LONDON in early October and I’m reassured: nothing appears to have changed since the June 23 vote to take Britain out of the European Union. The bustling city is still home to millions of happy “foreigners” of all colour, creed and race. The cafes, theatres and shops are doing a thriving business. Nobody looks at me with hostility or even interest. This is London as we know and love it.
My passport is stamped by a border policeman who is clearly of South Asian descent. The taxi driver is from Cyprus. The waiter at the trendy restaurant my son and daughter take me to is Dutch. Everybody and everything seem as they were before the Brexit referendum and I chide myself for worrying about the post-Brexit future of one of the world’s most wonderful cities.
Fast forward a few days and I am back home in Brussels, worrying again. As I watch and listen to the news coming out of the British Conservative Party conference, I can hardly believe my ears. British Prime Minister Theresa May has declared war, among others, on foreigners, Europe, global elites, and banks.
The rhetoric is straight out of the first half of the 20th Century. Britain is being taken back in time to an imaginary past when it was prosperous, white and Christian. There is no mention of the days of the Raj — but that may have been an oversight. Clearly, May’s version of Britain is a country stuck in a time warp and uncomfortable with life in an interconnected and globalised world.
Luckily, the prime minister’s views are not universally popular. Those favouring Brexit were and still are in a small majority. Many of my British friends are desperately looking for new non-British passports. There is a friend who is becoming Dutch, others are applying for Belgian nationality. Still others are looking desperately for similar deals. There is anger and confusion. The country May is building seems to be more science fiction than reality.
And London’s Mayor Sadiq Khan is adamant the London after Brexit will remain open to foreigners. “It’s not simply a state of mind or an attitude — it’s what we are: open for talent, for business, for investment,” Khan told the Financial Times newspaper.
But May is on a roll. Britain is going to become a “country that works for everyone”, she underlined at the conference in Birmingham as her party faithful gazed adoringly at her. The camera zoomed in on an uncomfortable looking Boris Johnson, the UK foreign secretary and one-time Leave campaigner. Everybody is laughing, nodding — and some are falling asleep.
May has called the Brexit vote in June a “quiet revolution” and insists that she is now in charge of the country’s future. No, parliament will not be consulted. The people have spoken — and they want to leave the EU.
Only of course it isn’t that simple. The referendum was an advisory one, Britain is still a parliamentary democracy and the Brexit vote is being challenged in courts. Also, while turning her back on foreigners and elites, May still wants to retain the maximum possible access to EU single market while ensuring full control over immigration.
As everyone knows, however, nobody in the EU — least of all German Chancellor Angela Merkel — will allow Britain full benefits of the single market without free movement of people. May has admitted that the upcoming Brexit negotiations — once she invokes Article 50 on taking Britain out of the EU in March next year, are going to be tough, requiring “some give and take”.
Worryingly for Europe’s liberal democrats, May, who was supposed to be in favour of “Remain” in Europe when she was in the last government, has suddenly started sprouting populist rhetoric which is reminiscent of Ukip, the British anti-EU party, of Marine Le Pen and other leaders of the many far-right groups which are proliferating in Europe and America’s Donald Trump.
In Birmingham, she described the June vote as a “quiet revolution”, when people “stood up and said they were not prepared to be ignored anymore”. She promised to change how the British elite related to the working classes. And then came the killer judgement: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere”, she said.
Amber Rudd, the British home affairs minister, added fuel to fire by insisting British companies should hire “British citizens first”. She promised a crackdown on companies, such as minicab firms, that hire illegal migrants, and on landlords that rent properties to people without papers. Only foreign students who graduated at top universities such as Oxford or Cambridge would be able to stay and work in the UK.
Fortunately, there is a backlash over proposals to force companies to disclose how many foreign workers they employ, with business leaders describing it as divisive and damaging.
And as the value of the British pound tumbled to another historic low, Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon described May’s vision of Brexit Britain as a “deeply ugly one” and warned that she could call for a second referendum on Scottish independence.
Britain’s exit talks are to start in March and last at least two years. Expect more poison and posturing from Britain and anger and stubbornness from Europe. Caught in the fire are the country’s young people — and the economy.
However, judging from their performance in Birmingham, May and her team are sanguine about the future and appear to view the upcoming EU negotiations as little more than a traditional Christmas pantomime. They are likely to be disappointed.
—The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels
Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2016