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Davis, California

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Brexit: Experiencing a national embarrassment while abroad

Living in an anti-Brexit city in a pro-leave country

Recently, a reporter from a French radio program approached a friend and me while we were browsing a farmers’ market to ask us about Brexit. We were both hesitant to answer — after all, the extent of my Brexit knowledge was mainly comprised of the Brexit-centric New Yorker issue I read while en route to London. But then she shifted gears away from our own opinions on the topic to ask us what we saw as the opinions of Londoners. So I answered, saying I thought it was a national embarrassment.

My friend was more impartial in her answer, saying that we, as Americans, didn’t have much room to criticize given our own seemingly-unending political embarrassments back home. For a while, I regretted my frank answer, thinking that I’d spoken out of place. Now, however, having spent a month in London and having learned more about the topic, I stand by it, because it seems more true than ever.

Londoners seem to have gone out of their way to make their anti-Brexit stance clear — the city is covered with so many fliers and stickers that their political position is unmistakable. As a city that embraces its diversity and multiculturalism, it shouldn’t be surprising that its residents are so opposed to both the move to leave the European Union and to the mindset and hostilities that have led to the current state of affairs.

While those who voted in favor of Brexit might have had a number of reasons for doing so, including the desire to reclaim British sovereignty or frustration with the EU’s regulations, the concerns over a recent wave of immigration to the UK played a significant role in the final decision to leave the EU.

Between 1991 and 2011, the pace of migration to the UK reached unprecedented levels. Since joining the EU in 2004, an estimated 70 percent of migrants to the UK emigrated from Poland and several other nearby Eastern European countries still experiencing reverberations from the fall of communism. Another significant population of migrants to the UK during this period emigrated from Somalia to seek asylum from a decades-long armed conflict and humanitarian crisis at home.

Just as a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment played a large role in the election of Donald Trump, the same hostilities fueled the success of Brexit. And just as Trump’s election helped normalize the white supremacist and racist ideologies intrinsically linked to anti-immigrant rhetoric that has, in turn, led to an acute spike in hate crimes at home, the UK has also seen an increase in racial discrimination linked to Brexit.

Since my arrival in the UK, people in my program and I have had a number of run-ins with Brexit-related protests — some good, some not-so-good. Over a dozen students in my program attended a pro-Brexit rally with their professor. At the rally, a pro-Brexit protester overheard their American accents and began to curse at one student.

In the City of Bath, located outside of London, a large group of protesters who could only be described as quaint (they were wearing blue felt berets with a circle of gold stars around the brim to resemble the EU flag… adorable, right?) willingly engaged in a friendly chat with us about the topic.

One of the most poignant, Brexit-related instances came from a moment of ignorance. On our second day in London, during a bus tour, a student asked our tour guide about a protest outside the Palace of Westminster. “It’s about Brexit,” he replied. The student paused, then asked, “What’s Brexit?”

Our tour guide initially laughed in response. Perhaps he was shocked or even a bit horrified. Or maybe he was a bit relieved. I tried to think what my reaction would be if someone genuinely asked me, “Who is Donald Trump?” or “What do you mean by ‘Russian hacking?’” I might, for a second, cherish that bit of pure naivete and wish, for a minute, that I could also escape into the innocent land of unknowing, rather than the sort of unavoidable unknowing which now hangs over the heads of people like my gracious tour guide.

This state of unknowing that has hung over the UK like a dark cloud since the vote in 2016 was recently prolonged. Earlier this month, the proposed withdrawal agreement was also rejected for a third time.

Brexit might seem comparable in its significance to our disastrous 2016 presidential election, but while many Americans might not see the immediate effects of the decisions made by a new president in their personal lives, Brexit will likely affect everyday life (in an abrupt manner). There are concerns about a hit to Britain’s economy as well as concerns over potential mark-ups on prices of imported goods, such as produce, medicine and healthcare. Ultimately though, it’s impossible to know exactly what will happen when Brexit occurs.

Although Brexit was supposed to go into effect four days after my arrival in the UK in March, the deadline to reach an agreement was recently extended until Oct. 31. And what’s spookier than Halloween? A “no-deal” Brexit.

Without a withdrawal agreement, there will be no honeymoon phase after Brexit takes effect. This means that in place of a transition period, the UK would part ways with the EU abruptly. This could very well mean the UK leaves the EU without any agreements over the rights of EU citizens in the UK or vice versa and without any sort of agreements in place over minute, mindless details like planes crossing borders.

“Every area of the economy needs to be ready for no deal,” stated one BBC article. “We keep being told that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. But this could be the biggest gamble of all.”

A no-deal Brexit is not only a slap in the face to those who were in favor of staying but also to those who voted in favor of leaving — those who believed the promises made in 2016 that Brexit would be fast, painless and easy. It’s a national embarrassment.

Written by: Hannah Holzer — hrholzer@ucdavis.edu

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual columnists belong to the columnists alone and do not necessarily indicate the views and opinions held by The California Aggie.

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