Life After Europe. What's Next for the UK?
Trying to understand the nationalistic madness that has led Britain to try and distance itself from Europe.
It takes a while to adjust to a new reality.
The vote by the UK electorate to leave the EU has resulted in a total paradigm shift. The people of Great Britain now envisage a future for themselves where they will take a path separate to the European collective of countries.
I voted to Remain. I didn't even really contemplate the possibility that there would be a majority vote for Leave. I've been in denial since the result, hoping that there would some sort of dramatic reversal of fortunes, but the reality is that there's now no turning back – the UK has triggered the formalities that will mean it will exit the European Union.
Of course, English tensions with mainland Europe are not a new thing. Probably dating back to the Bell-Beaker people who landed in England around 2,500 BC, there has been a constant flow of migration from Europe to England, and regular struggles for control of this small island.
The emergence of the House of Plantagenet (who originated from the lands of Anjou in France) transformed England into a nation state. From the time that Henry II took the throne in 1154, developments such as the Magna Carta, the codification of the judicial system, and the establishment of English as the primary language, all helped to build a distinct sense of national identity for the people ruled by the English crown — an identity that was further consolidated under the rise of the Tudor dynasty and the evolution of modern Britain.
But the affairs of the powers on the mainland of Europe were always intrinsic to day-to-day life in England. From the famines and plagues of the middle ages, to the Hundred Years War, to the Renaissance, and the Age of Discovery — England has never been isolated from European affairs but always intrinsically enmeshed within them.
The aftermath of the World Wars of the 20th century inevitably influences the world view of today’s UK voters. It was in 1923 when a Pan-Europa manifesto was first written, and the concept gathered momentum through the League of Nations in the late-20s, with France becoming the first to formally adopt the concept in 1930. In 1946, Winston Churchill gave a speech in favour of a United States of Europe (although Churchill didn’t see Great Britain as being part of that grouping).
One of the driving considerations for a more unified Europe was the question of how to avoid wars between nation-states. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the 1948 Hague Congress began to lay the foundations for the European Union as we know it today. In 1957, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany signed the Treaty of Rome — creating the European Economic Community. The UK joined the EEC in 1973. In 1992, the Maastricht Treaty continued the evolution, transforming the EEC into the European Union as it stands today.
Of course the European Union is far from perfect. But to imagine that somehow the UK could exist in isolation from Europe seems contrary to the lessons of the past.
I live in London. I’m not from here, I still travel on an Australian passport, but I live here. London is my home. As a city, London is incredibly international – my workplace and my social life are full of people from around the world, creating enormous diversity in thought, experience, and attitude. It's sometimes hard to remember that the rest of the UK isn't necessarily like that. In the referendum, there were electorates where over 70% of voters voted for Leave – parts of Lincolnshire, Essex, Norfolk – huge swathes of the country that haven't enjoyed the prosperity that London has. Places where day-to-day life isn't enriched by access to the world's best. Neglected towns and cities where it is easy to believe that the reason that your life isn't particularly fulfilling is somehow because of faceless bureaucrats in Brussels who you've been told are lining their own pockets and wasting money that is rightfully yours.
Friday, 29 March 2019 is the date that the UK will leave the EU. What will the UK look like then? No one really knows, but it's beginning to feel like a place where uncertainty will reign for a while, a place that will be more parochial, more inward-looking, less welcoming to the rest of the world.
The UK’s history is defined by its connection with the peoples of mainland Europe. Undoubtedly, the decision to leave the EU is just another chapter in that continuing narrative – the UK's future will also be defined by its connection with the peoples of mainland Europe, it's just going to be a different connection to the one that I voted for.