A month ago today, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, leaving uncertainty regarding withdrawal negotiations, Britain’s relationship with the 27-state organisation and the future for the EU post-Brexit. We spoke to five Europeans for their thoughts on what Brexit might hold for the future of Europe.
The view from France:
France was not only one of the founding members of the European Union, but also one of the key players in the EU today. Although there was widespread shock at the result, 22 year old Parisian Guillaume Alévêque was not as surprised, saying: “the UK has always seemed a bit far from understanding nor wanting to be part of the European project. Thatcher was a Eurosceptic and she’s still very much alive in many minds as a symbol of British arrogance and unwillingness to strengthen the European Community and later the EU.’ Mr Alévêque, a public affairs consultant, says that although Britain shouldn’t face too tough a deal, some agreements would have to be scrapped, explaining: “Although a harsh deal will be the main goal of many European governments, Germany (who doesn’t want it apparently) always prevail in these times. [That said], rejecting any freedom of movement is a way to say ‘we want to take back control’, so this would include scrapping the Le Torquet Agreement.”
Moreover, Mr Alévêque says that he expects the two-year long negotiation to be used as a political tool by French politicians in the run-up to their election in 2017, saying: “French governments will try and make Britain suffer so that no referendum can happen in France and so that everybody will be scared by the economic consequences that leaving the EU could provoke, but I seriously doubt their positions will prevail in the wider picture of European interests”.
Finally, in response to the increased incidence of xenophobic attacks in Britain following the Brexit vote, Mr Alévêque said: “We know xenophobia and racism in France, but I thought Britain was more mature, open and tolerant: it seems not, and the whole world is witnessing it now”.
The view from the Netherlands:
Another founding member of the EU, the Netherlands, now faces the possibility of its own referendum, with the far-right Eurosceptic ‘Party for Freedom’ expected to win next year’s election. This is something which concerns recent Sussex graduate Pippa Adler, who says that: “I very much hope that there won’t be a referendum [on EU membership], as xenophobia, racism and Islamophobia are rife in my country, and any campaign in the run up to a referendum will most likely play on those feelings and magnify them. The Netherlands leaving would have different implications for the rest of Europe, as we have traditionally been at the forefront of European collaboration”.
Ms Adler, who lives in a town just outside of Utrecht, also said that: “There seems to be an idea that referenda are the highest form of democracy, which I reject. I think democracy works best when everyone votes for the person who they think is most qualified to make certain decisions.”
On the issue of the increase in racist abuse, Ms Adler suggested that Britain should never have had a reputation for being a tolerant nation, saying: “the fact that it only takes a small win on a referendum for feelings of nationalism and xenophobia to flourish says a lot of how this country deals with those issues in general”.
Regarding the negotiations themselves, Ms Adler disagrees with some European politicians, saying “There should definitely not be any penalisation for the sake of penalisation. Creating bad blood out of spite will do no good as Britain is likely to still have to negotiate with the rest of Europe on many different matters”. However, she did add: “If things turn out bad for Britain in the exit negotiations, I don’t think I will feel a lot of pity”.
The view from Ireland:
Britain’s closest neighbours, Ireland, have expressed fears that they could be one of the worst hit nations in the EU by Brexit due to the country’s dependence on British trade and the tense history on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Sinn Fein MEP Lynn Boylan shares these concerns, saying: “Ireland always had more to lose than any other member state from a “Brexit”, with far-reaching implications for trade, economy, security of energy supplies and the peace process in the north. American investors have already postponed a visit to the North of Ireland, and the Nevin Economic Research Institute, a think tank, has forecast a slowing of growth across the whole of Ireland”.
Ms Boylan also agreed with her Sinn Fein partner in Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, that Northern Ireland should hold a ‘border poll’ on a United Ireland, saying: “The British government has no democratic mandate to represent the views of the north in any future negotiations with the EU. The people of the north of Ireland have made it clear at the polls that they wish to remain in the EU and this should be respected. Therefore, one of the options to ensure this happens, is to re-unify the island, consequently ensuring the north remains within the EU. There is an appetite for reunification and as the fall-out from Brexit becomes more and more apparent, people from all sections of the community will realise it is a viable option”. She added that: “any hardening of the border, reigniting of tensions could be a possibility; however, we in Sinn Féin will do everything in our powers to try to prevent that”.
Regarding British residents seeking Irish citizenship in the aftermath of the Brexit vote, Ms Boylan urged British citizens to refrain from frenzied applications. “As Article 50 has not yet been invoked, I would urge for the element of hysteria to cease. Whilst it is important to be prepared, it is very much unknown as to how this will be handled, or what the exact consequences will be. However, if these people are eligible for Irish citizenship, then they are entitled to apply and it is up to the Government to put the necessary means in place to deal with the surge”.
The view from Catalonia, Spain:
Spain has been hit hard by financial difficulties, with high unemployment and crippling austerity measures. As a result, 25-year-old IT consultant Albert de Aguilar believes there should be a referendum on EU membership. He explained: “Since the beginning, Spaniards have felt that Germany is ruling them and that they don’t care at all about our country. Our economy is now worse than ever, so I think it’s fair to hold a referendum on membership”. However, Mr de Aguilar’s passion isn’t for a referendum on breaking away from the EU; the Barcelona resident would rather see Catalonia become independent of Spain. He hopes that the possibility of a second referendum in Scotland can lead to a similar vote in the region, saying: “It’s widely believed that Scotland and Catalonia are similar in many ways, so I am sure a second referendum would pave the way for the legal referendum we have been campaigning for”.
Just after the Brexit vote, Spain went to the polls, resulting in further gridlock in forming a government, which de Aguilar believes was partially due to Britain voting to leave the EU. “I think Spaniards felt that the PP (People’s Party) was a safer vote. Podemos is a bit against Europe, and as news began saying the Spanish economy fell after Brexit, we apparently wanted to keep conservative”.
Finally, he also agreed that Britain shouldn’t be punished too severely for voting to leave as “the UK is still an important market”. However, he did express some concerns that “if it is not too harsh, it could be the beginning of more movements to leave, as Le Pen wants in France. I’m afraid this could be the beginning of an EU crisis”.
The view from Iceland:
Outside of the EU but a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), Iceland’s relationship with the European Union could end up being a template for Britain to adopt post-Brexit. However, Iceland’s youngest MP, Àsta Helgadóttir, believes that Iceland’s position is not one best suited for the UK, saying: “Going from the EU to join EFTA would be a downgrade to say the least. The EFTA agreement might work for countries such as Iceland which has a really small economy, however being an EFTA state means we are outside the whole decision making process and have to implement regulations and directives regardless. If the UK was opting out of the EU because its bureaucracy is undemocratic, it would not make sense to enter EFTA – simply because it’s just another layer of bureaucracy that has even less democratic value to it”.
In contrast to Britain, her party, the Icelandic Pirate Party, is calling for a referendum on restarting accession to the European Union and on joining the EU. With the Pirates expected to be the largest party in elections in the autumn, they have learnt lessons from the British referendum, with Ms Helgadóttir explaining: “Before the referendum, we wish to have an open and enlightened debate – not run by fearmongering or half-truths, promises that cannot be made in the first place or illusions, like the Brexit referendum”. She also described the idea that Britain could remain a member of the single market, whilst rejecting EU law and freedom of movement as “a paradox”. “You can’t be a part of the internal market without freedom of movement. Norway and Iceland both understand and respect that – because freedom of movement goes both ways”.
Ms Helgadóttir also suggested a way to get young people more engaged in politics, amid claims that turnout among 18-24 year olds was only 50%, saying: “It’s important to allow children and teenagers to contribute in political conversations. [It] doesn’t matter if they’re right or wrong, it’s about feeling heard. If you’ve always been dismissed as a ‘kid’, how are you supposed to feel like it should be part of your duty to the society to vote? It’s including the kids – not alienating them.” She gave an example in Iceland as a model to follow, explaining: “Here, we had pre-school elections for the last presidential elections [in 2012]. Each presidential candidate got to make a short introduction on the Kid’s News about their platforms and then the kids got to vote for their candidate and tell their opinion about it. Kids are people too – and we need to make them feel included in this world we currently live in”.