would probably prefer the status quo and to stay put in the corridors of the Brussels powerhouse maybe they are the ones that are buying influence from the British Euro tweet squad.

  14. TJ:

    “But think of poor Clegg, we have voted him out and he can’t get a non-job in the E.U. as a consolation… ”

    How the hell did I miss that? Brightens up the evening no end.

  15. The EU is irrelevant to us. Trade is no longer constrained to being with those who live next door.

    As Tim W is fond of saying, the container made shipping so much easier & cheaper. We are an Island – pretty much everything comes by ship. Whether it comes from Rotterdam or Shanghai makes not much difference – the major costs are putting stuff in the container one end & getting it out the other. The length of the bit in between is largely moot, as is clearing customs.

    In the EU, trade is mostly land-based. I can see it would be inconvenient to show papers and pay tariffs if you live in Central Europe, where you can cross several borders in a day. We don’t have that issue.

    As for peace. Well maybe the EU did keep the Europeans from starting another war amongst themselves. All that really means is that those with the urge to rule, usually with no competence in the matter, can now join the EU commission or another EU body, and don’t need to raise an army and invade their neighbours to fulfil their nefarious ends. It’s progress of a sort, I suppose, but it would be much better if we just told the demagogues to fuck off.

  16. “Indeed, one of the most infuriating aspects of EU membership is being lectured to by third-rate politicians who their electorates utterly rejected – or their fucking wives!”

    At least most other countries send “has-beens” to the commission. Britain sends “never-weres”.

  17. The French folk I talk to don’t care if we stay or leave. An occasional “ever deeper union” type might welcome us leaving.

    Exactly. They’re certainly not upset about losing close ties with wankers in London.

    It’s Brussels. They realise that brexit blows a bloody great financial hole in their corrupt cartelist for the centre & bribery for the periphery system. And eventually their own pensions.

    This.

  18. As a sort of cedilla to the above: I’m in Singapore this week, exactly a year after I was last here. I stopped off today to see a customer I last saw.just before the EU referendum, and he reminded me I predicted a leave vote. He got the beer in we’d wagered on the result, and he reminded me that he has said at the time that Leave was the right choice, but he’d thought folks would vote differently.

    He went on to remind me that Singapore had been faced with a similar decision in the 60’s- whether to secede from the Malaysian Federation. Apparently the concerns of people at the time were similar to ours: what would it do to he economy and so on.

    History proved the singaporeans right.

    I’d love to know why the remainers think otherwise.

  19. The “never were” staff at commissioner level is interesting but also applies at other levels as well. People who are seconded to EU institutions are never out best people but very often those we need to find alternatives for but don’t have the energy to manage out. I have seen this four times now over the last five years. EU commission or regulatory body appointments are not going to top people and this inevitably affects the quality of the result for the UK. Other countries don’t practice the same approach so it can be quite frustrating to be told how to do something or about best practice by someone who originates from a country with a market 1/20 or less the size of ours.

  20. I think its fair to say that anyone entering politics as a career will at best and on commencement at least not be motivated by money. This is across all levels and right up the top as no c level executive worth their salt would get out of bed for the chicken feed pays that are on offer. The only exception being Singapore.

    So our best minds will never enter government, with the situation arising that our lower performing and lower paid senior politicians may be more at risk to the influence of bribes and corruption.

  21. The big city UK elites, and university elites seem to contain a lot of people who claim to be pro-Europeans.
    Yet, if asked, they support the NHS health system, support a full time professional fire service, support the vat zero-rating on food and 5% rating for domestic energy, support giving pensioners £300 in one hit rather than the counterfactual of sticking £6/week on pensions, oppose private operators running ambulances, and prefer the UK legal system with its long tradition of common law and prefer the UK planning system. They are unlikely to have a 2nd language.
    Pro-European, my arse.
    It’s the hand outs to rich people they support.
    Or they are just plain ignorant.

    I recently asked a 21 year old Remain voter about Brexit to name a North or West European territory not in the EU – she couldn’t.

  22. My French friends too are affecting a (polite?) indifference to Brexit. I gently point out to them that they may change their tune when they find they will have to take up much of the slack that a £10 billion pa hole in the EU budget will leave, after generations of freeloading.

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