My Special Relationship with the UK

Posted on 21. June 2016

by Christopher Wratil

christopher-wratilChristopher Wratil first moved to the UK for a university exchange year back in 2008. Since then he has spent about half of the time in the country, and the other half in Germany and Brussels.

When I came to the UK eight years ago, ‘Brexit’ was not a recognized term and the EU was low on the country’s agenda. I came for the same reason most EU university students come to the UK: I was seeking high quality education. As it happens my specialization was European Union studies. I aspired to learn from the Brits about their perspective on the Union and Brussels. I soon realized that this was an unrealistic plan: ‘European Governance’ at Oxford had 14 students. I was one of three Germans, we had an Italian, a Czech, a Slovak, two US Americans and a Swiss – but only one British girl. The seminar was lead by a Polish professor and my thesis supervisors were a Dane and a Spaniard. I had arrived inside the ‘EU community’ in the UK. It consisted of people from everywhere – but one place…the UK!

No doubt I got to know some young Brits that had something to say about Europe and the EU, but most of them I met in European networks or abroad – when I was in Brussels or Germany. When the Brexit debate started a few years ago, I had to act. Together with a friend, I started a small Facebook group in which we posted UK tabloid newspaper articles on the EU and fact-checked them. Yet, soon we realized that our British friends were not participating. We got frustrated and told them, ‘You have to fix it yourself – in your way!’ We meant: to prevent any potential Brexit. It was at that time I said to a good English friend of mine, ‘Matt, you are the most pro-European Brit I know’. I will never forget how Matt responded, ‘Chris, I am not ‘pro-European’, I am ‘Europe-interested’’. I was upset because I thought Matt – who was editor of a European online magazine, who had worked in Germany for a European association, and was a cosmopolitan by all definitions – had pandered to anti-EU sentiments. Did he fear to come out as a pro-European in front of his British friends?

Today I understand that Matt’s choice of term hit the nail on the head. Britain is not divided into anti and pro Europeans. Few people in the UK would call themselves ‘pro Europeans’ and few would concede to be ‘anti Europeans’ (not even Nigel Farage). Britain is much more divided into those people that are interested in learning about and understanding Europe and the EU, and those who would rather keep their British perspective and evaluate the world with it. I do not mean that some people do not inform themselves about the arguments in the referendum – both sides and most Brits do so intensely! But the difference is whether one shows genuine interest or simply wants to point out all the mistakes. Matt belongs to those that try to understand why the EU is a system that is sometimes sluggish, why it muddles through, why it appears bureaucratic. Others simply see what they want to, contrast it with their image of how Britain is, and conclude that Europe cannot be good because it is different.

During my time in Oxford I repeatedly heard from some British friends that they feel closer to the Indians and Bangladeshis they met in Oxford than to their continental European friends. ‘Our cultures are more alike’ was a key sentence that invoked the binding power of the Commonwealth. I have always been perplexed by such sentences. Some of these Brits had never been in India or Bangladesh. Hence, it made no sense to chat with them about how one feels in a Hindu temple in India, in the slums of Mumbai, or when you are offered 30 camels by a smiling man in Rajasthan who wants to buy your “wife” (the blond female friend travelling with you). The Indians and Bangladeshis I met in Oxford almost exclusively belonged to their country’s upper class. Many of them resembled Brits without a noticeable difference. But they did not represent the Indian subcontinent I knew from my travels – as I have not lived in the Brussels they talk of in the UK.

For me this story is my personal parable for British discomfort with Europe because it entails so many aspects in which many Brexiters ardently believe: the idea that Britain’s real destiny is the lost Empire and the ‘Anglosphere’ and not Europe. The assumption that one can draw conclusions about the world (other countries, the EU, Brussels) from what one experiences in the UK. The wish that others are similar to oneself. And finally, the hope that the British can still be friends with other Europeans – even if they tell them that Europe is not their choice. This perspective must be respected and I think it is inherently a friendly one; but it simply shows that many Brits do not believe in a common European destiny.

Despite these personal stories from my surroundings, one has to keep in mind that young Brits are the most supportive of EU membership. Below 30 years of age more than double as many want to vote ‘remain’ than ‘leave’. Young Brits are more Europe-interested: straightforward bashing of Brussels and its institutions is less common than among older citizens. Fear of terrorist attacks, war, and the loss of the City of London as financial hotspot in Europe are key concerns of the under 30s compared to older voters. In addition, young people more readily expect economic benefits from the European market and from the free movement of people in the EU. But the young are just a fraction.

Current polls and the trend in polls over the last weeks indicate that ‘leave’ is gaining ground and the Brexit has become a real possibility. I am wondering, ‘How will I react if they decide to leave?’ I can afford this active formulation, I do not have to ask: ‘What will happen to me if they decide to leave?’ I have no family or dependents in the UK, I do not belong to the hated group of Romanians and Bulgarians that should leave first, and I have not escaped a country in distress like so many South Eastern Europeans that have come to the UK to make a living they cannot make at home anymore. The closer the 23rd of June approaches, the more I think that if the UK leaves I might do the same to it. Certainly, there are personal reasons involved in such a decision, but on more principled grounds I have two reasons that tell me to leave:

Democracy. I wish that people can make a difference in democracy and select between real choices. If the Brits decide to leave, I wish it would have real consequences. We do not need a ‘Greek referendum’, in which people vote ‘A’ and the government implements the opposite. For me the most horrifying idea is that the UK government and its European partners could do everything in the break-up negotiations to dilute the impact of Brexit. For most Brits stopping and – in best case – repatriating immigrants is the key issue to vote leave. This mandate must be respected and I should probably contribute my share by leaving.

Complicity. Thanks to a decent income in some hypothetical graduate job I would probably be able to stay in the UK if I wanted. A lot of my EU friends working in the UK now send around Facebook posts, in which they beg their British friends to vote for remain so that they can stay in the country. And while most of their British friends will probably vote to remain anyway, most of them think ‘don’t worry dude, we won’t throw YOU out’. It is hard to imagine that the UK will throw out EU university graduates – their French bankers and German scientists. Instead, it will focus on Eastern Europeans in low income jobs. Hence, I might say, ‘I am not affected, I don’t care’. But the truth is I do feel European and I personally identify with the Union. Throwing out Romanians and Bulgarians would be equivalent to the German state of Bavaria throwing out people from Brandenburg and Saxony-Anhalt. Would I, as a guy from North Rhine-Westphalia, like to live in such a Bavaria and be complicit? I certainly would not feel comfortable.

On Friday I will know whether I have to react. For a few weeks now, my ‘Europe-interested’ friends raise my hopes. They post pictures of themselves on Facebook campaigning for remain in ‘I’m in’-shirts – has their interest turned them into ‘pros’ after all?