UK Pen Pal: A Candid Correspondence on Brexit

This project was born from the idea to bring young people together from across Europe and let them exchange letters, where they can discuss Brexit and share their feelings and concerns about it. We want to couple a pal from the UK with a pal from one of the remaining 27 EU member states and try to connect Brexit supporters with Brexit opponents.

A Correspondence between Rowan Emslie and Saúl Paiz

 

 

Berlin, February 11, 2017

Dear Saúl,

It is difficult to know where to begin when it comes to Brexit. There is no plan. The government seems to lurch from one poorly rehearsed announcement to another, while the opposition falls over itself in an attempt to claim the upper hand.

The referendum campaign ostensibly asked people to decide on Britain’s involvement in the EU, but it isn’t clear what they actually ended up voting for. Is Brexit about immigration? Is it about EU bureaucrats meddling with British affairs? Is it a Trump-style declaration of dissatisfaction with the ruling elites? Or a protest against the neoliberal era more generally? Despite all the months that have gone by, nothing seems to be getting any clearer.

Of course, lack of clarity can be damaging, sometimes more so than a malignant ideology. Economic markets plummet when faced with uncertainty. One of the scariest things about the Trump administration has been the feeling that all the rules have been washed away. Anybody who knew how things worked has been shunned. Advisors don’t get a look in. The post-truth world is run by shadowy figures with no experience of doing the jobs they’ve been given and, perhaps, absolutely no intention of undertaking their allotted tasks. It isn’t politics as usual where citizens are given a choice between option A, B or C.

The various outcomes of the Brexit negotiations all seem to be disastrous in one way or another. The millions of people who voted in the referendum for all their different reasons are very unlikely to be happy with the settlement when the dust finally settles. There doesn’t seem to be any way to make everybody happy, least of all those of us who voted Remain.

Personally, I can’t begin to understand the full-throttle embrace of hard Brexit. What is the game-plan? What outcome does Theresa May’s government hope to achieve? That’s another thing we just don’t know about. My hunch is that May wants to keep it that way, promises are dangerous things to a politician. Hard to keep, hard to recover from, unlikely to ever live up to how people imagined they would be. The smart move is to keep everybody in limbo by coming up with hazy buzzwords like hard Brexit.

But there is one thing that has gotten clearer. A friend of mine remarked that Brexit or rather the fallout out from the Brexit vote, has at least established up one thing: now we have a Prime Minister it is easy to hate. David Cameron was bland. What could we really dislike about him? The lukewarm rejoinders in PMQTs? The fact he said ‘hug a hoody’ with apparently no irony? All the really nasty stuff that came out of his government wasn’t coming from him. He was just the acceptable face of George Osborne’s radical vision of austerity. Cameron was obviously not in control of his own government to provoke genuine emotion. This is a man who managed to turn an inability to quiet down his backbenchers into a full blown constitutional crisis. If he’d ever truly been in control than we likely wouldn’t have had the Brexit vote in the first place. In clearing out for May, unlikeable even in her days as a Cabinet Minister, the public now has a figurehead to turn on. Which is something, I suppose.

Yours,

Rowan Emslie

London, March 1, 2017

Dear Rowan,

I agree that there was no plan since the start of the campaign. The Leave supporters were so focused to highlight the disadvantages of belonging to Europe and intentionally avoid to explain to the public how difficult the process of leaving Europe would be. Once the option to leave won the contest, uncertainty and improvisation happened and the only official message we used to hear from the government for a while was ‘Brexit means Brexit’. Ironically they did not explain it, and even today it is not clear.

I think the discussion around Brexit should have been much wider, but politicians intentionally brought the public’s attention to sensible topics like immigration and sovereignty. More specifically immigration is a key topic that has affected the UK, to the point where towns and cities have significantly changed their demographics with no control at all. Although I was a strong Remain supporter, I can personally understand the dissatisfaction of people who fear that the identity of the UK could be compromised for immigration.

The freedom of movement was part of the European deal since the beginning and it is clear that model has failed. Governments of other leading European states have been so close minded not able to admit the negative impacts of freedom of movement with no control. As a result, the UK wants out of the EU. I feel that Brexit is a consequence of a model that had failed, and more importantly the Europeans still refuse to admit that the European model should be reassessed in order to make it work for all.

After so many months of expectations of more details about the Brexit Plan, it was in January when the Prime Minister finally provided a high level framework about her plan, what some people call hard Brexit because the government did not try to renegotiate the European membership, but to quit and negotiate a new free trade deal that will seek the greatest possible access to the European market. In my opinion, this approach in practise is similar to what the UK government asked from the beginning but branded differently.

I mean they want a new free tax trading agreement with the EU, but controlled immigration and laws. The Prime Minister said that the UK government accepts that the freedom of capital, goods, services and people are non-negotiable for EU member states. Therefore, the UK government will not even try to consider any discussion that entertains the idea of staying in the European Union with a new version of EU membership, because it may result in endless discussions.

In this new approach of Global Britain, the government’s goal is to set up new trade agreements with all countries with the aim to become a global trading nation. Those first contacts with UK allies like the U.S. were built to show the EU that the UK will not be isolated after the UK leaves the European Union.

In the scenario where the negotiations with the EU do not turn out as expected, the Prime Minister warned about the possibility to change the basics of the economic model, if the UK was excluded from accessing the European single market. Among the potential measures to achieve changes on the economic model, a significant reduction of taxes could be one of those measures, leading up to the point that the UK may become sort of a tax haven country just next to continental Europe. These comments can be perceived as a way to put pressure on the EU and threaten it with the drastic actions that the UK government could take, if the EU tries to punish Britain during the negotiation process.

In my opinion, going down to that drastic measure of becoming a tax haven should be considered only as a last resort because it would add even more uncertainty to the economy. But it is certainly the worst scenario where the EU and the UK get into mutual destructive negotiations.

What is clear is that uncertain times will come ahead, because UK leaders will only provide an update to the public if they feel it is not against the national interest. As a result, the lack of information may increase uncertainty and deteriorate the credibility of a Prime Minister that was not initially chosen by the public vote and has expressed her support of the Remain campaign before the referendum, when May said that the country would be worse off out of Europe.

Yours,

Saúl Paiz

London, May 26, 2017

Dear Saúl,

I can only find one strand of continuation in the May government from all the others I knew and studied growing up. The EU has always been there as a scapegoat. Whenever things got tough, it was easy to blame it.

In a way, the EU stood in for immigrants, a catchall political scapegoat that nobody wanted to defend. Except it was better. You could blame the EU without having to make any of the hard decisions that come after blaming immigrants. If a politician blames immigrants, they raise ghosts of all kinds. They will be criticised or lauded. They have an identifiable point of view. They have, at the very least, taken a stance.

But British politicians have never been held to any moral account when it comes to the EU. Nobody ever defended it on idealistic grounds. It was just always there to take a kicking and then quietly carry on. Politicians spent decades refusing to defend the EU and then were somehow surprised that the British public didn’t regard it as particularly important. At no point in the referendum campaign did anybody make the point that the EU stood for something ideological, or that it was a historic region building project. The stakes boiled down to dry economic projections or the spectre of foreigners somehow controlling Britain.

Nobody ever mentioned wars not fought, half a century of peace and prosperity in a region that within living memory came close to tearing itself and everywhere apart. I think a lot of Europeans don’t grasp quite how abstract the EU has always felt to British people. I was a politics loving teenager. I read a lot of news and studied politics in school and at university. We debated between ourselves constantly. But the EU was just … there. I vaguely knew how it worked. I knew when we had joined and I was aware of the broader implications of it. But I think if you’d have asked my A Level politics class to name the EU president, any EU president, you’d have been met with blank looks. Why would we learn who runs the thing? It’s this behemoth, immutable. A bureaucracy to end them all.

It might very well be that the freedom of movement has failed. Although, personally, I think you are rather hastily sweeping it under the carpet given the aging populations in most of Western Europe. But I don’t think that is what British people truly disliked about the EU.

During the Clacton by-election that UKIP won, and it is worth remembering that they have only ever won a single seat, the BBC sent a reporter to talk with the voters. Many of them spoke about immigrants overrunning the town, the streets filled with strange voices and languages. One exchange has stuck in my mind ever since.

‘Who are these immigrants, exactly?’, the reporter asked. ‘Do you mean Polish people?’

‘Oh no’, said the UKIP voter, ‘they’re alright. They work ’til 5, then go down the pub like us. It’s the other ones that are the problem.’

Yours,

Rowan

 

 

The project “UK Pen Pal” is part of Polis180’s programme area Post-Brexit Europe. The project will feature correspondences on the Polis Blog. If you wish to take part in the project or help us find participants who will, feel free to contact david.tschorr(at)polis180.org and adrian.eppel(at)polis180.org.

The Polis Blog serves as a platform at the disposal of Polis180’s members. Published comments express solely the authors’ opinions and shall not be confounded with the opinions of the editors or of Polis180.

Image source: “4d stamp”, sharing user info with oath, http://bit.ly/2hwKgHI, lizensiert unter Creative Commons license 2.0.: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/.

Profile picture Rowan

Rowan Emslie

Rowan grew up in Kingston-upon-Thames, England. He studied social sciences at the University of Bath and obtained a Master’s degree in public policy from the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. Rowan gained significant journalistic experience and spent time living in Uganda and Kenya. He currently lives on the outskirts of Berlin with his girlfriend Maia.

Profile picture Saul

Saúl Paiz

Saúl is an IT consultant originally from South America. He holds a Spanish passport and lives in London, and is personally concerned about Brexit.

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