“This is an event like the fall of the Wall.” That’s what my friend Marco wrote to me about Brexit. He and I have been friends since 1994, and would never have found ourselves in Prague had it not been for the fall of the Wall.
The fall of the Wall was a great thing. There is nothing great about Brexit. Those in Britain who believe they are ‘getting their country back’ have believed a fairy tale. They cannot even agree what it means, but when I listen to them describing it, I don’t like the sound of what they describe. It does not sound like the Britain I was proud to grow up in.
Unfortunately Brexit isn’t just a British issue. The consequences will affect all of Europe, including the Czech Republic. Unscrupulous politicians in Britain have used it to gain power for themselves and push their political agenda. Similar politicians will try to do the same here and across Europe.
So it might help if I offer my analysis of why Britain voted Brexit. Of course there are many professional writers who might do this better, but maybe I offer a different perspective; that of someone who moved away, but stayed in touch. In particular, for months I argued about Brexit on an internet forum with my “tribe”; those who support the same football team, but in every other respect are different, coming from all kinds of occupations and social class. It was a mixture of qualitative and quantitative research, including, finally, a poll of voting intentions. Over 800 people took part and the result was 53-47 for Remain. It too was wrong.
There is one factor to point out about the UK straight away. When I left, in 1993, it was already a crowded island. 54 million lived there. It has now increased to 65 million, an increase of more than the entire population of the Czech Republic. This put great strain on the infrastructure: the health service (NHS), the transport system, schools and housing. It is the fault of successive governments that they failed to invest in the infrastructure; but it was inevitably the poorer people, and poorer parts of the country, which felt the consequences most. In addition when big waves of migrants came, they tended to settle in the same places, naturally. Many of them could only afford to live in the poorer areas too.
But the British have always had a problem with being “European”. Even in my old advertising agency, containing some brilliant minds, nobody seemed to be as interested as I was in what was happening in November 1989. When the Wall fell, and I started talking about moving to one of the new DDB offices which would be opening, people thought I had gone mad. In the optimism of the early 90s, some of my ex colleagues tried to get involved within DDB Europe, trying to teach the skills and benefits of account planning. But when they were not immediately welcomed with open arms, they quickly retreated back to London where they felt appreciated. That was the period when Skoda’s UK management insisted there must be a British advertising campaign for the brand. It was brilliant, but initially in Wolfsburg it nearly caused apoplexy among the VW management – until they saw the sales figures.
In the background there always seemed to be some politicians who did not like the EU. Nearly all were from the Conservative party, but obviously conservative in character; the type of Brits who do not feel comfortable in Europe, seem surprised that people there don’t speak English, and do eat strange food. One such was a Member of Parliament called Bill Cash. He was obsessed with the EU, and Sky TV gave him lots of air time. My wife used to burst out laughing the moment his face appeared on screen. Then Tony Blair and New Labour came to power, and he disappeared from view. Cool Britannia was doing well, and immigrants were needed. Blair felt confident enough to allow Czechs and Poles free movement from the first day of accession to the EU.
After the 2008 crisis, people looked for some scapegoats. The bankers would have deserved to be the scapegoats but somehow got away without punishment. Meanwhile Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU and many of them headed to the UK, just when the country was struggling with recession. This created a fertile political ground for UKIP, led by Nigel Farage. He was Bill Cash with charisma. The EU was the scapegoat and immigration was the problem.
David Cameron, the Prime Minister since 2010, had to confront the problem that many of his own MPs were Eurosceptic – and they now had the choice of defecting to UKIP. In trying to show them that he was going to be “tough” in Brussels, he made a fatal mistake. In 2009, he withdrew the Conservatives in the European Parliament from the big bloc of centre right parties (EPP-ED) which included Merkel’s CDU. He set up a new more right wing bloc. His partner in this was none other than Mirek Topolanek and ODS, and they were soon joined by PiS of Poland. What do you suppose Angela Merkel thought of that? Do you think she and the others such as the Dutch had forgotten this, when Cameron came begging for concessions for Britain last year? He had already committed himself to a referendum. He declared himself satisfied with his “concessions” and pledged to campaign to Remain in the EU. But I never felt his concessions would be enough to satisfy the “Eurosceptics”, because immigration was their main theme and there was nothing new that would allow the UK to stop EU citizens from arriving.
The problem with arguing for remaining in the EU is that it is not easy to summarise, and turn into political slogans. By comparison “Take back control” sounds very alluring.
Cameron gave his ministers freedom to campaign as they wished, but was still dismayed when Boris Johnson and Michael Gove decided to campaign for Brexit. In Johnson’s case in particular the choice was driven purely by personal ambition. He knows how to make people like him. But neither he nor Gove could lay out a clear vision of what exactly a Brexit would look like. In the early days, it seemed that Johnson thought we could scare the EU into further concessions, and there would be no need for Brexit at all. But he quickly backtracked, and pretended he never said it. Typical of the man. Otherwise they had no common policy. In particular they could not explain whether or not we would stay in the Single Market. Norway and Switzerland are in it, despite not being in the EU, because they need it for economic health. But in return they must accept free movement of labour and many EU regulations. If the UK wants a “Norway” relationship with the EU there would be no new restrictions on migration from the EU. In the early weeks of the campaign it was clear that Brexit was losing the argument on the economics so it just focused on two things; the immigration problem (without being clear about the answer to it), and the alleged amount of money Britain would save by not sending money to the EU. It grossly exaggerated the amount , and claimed the money would be spent on the NHS. Not enough people noticed that Gove and Johnson are idealogically opposed to the principle of the NHS. Gove had previously argued that it should be privatized.
Many of the people who were susceptible to these simplistic arguments were natural supporters of the Labour Party. But this party had voted as leader a controversial veteran socialist who clearly did not really believe in the EU. His almost invisible support for Remain has now caused a rebellion within his own party, and he will probably lose his position as leader. Too late.
Cameron made two more mistakes before the referendum. There is a ridiculous rule that British citizens lose their right to vote if they leave the country for more than 15 years. He resolved to change it, but did not push it through in time for the referendum. I think that lost around 300-500,000 votes for Remain. There was also a demand to lower the voting age to 16. He ignored it.
Even on the day of the election it seemed that a narrow win for Remain was the likely result. In the event the main Remain support came from London, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Further analysis showed that the support was highest among the young and best-educated. The oldest and least well – educated were those that bought the Brexit lies.
The next day, David Cameron effectively resigned. It was noticeable that this shocked the Brexiteers in his own party. Slowly the impression emerged that Gove and Johnson had never really expected to win, and had no real plan for the next steps. I think they expected to become the puppet-masters with Cameron dancing on their strings. Cameron was not going to accept that, and I respect him for stepping down, even though his many mistakes have brought us to this grievous situation.
There is no space here for me to set out in more detail why I believe the UK should have voted to Remain, and why I believe in the EU. Nor is it yet easy to speculate on what happens next. But to any Czech friends who may be thinking that “Czechit” might be a good idea, I would ask you to think about these things:
– the UK is a net contributor to the EU. The Czech Republic is a net beneficiary
– the UK is currently absorbing around 150,000 migrants a year from other EU countries. I doubt there is net migration at all into CZ from the EU
– Britain does have trade with many other countries, whereas CZ is very focused on Germany
– While I doubt the UK can negotiate any special deal with the EU, it certainly has more chance of doing so than CZ has
– Putin likes Brexit. Very few UK citizens understood why, or cared. I am sure Czechs know better than
In the meantime I see nothing but threats to our economic and political security as a result of Brexit. By ‘our’, I mean us, in the Czech Republic. I am here thanks to the fall of the Wall, and the EU’s influence in helping the Czech Republic return to its place in the heart of a democratic, peaceful Europe. I will now be applying for Czech citizenship. The “island monkeys” as the Germans call the Brits, can leave the EU if they want. I have no intention of doing so.