“But most of all you’ve let yourselves down.” Brexit: the view from Brussels

I spent last week dodging rainshowers and testing the beer in Brussels. I know I’m supposed to be writing about civic tech — and that will happen — but it was a good two weeks on, and Brexit was still the first word on everyone’s lips when they discover that you’re British. Mostly jokes, then sympathy, then the ‘how?’ and ‘why?’

I’m not a political journalist. And I wasn’t meeting with EU experts. I was mainly chatting with friends of friends, and folks I met to talk about the effects that digital tech might have on European democracy. But these were junior folks in EU-related institutions — several of them will grow up to run these things. They were the kind of well-educated youngish folks who had all assumed the UK would vote to Remain. I also scanned the French language newspapers, read Politico Europe (the closest thing to an EU newspaper) and listened to local Bruxellois radio. 

First, there was shock at the result. Not surprisingly, the Brussels bubble (‘the 29th member of the EU’ – M. Lowry) had followed the Westminster bubble, and not understood the depth of anger or malaise outside places journalists live. Many had quickly moved onto denial: trying to follow the legal story of whether or not Article 50 would actually be invoked — and the craziness of the resignation train. Farage quitting was a silver lining. 

Second, there was definitely a sense of disappointment. Not anger, as such, but a feeling like we’d kind of let the party down. And that we’d done something truly self-harming. Before getting to Brussels, I’d seen some argument that suggested that the EU might be strengthened by Brexit: the moany, special-case problem child having exited itself, the rest of them could get on with the real business of governance. But no, there was genuine shock, sadness, and universal agreement from those I spoke to that Brexit has weakened the EU. Watching the Wales game (sob) in a bar in Châtelain, I was approached by a mildly inebbriated bloke, who — upon hearing that I was supporting les Gallois — said he was all for Wales, but he couldn’t understand why the Welsh had voted to ‘go with the English’. He was quite upset about the whole thing.

Third, people were getting on with it. In the UK, in the week after the referendum, it felt like Brexit was signalling the end of the world, or at least the collapse of the political class and the economy. But of course there are another 27 member states, another 490m people, for whom the bureaucracy must work. It struck me that we Brits can tend towards solipsism — my knowledge and understanding of the EU institutions was found woefully wanting while in Brussels — and it’s not always about us. And this is a lesson we’re going to have to learn more and more, as we slip away into whatever oblivion it is we choose. I love Norway, I do, but I can’t help thinking there’s more to be gained from taking an active role in our neighbourhood.

I was only in Brussels for a week, but you can immediately get a sense of the bubble. Someone kindly explained to me the order of where you should be each evening of the week in order to do the networking, gossiping and politicking. Tuesday is one area, Wednesday is Châtelain, Thursday is Place du Lux(embourg). Fridays and Saturdays are rest days. Of course there’s something a bit ugly about this way of working, but as I watched hundreds of multilingual, educated young people from all over Europe spill out of the bars into the squares of Brussels to excitedly debate the football, Brexit and the future of Europe — it felt a bit like a party to which we burned the invite. 

Photo credit: Thorfinn Stainforth • CC BY 3.0

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