A Brussels Brit: Brexit referendum is good, painful and necessary

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The UK appeared poised for a divorce from the EU early Friday morning. [c.art/Flickr]

The Brexit campaign has at times been difficult for British people living in Brussels, but the referendum is a vital challenge to the complacency and arrogance all too evident in the upper echelons of the European Union, writes James Crisp.

James Crisp is News Editor of euractiv.com, is British and lives in Brussels. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Being British in Brussels during the Brexit campaign must be what it’s like being an American in Europe.

Except instead of “Trump this” and “Trump that”, you get “What way do you think it is going to go with the Brexit?”

By the way, no one has the slightest idea but, after the 756,321st time, the temptation to answer with a flurry of swearwords is immense.

But I haven’t (yet) succumbed to that temptation because I am British. We are rightly famous for our good manners, especially among those who haven’t met us.

Or at least, we were famous for being polite and reserved. Apart from the murder of Jo Cox, the most painful thing about the campaign has been how rude, racist, and un-British it has been.

We’re meant to be the ones who don’t whine, who keep a stiff upper lip, the ones who know how to behave.

Perhaps a bit cold, reserved and emotionally constipated, but we don’t scream or shout or strike – no, we Brits get on with it. We, “Keep calm and carry on.”

But some of my countrymen seem to think and act like no one in Europe can hear what they’re saying. That is bad manners and bad politics, especially because Europe is listening.

Unintended consequences

An ‘unintended consequence’ of writing, talking and listening about Brexit is that it makes you think of home.

In a strange way you belong more to Britain when you don’t live there, no matter the fierce loyalty I feel to Belgium, where I have been made welcome for the last five years.

I am immensely proud of Britain’s sacrifices in the first and second world wars, and a literature and language, I genuinely think, stands apart.

But Brussels is home now. A friend said to me recently, “You love Belgium but you don’t love the EU.” Well, who can get passionate about a civil service?

It’s not just the rebellious, difficult British who feel that disconnect. There isn’t a mass hallucination or madness that has turned people into Eurosceptics – there has to be a reason.

On Friday (24 June), I will wake up at 4AM (British time) to catch what are expected to be decisive results from Manchester, where I lived for ten happy years. They will be announced from Manchester Town Hall, where I got married.

The feeling that morning I imagine will be a deep seated unease. Like waking with a crushing hangover and knowing something bad happened last night but not being able to remember exactly what.

Who carries the can?

So who is to blame? I don’t think it is the British people’s fault. They richly pay their political masters at national and EU level.

British politicians of all stripes deserve blame for being too cowardly for decades to come clean over the EU and what its goals are.

I also blame the EU institutions and the Brussels bubble. For its lack of democratic accountability – too glibly dismissed by many in this town – and the insidious strain of elitism that runs through the body politic.

You can see it in the eyes of Europhiles. “How could you be so poorly educated as to question the EU and the way it does things?”

You can see it in the defensiveness and barely concealed irritation of the European Commission. “Don’t ask about things you don’t understand – we know best,” is the subtext, before a question is straight-batting with some impenetrable, unusable jargon.

I don’t blame Michael Gove or Boris Johnson. They are just sharks being sharks. You can sneer at “populists” but they can grasp and sway public opinion in a way EU bosses can only dream of. Whose fault is that?

It’s telling the Commission chose not to get involved in the referendum campaign. Their support is a drawback, which speaks volumes.


Despite feeling at times torn, conflicted and even embarrassed, I am glad Britain is having this referendum.

This is real democracy. No wonder it is so feared and mocked by leaders across Europe.

It is the people’s right to do this, despite the depths this campaign has sunk to, and the fact it was mainly called to try and plaster up the divisions in the Tory party.

The EU should be challenged and held to account. It should have its mettle tested in the white heat of public opinion.

Its institutions should welcome that. If you accept both Nobel Peace Prizes and people-trading deals with Turkey, you should have the guts to fight your corner.

This won’t be the last referendum on EU membership. Referendums are contagious. At least this one is finally, nearly over.

We Brussels Brits wonder what Brexit will mean. Will I have to get a visa? Will I get deported? Or worse, slowly become Swiss?

For the record, I voted to Remain in Europe. But Europe is not the EU institutions. It is the people I am lucky enough to know, work and live with. 

Brexit won’t change that.

Archived: Britain votes to leave the European Union

The United Kingdom on Thursday (23 June) voted to leave the European Union, in a result that is likely to rock the 28-country bloc. Follow EURACTIV's live feed for all the latest developments, as they happen.

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