Lucy Cavendish student Marion Beauchamp-Levet talks with fellow Erasmus scholars about the fears and formalities of Brexit.
As an Erasmus student from France, spending a year in Cambridge, I am completely addicted to Brexit’s twists and turns. But what about other EU students? The easiest way to find out is to ask them directly. I have met two Germans doing German studies: Hanna, 28, and Martin, 21; two Italians: Edoardo, 24, studying Italian literature, and Serena, studying English, and Maria, 22, from Spain, studying Law. We meet at a pub on an ordinary Wednesday night and discuss what we think and feel about Brexit. It leads us to talk about how life is like in Britain, the politics of our respective countries and what it means to be European. We are not experts. We have our own ideas as well as biases. But we have found common ground; the first of which being that, to be quite honest, we do not completely understand Brexit.
I start with two basic questions: what do they know about Brexit, about how it has unfolded so far? And do they care about it? It turned out to be more complicated than I had expected. Maria and Hanna are the first to answer. They both know about the deadline of 29 March 2019 and are both quite frustrated at the length and the unexpected developments occurring in the process. Maria admits: ‘I’d say I’m relatively well-informed. I know things and I’m interested in it, but it’s been going on for so long that I kind of lose interest. I’m not on top of it all the time.’ To which Hanna adds that she feels that the British people she knows are in a similar position; they also seem annoyed at the mention of Brexit, wishing that some decision will eventually be made. ‘I find it funny that they apologise. A lot of British people say: ‘I don’t want Brexit, I’m sad, I’m sorry’, Maria notes. As for the others, they have heard bits of information, like the Parliament agreeing to ask for an extension of the negotiations with the EU. But these pieces of news caught in passing amount to little less than general confusion. It captures quite accurately the confusion of politicians in London, as well as Brussels.
The EU is directly involved in Brexit. If you need a deal, it’s because it affects both parties.
As to whether they care about Brexit, or more exactly whether they still care after what has appeared like a never-ending political drama that leaves them weary, the answer is surprisingly adamant: of course, they care! Maria and Hanna tell us how they had both gone to London last October for the People’s Vote and Independent March for the Future. One of the aims of the March was to push Parliament to organise a second referendum on Brexit. Maria explains that we are all in it together: ‘We are directly involved in Brexit. If you need a deal, it’s because it affects both parties.’
The question of a potential no-deal is then raised. Hanna is particularly concerned with the issue of being allowed to cross the border. ‘If there’s a no-deal Brexit, I think they’re going to have a third-state status for the EU, where you need a visa to stay. But we can’t… it takes a long time to get a visa, and I looked it up. You can’t get the application form right now because they do not exist. They have to make them up. And everybody freaks out because there’s going to be a lapse of time to reorganise things.’
Edoardo then steps in and wonders about the status of the UK if Brexit eventually does not happen. ‘It’s surely going to be a weaker one.’, he adds. As I tell him, it reminds me that, where the European Union is concerned, France has had a tendency to go against Britain no matter what was happening (or was it the other way around?). And we were the ones opposing their entry from the beginning. Will we see a similar power balance if Brexit eventually does not happen? It brings us to discuss the reappearance of Churchill in the public debate, and how he is held up as a hero by those who voted for Brexit. Edoardo is struck that the ideas of Churchill and imperialism really mattered in the case of Brexit. It is hard to disagree. What struck me is, first and foremost, how partial the memory of Churchill is. He is mostly remembered for his crucial role in the Second World War, but much less so for his imperialist and racist positions throughout his political career. Secondly, in many of the Brexiteers’ speeches, they seemed to be going back to the ideas that guided the post-war reconstruction – with which part of my own research deals. At that time, British politicians mostly thought they could actually do without Europe because they had privileged relations with the Commonwealth and the United States. Edoardo smiles at the idea and says: ‘It’s totally untimely, that doesn’t make sense at all. That’s something that doesn’t exist anymore. It was 60 years ago!’
But, as Maria has noted, Brexit affects the UK as much as the EU. I therefore ask my friends how Brexit could affect EU-member countries. In France we too have this margin of the population who advocates to leave the EU. Could Brexit affect the EU to the point of it exploding? Serena comments first: ‘I think we have this huge globalisation, and everyone is connected through the internet for everything. So, this movement trying to get back to borders, to national borders, is somehow in reaction to this connection between every place at every moment. You’re breaking everything: time, space. I think every single country is reacting in the same way: there are people who are scared of this massive immediacy that you can have. And of course, Brexit is going to affect us, because the question of the EU was already affecting us before. With Italy there was already a debate at the moment of the shift to the Euro from the Lira. The European Union has always been an issue in Europe.’
Hanna continues: ‘This could be the wind under the right-wing. Right now, it’s a movement in Europe. You can see that right-wing people are becoming more and more popular, even in Scandinavian countries, where they had always been liberal. And in France. And in Germany, and in Poland. And in Italy they already have a far-left-far-right thing, nobody gets it.’ To which Serena replies, laughing bitterly: ‘No left. It’s just right!’
Besides political consequences, Brexit has, as Hanna notes, also much to do with international trade. She raises the point that leaving the European Union without a deal might mean food and good shortages in the UK. Tariffs will in any case make some of them more expensive. ‘There might be a point after Brexit where we don’t get enough things because the UK is not really known for their agriculture…’, she says. She angrily adds that she feels the UK seems to be acting out of pride and does not realise its dependence on other countries for subsistence: ‘They’re getting so much of their food from the other EU countries. Which is a normal thing in our time. Everybody relies on international trade. But it’s just that the UK on its own is not enough.’ She is baffled by the Brexiteers’ attitudes and eventually says: ‘We as European citizens, we don’t care, we’ll survive without you’, immediately adding that this is mostly sarcastic. Maria continues: ‘You hear a lot about Brexit because it’s been going on for so long, that you eventually get cynical about it. But this is actually when people should be coming together. Quoting Pink Floyd, Serena concludes: ‘Together we stand, divided we fall.’
If you listen to a middle-class worker talking about Europe and global politics, and you listen to a student talk about it, the perspective is totally different. Why is that?
We are now reflecting on the reasons, which motivated people to vote to leave the EU. It seems that one of the answers is the question of education. Serena explains: ‘I think it is a problem of education. When you’re in school, you’re supposed to be taught about your rights, your duties. School is supposed to be a place that teaches you how to be a citizen of your country, how you are in the world. School should support you and give you the tools to live in this world, and I think it’s not doing that.’ Edoardo wonders aloud: ‘If you listen to someone talking about Europe and global politics, and if this person is a worker – a middle-class worker – in a factory, in industry, and you listen to a student talk about it, the perspective is totally different. Why is that?’ Maria points out that ‘we are talking from a very theoretical point of view. I’m not sure we can say that for sure.’ Edoardo goes on: ‘Yes, but still: is it because you have a broader knowledge? Is it because our perspective is wider because we are in contact everyday with people from other countries?’
Hanna, who is a member of Learning Together, a Cambridge prison-based education project that brings students from within and outside prison to work and learn together, reflects on her experience with lesser-educated members of the community, and finds that ‘the divide [between people with different levels of education] is even worse in the UK. Everything is centred in London and you feel like there’s nothing outside of it. And when you see the statistics of who voted for Brexit, it wasn’t London. It was the rest of the country, the countryside mainly. We have this issue in other countries as well, in Germany we have a lot of cities, but if you’re looking at Bavaria, you have more right-wing, ‘hard’ Christian people and because they have only one big city – Munich – the rest is just countryside.’ Serena remarks: ‘Every country is like that. We have the same in Italy. But it’s also a matter of history of the country, it’s a matter of history of education, like culture.’
How can we explain that among Cambridge students – most of whom are urban and certainly well-educated – there are some that are in favour of Brexit?
Edoardo asks: ‘Could we consider these people from the countryside excluded from globalisation?’ I answer: ‘In some ways, you could say that, paradoxically, precisely because these people are excluded from the centres like Paris, or London, they are the less directly affected by globalisation in a way. They are not the ones receiving the large influx of migrants for instance.’ ‘But they suffer it.’ Edoardo objects. I agree but cannot help to point out that they also profit from the European Union, for instance through the Common Agricultural Policy. The urban-rural divide is simply not satisfying: how then can we explain that among Cambridge students – most of whom are urban and certainly well-educated – there are some that are in favour of Brexit? Maria earnestly answers: ‘I cannot explain it.’
Martin offers his viewpoint: ‘I don’t know if the perceived problems caused by the EU are not in fact made because it’s always easier to blame an abstract concept. Some commentators explain Brexit as a domestic problem that belongs to the UK rather than the EU which is only a scapegoat. I think that hasn’t much to do with the problems caused by the EU or migrants. Brexit is maybe an expression of general frustration.’ That seems to be the most convincing argument. We keep on discussing why the European Union is used as a scapegoat for economic issues and social inequalities. When looking at Euro-sceptic discourses in France, it is quite striking. They profit from the fact that European policies are often not immediately visible and argue that the EU was an institution of non-elected officials making decisions for the French people. Maria incredulously listens and finally asks: ‘Are you joking? The European law is so beautiful. It’s so elegant!’ We all laugh and Edoardo replies: ‘Yes, but that’s because you study it.’ Yet the problem persists: why is it so common in France to believe that people do not have a say in European politics? Edoardo continues: ‘In Italy as well. The problem is that the EU establishment is not able to talk to people, not to those people who voted for Brexit, or for other populists in the world.’
Yet, at this table, it is undeniable that we all accept the European Union, but what exactly does it mean to us? We all have our opinion on it. Serena declares: ‘I’m always for uniting things. If you manage to deal with your problems with others – as a group, together – you will be stronger. The problem of populism is that it unites people but against something else. The whole purpose of the EU is the common good. It’s supposed to be at least. With populism you don’t have that: you just appeal to people and tell them they are being attacked by someone else. The EU proposes a bigger project, something that is bigger than yourself. Europe is a project you can’t touch.’ Edoardo says: ‘It’s not true, I totally disagree. You can touch Europe when we’re talking to each other. When you talk to a person from another European country, do you feel so different from them? Except for the language…Don’t you feel like there’s a common background in which you’ve grown up? That’s Europe. Nothing else. I’m being very lyrical, but you see the point.’ Finally, Hanna concludes: ‘That’s exactly it. As Erasmus students, at the beginning of the year, we’ve met a lot of people, and because of my bad English, I’ve stayed mostly with German people. It helped a lot. But after a while, I met you and I felt like it was so easy to understand each other compared to when I met people from countries from other continents where it seems so much more different from what I know. It was mind-blowing because until last October, my mind was just Germany. I feel like I finally became a European. I have this very strong feeling that we belong to the same place. Didn’t you all have the same feeling?’ And we did, which is also why Brexit is so difficult to make sense of.
As a final question, I ask what my friends would tell Brexiteers. And here are their answers:
Hanna: You need food!
Serena: You cannot stop progress. You can’t go back, you can’t just go back!
Hanna: We want you to stay and we want to stay, please.
The more we talk about Brexit, the more it seems like a waste.
At the end of the conversation, I have a better sense of what some European students think about Brexit. But, above all, I have a clearer sense of what they think about the European Union and the feeling of belonging to a system that transcends borders, and that has given us the privilege to study in the UK for a year. It is not usually what we talk about, I suppose because we mostly take it for granted. What Brexit has shown us so far is that it is not. But Brexit is not the EU’s sole concern: the rise of populism is actually worrying us more than anything else. In that view, the UK will certainly not avoid that plague by leaving the Union.
The only conclusion I can reach regarding it, however, is that the more I talk about Brexit, the more it seems like a waste. A waste of what was achieved as a Union and of future opportunities. But it is also deeply divisive for the UK and will most probably leave its mark on the country for a long time. Then again, I mostly talk about it with Remainers. I will try to widen my circle in the attempt to make sense of it all and keep on following its twist and turns. And no, they will not stop on 29 March 2019.