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I lost my trousers in Brussels the other day. It’s not as exciting a story as you might think. The usual thing: brought a spare pair, cleared out of the hotel room early, forgot to check the wardrobe properly after packing my overnight bag. Easy mistake to make, and I made it.
A lot of things can go wrong for outsiders in Brussels. I always seem to get lost there. It’s not like any other city I’ve ever visited. What language do they speak? Who are the real locals? Where am I?
Perhaps similar feelings of bewilderment lie behind traditional British scepticism, and confusion, about the European Union. We were a bit late to the party and, in spite of trying quite hard to keep up, have never really felt like a full family member.
There is quite a lot to be sceptical about. Meetings that are conducted slowly in clunky and impoverished English. All those headsets and simultaneous translations. Compromise and continental vagueness instead of crisp Anglo Saxon certainty. It could probably drive you mad after a while.
And yet europhile Remainers like me are still in shock – some would say denial – over the verdict of June 23rd. We can’t quite believe it, and don’t want to believe it. We are – how can I put it? – bouleversé.
Remember that feeling you had when you went inter-railing, if you were lucky enough to do so? Lack of sleep and food and washing facilities all contributed to a similar sense of bewildered excitement and trepidation. Standing in front of giant departure boards announcing trans-continental journeys: all Europe lay open to you, at least up to the Iron Curtain, and even then it was possible to cross over. Where shall we go today, you asked the group: Antwerp, Paris, Lyons, Hamburg, Munich, Rome, Venice, Vienna…? It was a bit like staring at the dial of one of those old radio sets which offered up equally exotic and distant locations: Hilversum, Luxembourg, Limoges, Budapest…
This was the Europe that so many of us signed up for. A Europe of magnificent architecture, beautiful scenery, better weather, great food, musical languages, elegant, good-looking people, cheap beer and wine, culture. This was our new home, our newfoundland. We wanted in. Yes, we also wanted to win at football, Eurovision and Jeux sans Frontieres (delicately translated into English as “It’s a Knock-out!”). But the war was over, a century of bloodshed and violence was being put behind us, and we were entering a world of peace, economic growth, and hope.
As my Eurostar train raced through northern France on the way to Brussels, before the calamitous trouser-losing incident, it finally hit me. Around me were the fields that formed bloody battlegrounds twice in the last century. The European project was a conscious attempt to make similar wars impossible in the future. In that aim the project had been successful (yes, ok, with NATO’s help). We had learned, finally, the lessons of the 20th century: that nationalism and aggression were a deadly combination, and that co-operation would be necessary to stop war breaking out again.
The European Union of 28 member states has become a clunky, slow and frustrating place. It is not supple enough. It is in need of reform. And the communautaire spirit is not what it was: ask the Greeks.
There were grounds for scepticism and a case for Brexit. The best bits of the Leave argument were informed by optimism about the future, and a desire to break free of unnecessary constraints.
But what drove millions to vote Leave were narrower, domestic concerns. In one sense the massive support for Leave had little to do with Europe at all. Rather it was a cry of anger and defiance against a complacent, London-based elite that preached the virtues of growth without ensuring that the benefits of growth were experienced or shared more widely. That, and the failure over two decades to make a positive, persuasive case for Europe, led to the 52:48 win.
Remainers had it coming. But now, I fear, Britain has it coming too. It is not scaremongering to point out that negotiations are going to be brutally complicated, and lengthy. The 27, who still more or less (mostly more) believe in the EU, cannot allow the UK an easy departure. And now that Article 50 is set to be triggered by the end of March, the 27 can hang tough. They are politicians too. It is naïve to hope that supposed self-interest will force EU leaders to cut Britain some slack. They will willingly take a bit of pain to sign a deal that reinforces the EU and plays well at home.
Britain voted Leave, but did not specify what kind of Brexit it wanted. The ballot paper did not allow for specifics. So our sovereign parliament must have a say on what shape Brexit takes. That’s what the vote was partly about, wasn’t it – parliamentary sovereignty? We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the EU in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a UK level with a UK state exercising a new dominance from Westminster, as Mrs Thatcher almost said.
Some Remainers will not give up hope that, when the realities of Brexit become apparent, many people in this country will start asking for a chance to think again. When the £350m a week fails to show up in the NHS accounts, when Turkey declares it has ruled out the idea of joining the EU, questions may be asked. The latest mis-selling scandal? More pressingly, if uncertainty scares off investors and a sinking pound puts up food, petrol and energy bills and the cost of next year’s summer holiday by 20%, sentiment may change. That’s for the future. In the meantime the government will have to let a bit more light in on the Brexit process, as a matter of principle.
On the journey home from Brussels, saddened and minus a perfectly serviceable pair of trousers, I looked out of the Eurostar window again at the silent fields of northern France.
It was dark.