For the second episode of our UK-pen-pal project, where young Europeans can share their view on Brexit, we teamed up with a political science student from France and a language professional from Britain. The vague prospects of Brexit were at the center of part I. This time, our pen pals discuss the benefits, disadvantages and prejudices of a united Europe.
A Correspondence between Camille Duserre and Patrick von Gehm
Birmingham, March 29, 2017
My name is Camille, I’m 19 and a French politics student doing an exchange year in Birmingham.
My initial feeling about Brexit was deep sadness coupled with a lack of understanding. I knew British people were not particularly happy with the EU and how it works. But I thought they would see all the benefits the European Union brings to its member states. The ability to move, work, study and travel without barriers: for that reason alone I think the EU is a great thing. I’m feeling fully European, maybe even more than French, and I know it was not especially the case for British people.
But I feel like the voice of young people has not been heard. Most of the people who voted to leave the European Union were old people and not representative of the future of Europe. And now, it’s the day when the UK officially triggers Article 50 and I still think that it’s a pity that the government decided to leave the EU, which has always been ready to accept various British opt-outs such as Schengen or the Eurozone.
The European Union means a lot for many young people. At my British university, six months after the referendum, I’ve found only two students who voted to leave the EU. For me, people cared too much about immigration, without looking at the potential damages that leaving the EU will bring. The Leave campaign was mainly based on the criticism of immigration, which appealed to many British people because the most important reason for them was to take back control. The fact is the UK is leaving the EU without any guarantee that immigration will be controlled or reduced, or that any trade deals will be reached. It seems to me that there is no real plan.
Theresa May considers that she will be able to negotiate favourable trade deals with other countries, but nothing is sure yet. And the EU will not be indulgent with the UK, especially if the UK keeps on trying to develop stronger ties with the USA of Donald Trump. As Francois Hollande warned, the UK will have to give up all European perks after Brexit. So, what’s the solution then?
The economic future is uncertain, but people still care about immigration. I think that immigrants are necessary to the country and that is a mistake to consider they should not be welcomed. They can be a driving force for the economy as well as a multicultural society. Furthermore, they have potential that can be developed. I saw data explaining that now the UK has more job vacancies than potential claimants. So if the UK wants to fill these vacancies, it must find people elsewhere in the world outside its own country. Immigration is needed in the UK, but it seems to me that most of the British people don’t understand that.
Most of the people who voted to leave come from areas where the population is predominantly British-born and has no real regular contact with immigrants, often far away from immigration hotspots like London. This is something I can’t really understand, I think it was a vote based on fear rather than on reasoning. Maybe it can be seen as a protest vote, and maybe organising a referendum on such a complex thing was not a good idea, even if people’s voice is important.
Now we’re facing a more and more divided Europe, when all we actually need is a united one. We risk to lose other member states if nothing is done to reform the European Union.
Berlin, May 26, 2017
Thank you for sharing your perspective about Brexit. Sorry for not writing back to you sooner, but ironically, as you wrote to me expressing your sadness about the UK leaving the EU, I was in the middle of an extremely busy patch working on the road as an educational tour manager, sharing my passion for the culture, history and peoples of Europe with American teenagers.
Now, I’ve finally got some down time because I’m on a seven hour bus ride from Berlin to Warsaw. There, I’ll be living out the ideal of European integration, going on holiday with a group of eight friends from six different European countries: England, Germany, Ireland, Poland, Spain and Wales.
Like you, I identify more strongly as European than as British or German (my two nationalities), and I’ve personally hugely benefited from and enjoyed the freedoms of movement that comes with being an EU citizen. So naturally I felt great sadness at the decision for the UK to leave the EU. But I’m also well aware that my perspective and privileged situation are far from universally shared. Many people in the UK don’t have strong ties with the rest of Europe, or even a general interest in or understanding of what the EU is and does. So the fact that a majority of UK citizens voted to leave is not unfathomable to me.
You say that you felt a lack of understanding at the result of the referendum. I think, sadly, a lack of understanding was a general theme of the whole debate. The question on the ballot paper for the referendum was: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”
Which for such a seemingly straightforward question is actually deceptively extremely difficult, taking into consideration such a wide range of complicated factors, that for a lay person to try to accurately weigh up the pros and cons seems hopeless. I think it is fair to say when people voted in this referendum they didn’t fully understand the consequences, and I include myself in that. I have the sense that many people were not trying to rationally answer the difficult question on the ballot paper, rather they were answering the question “do you like the EU?”, which is an easy question to answer, because it doesn’t require any understanding nor sophisticated analysis. It just requires a gut feeling.
I can’t be angry with the people who voted leave on what I assume to be gut feeling though. My anger is reserved rather for the politicians who stoked anger and fear with misinformation and who explicitly encouraged people to vote with gut feeling rather than reason. The anti-intellectualism of people in positions of influence such as Michael Gove who made the claim that “Britain has had enough of experts”, was especially upsetting.
But if I’m honest with myself, my vote to remain wasn’t totally rational either, but largely influenced by my emotional attachment to my identity as a European and general alignment with the ideals of international cooperation. It certainly wasn’t because of a genuinely sophisticated grasp of issues such as the comparative economic advantages of belonging to a supranational organisation like the EU.
But as time passes, the sadness is subsiding in me and I’m feeling less pessimistic. As part of my work, I introduce the European Union to American teenagers, who usually have almost no knowledge of the EU whatsoever. This allows me to step back from the current uncertain times and take a longer term view, appreciating the phenomenal achievements of European cooperation. To come from the aftermath of the bloodiest conflict our earth has ever seen to the prospering and intertwined European societies we enjoy today is something to be celebrated. Even without Britain as a formal EU member, I’m optimistic about the continued long term success of the European project and the ability to maintain strong ties between Britain and the rest of Europe.
Warm regards from Poland,
Birmingham, June 5, 2017
I’m glad to see that Europe is still a living unity allowing people from several countries to meet, share thoughts and travel together. Even if many people are sceptical about the benefits of the EU, the European spirit is not dead. I think the most important thing is to show to people what a united Europe can do and how it can be a benefit for everyone. I’m still convinced that too many see the flaws and not the huge advantages. I have just finished my Erasmus year and so far it was the most incredible year of my life, thanks to the EU.
But I agree with you when you say that these are privileges. A lot of people cannot benefit from the freedom of movement or the Erasmus experience, and this must change. I think every student should be able to leave his or her home country for one year and go study or work elsewhere in Europe. And more generally, Europe must improve its communication in order to reach more people, and make them understand what Europe is and what it means to be European. What are the insufficiencies and what are the advantages. What has been done and what is still under construction?
I also agree with your point of view regarding the referendum. If people were not fully able to answer the referendum question, it was because of this lack of communication within Europe. People didn’t have the necessary information to understand all that was at stake behind the question. Not because they are ignorant but because people had to decide with little information and were forced to rely on political campaigns and information rather than an actual situation.
And the way the campaigns were led is also to blame, in my opinion. That is because the campaigns focused on too specific and scaremongering issues like economic or immigration values, but never on the specificity of the EU membership and what it means concretely. For people who already knew little about Europe, it was much easier to transform the complex referendum question into the one they really wanted to answer: “If you don’t know, say no.”
I’m not angry with the people who voted to leave, but I still have the feeling that this decision was stolen from the hands of the youth. Because a lot of them voted to remain and were overrun by people who are not the future of Europe. I’m not saying that only the youth should have voted, but only that this is a pity for the ones who truly believe in Europe. I still recognize the responsibility of the politicians though, as I explained before.
If I feel emotionally attached to Europe just like you, I would have chosen to remain also. Because I’m sure Europe can be reformed, and I feel like the European advantages are not only about travelling freely or being an Erasmus student. I think Europe must become less complicated and simplified on the administrative level. Furthermore, European countries should not develop all at the same time in the same way, but rather follow their own path to create a multi-speed Europe.
I think that being part of Europe is an economic opportunity, but that maybe we should become less dependent from the USA. I strongly believe in the future potential of Europe, and I want to believe reforms will be made. For this, we have to want it and decide for it, not by leaving but by involving ourselves in this process. And the EU can help by informing and communicating with its citizens.
That’s why I’m optimistic about Europe, because I see what has been done and what can be achieved, and because I saw the pride of being European among my friends and among the people. I’m just hoping that things will not get worse with the Brexit negotiations, because I think no one wants to be indulgent with the UK. And Theresa May seems determined to lead a hard Brexit rather than a soft one.
Still, I want to remain as hopeful as I am.
Kind regards from France,
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.
Camille is a French student in the field of politics and international relations. She feels widely European, wants to travel as much as she can, and intends to become a journalist or work in an international organisation that deals with conflict and risk management. Camille spent a year in the UK during her Erasmus mobility program, where she was able to observe the direct consequences of the Brexit-vote.
Patrick von Gehm
Patrick is a 30 year old dual British and German citizen who works managing educational tours for teenagers all over Europe. Having grown up and gone to university in the UK, largely out of touch with German language and culture, he spent the last three years discovering his German roots in Berlin. Patrick has recently moved to Madrid on an immersive Spanish learning mission and is thoroughly relieved that there isn’t a dative noun declension in sight.