Like many an expat, I choose to hedge my bets over the holiday season and spend Christmas in the UK and the New Year in France. I think of it as playing to the strengths of each nation; I get all the comfort food I like and all the Christmas music I can handle, but I’m back before there’s nothing but toffee pennies left in the smaller than usual Quality Street tin and before the appeal of endless reruns of Top Gear on Dave has started to wear thin. I respect how business-like France is with the Holiday season; work begins without fuss or ceremony, people work between Christmas and New Year and barring the annual arguments over how many cars were actually burnt this year, the whole thing feels like a wintry business as usual.
Christmas 2016 was to be much like other years, except that it would be my first extended stay in Brexit Britain. I don’t count my frequent business trips to London as visits to “Brexit Land”, since in the Capital I tend to meet only sympathetic souls who seem to want to either apologize or hug me as soon as they see me. I was going to be spending Christmas amongst the 52%, amongst those who won the argument and the referendum and who would be getting impatient to have their country back as promised.
I had made a strong mental note not to go looking for arguments. I know who the Brexit voters are in my family and I respect their right to an opinion. I also did not want to “get into it” with them, because to be perfectly honest I can start all the fights I want just by taking to Twitter and firing up a few pertinent Brexit hashtags. I was surprised however by how many people this year took time out to seek my opinion on all things Brexit, and particularly on the subject of whether leaving the EU is going to be either desirable or possible. Six months after the vote is no time to be starting to think about the issues involved, but I held my tongue and made efforts to explain what for me where the points which weren’t heard in the UK when buses were being painted and plans drawn up for what to do with £350 million a week.
The UK has been outsourcing masses of important civil service work to the EU for years. In an increasingly complex world, there are many areas which require expert and careful consideration to produce legislation which is fit for purpose. For many years, the UK has been avoiding the duplication of effort of having its own civil servants address many of these issues and simply let the EU get on with it. This has fitted well with a back drop of cost savings and shrinking the public sector, and it has enabled the UK to make massive cost savings, as well as benefitting from the expertise of people the UK doesn’t have. A great example of this is data protection. The most recent UK Data Protection Act dates from 1998 – not so long ago you might think, but consider all the advances in technology since. Mobile Internet, Wi-Fi, Smart Devices, Connected Objects, the Measured Self, the list is enormous and the UK’s legislation is insufficient to cover everything. In May 2016, the EU announced its new General Data Protection Regulation, a comprehensive piece of legislation which doesn’t undermine the UK’s national sovereignty so much as save them years’ worth of work. The UK can of course just choose to adopt legislation produced by the EU, à posteriori, but that is hardly taking back control now is it?
The cost savings which the UK has made by effectively outsourcing civil service work to the EU are not a one way street however, and now that suddenly the UK finds that talented civil servants are in short supply it is in something of a bind. In Brussels, many of the most brilliant minds in the EU are queuing up to be involved in Brexit negotiations. This is a once in lifetime opportunity to be at the sharp end of the most interesting project which the EU has ever seen. Meanwhile, on the UK side, government departments are desperately trying to find staff who are up to the task and finding that it is not so easy to replace the thousands of skilled civil servants that the EU has effectively been replacing for a generation. So when people in the UK asked me how I think the negotiation is going to go, and the question seemed to be framed along the lines of “so do you think we can win?” my answer was a resolute “No”. On one side you have the most brilliant minds in Europe determined to uphold the principles of the trading block they created, and on the other a lot of under staffed UK civil service departments currently being beefed up with modern day sell-swords at massive tax payer expense. I know where my money would be going if I were a betting man.
The final question which often came up was “What do other countries think of Brexit?” It’s very British to be concerned by what other people think, especially the neighbours, so I was able to enlighten people. Frankly speaking the neighbours are mighty annoyed. What is most galling is that the UK already had a ’cake and eat it’ deal from the EU. No single currency but access to the Eurozone for the UK’s financial institutions, opt outs on the EU Social Chapter, free movement for its subjects within the Schenghen Zone but no membership of that zone for the UK, the list goes on. These exceptions were tolerated however, as the UK was seen as a force for good in the EU. A positive catalyst for change, a counter balance to the Franco-German axis at its centre. People were ready to overlook all the UK’s special conditions because it brought a lot of new things to the “party’. However, now that the UK has thrown all those privileges back and declared its intention to leave, those same people are rightfully feeling a little peeved. There is a sense that hospitality has been abused, and that what comes in the Brexit negotiations is going to have to be painful for Britain, since it has effectively betrayed its hosts’ warm welcome. So no, the UK is not going to be winning any big Brexit concessions or coming back from summits with a tabloid friendly deal any time soon. Quite the opposite, the UK has picked a fight with public opinion in 27 other countries and a massive amount of goodwill has disappeared in the process.
This remoaner took no pleasurer in spelling out the realities as he saw them, but he was concerned by how people tended to react. There were fewer arguments than I expected, less banging on the table and more careful consideration of the issues involved. It doesn’t reassure me that this is happening six months late however. The subject matter is so unbelievably complex that it does take many months to think it through, and in the run up to June 23rd people were not allowing themselves the time to make those decisions properly. Hence why a referendum on such a massive issue is not smart government. Do I think that there is a way back? I would like to think that public opinion still has a role to play in shaping the future, and that opinion polls from mid-2016 will be viewed as just that; and evaluated against whatever more up to date evidence is presented. Maybe this final part is wishful thinking on my part, but clinging to it helped me make it through my first Christmas in Brexitland unscathed.
Martin Dixon is writing in a personal capacity. His views do not reflect those of the FBCCI, nor of any other organization with which he is involved professionally or personally. If you want to comment on this article you can do so on our Linkedin Group discussion here, and you can direct comments at Martin directly on Twitter here.