Brexit is officially upon us. Today, Theresa May will formally trigger Article 50, the process that begins the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. The Prime Minister says the UK will have found a “new, positive and constructive partnership” with the European Union by the end of the two-year divorce proceedings. Many think that’s highly unlikely. We wanted to hear both sides of the story. So we asked three Brits, all living in Cologne, but with varying opinions about Brexit, to tell us how they think it’s going to affect them.
How long have you been in Germany and where are you from originally?
Paul Embleton: I came here from West Sussex in 1997. I only intended to stay for six months but somehow that turned into 20 years and I’m still counting. A lot has happened in that time. One thing I’ve noticed is that my Euroscepticism now resonates with an increasing number of Germans. Twenty years ago I was way out on a limb with my opinions. Not anymore. The Euro crisis changed all that. A massive disconnect now exists between the EU and the peoples of Europe.
Steve Dix: I have been in Germany since September 20, 1999, and have always lived in Cologne. A German Web Company called Digital Online Media invited me to come and work here. I am originally from Rugeley in Staffordshire, which is the site of one of Amazon’s main warehouses. The town was originally a mining/power station town, and my father worked for Thorn-EMI. Thorn has long since closed down, as have the power stations and the mine.
Sam Park: I first moved to Germany in 2003 from Newcastle in the North-East of England at the age of eighteen. I have spent some time in France and in England since then, but altogether I have lived here for about ten years of the last fourteen.
Is Brexit going to be good for the UK?
Paul: Yes. Not only that, it will be good for the rest of Europe too. Unfortunately, the thought of what they might lose has blinded a lot of people to the possibilities that Brexit offers. The EU has been in denial for years. Brexit is the ultimate wake-up call, a readjustment if you like. By its very nature, the EU is a one-size-fits-all solution that fits some much better than others. In its present form the level of compromise that it requires to work is not only detrimental to individual countries (but not all) but, most importantly, also poses an existential threat to the kind of representative democracy we’re used to in the UK. A political union that does not share a common language, a common media, legal system, cultural history or political and social understanding of itself can never become a true democracy. It is simply too diverse for a true demos to exist. For politicians and corporate lobbyists, this is a dream come true. The very opaqueness of its structures means that the peoples of Europe can never hope to understand it, never mind influence it. Its sheer size and diversity also mean their opinions will only ever be minority opinions. Our system has kept us Brits free and safe for hundreds of years, we’d be crazy to compromise that for a system we can’t ever hope to impact. That’s essentially why Brexit’s good for the UK. By forcing the EU to take a close look at itself, it will also be good for the peoples of Europe.
Or will it be bad for the UK?
Steve: Hugely. At the moment, it’s pretty easy to buy things from the UK. Once they have left, importing anything into the EU will be charged by the Zollamt. I’m old enough to remember when exporting a computer required a Carnet before they would let you out of the country with it. It’s going to impact tourism, it’s going to impact manufacturing because what little there is in the UK is there to take advantage of European rules. The pound is going to crash. This may mean better exports, but it’s going to mean more expensive food. Electricity will be considerably more expensive, food will be more expensive. Everything’s going to go through the roof for the common man. There’s going to be absolute chaos in the law courts, due to the law being in flux, as the UK separates itself from the EU laws.
Sam: I think that Brexit has already been bad for the UK, both in terms of economic and political power internationally, as well as in terms of civil and political conflict domestically. Already, the pound has been weakened, racially-motivated crime has increased dramatically and Scotland has voted for a second independence referendum. Once Brexit actually goes through, I think there will be disastrous economic and political consequences. In terms of the economy, the UK will have to renegotiate all of their trade agreements, a process that will take years. These agreements are unlikely to be as favourable as current trade agreements, as the UK is not in a strong bargaining position. As a nation, the UK does not produce much and depends on imports to fulfil even very basic needs such as food security. The UK economy is dominated by the service sector, but many service industries will face huge challenges in a post-EU UK. The financial services sector is already seeing the effects with many companies relocating to Frankfurt.
I think the UK can expect very hard times ahead. With a pro-Europe Scotland trying to secede and Northern Ireland potentially having to deal with the implications of hard borders, it is uncertain whether the UK will continue to exist as we know it today.
How is Brexit going to affect you personally?
Paul: See my previous answer. Hopefully, it will encourage the EU to relax its hold and evolve into a looser coalition that tolerates more political and economic diversity. At the core of the current arrangement is the relationship between Germany and France in which the Benelux countries enjoy the elevated status of go-betweens and mediators. Eastern Europe, the Med countries and the UK are all peripheral to this relationship. This is not a healthy arrangement and, if the EU is to survive, it needs to change. European countries need to talk together, work together and foster mutual understanding, not supersede themselves via a larger political entity that is premised upon the ridiculous German notion that the mere existence of nation states automatically leads to war.
Steve: In the worst case, I will have to have a green card, like I did when I first arrived. Remember all the Indian IT workers who came over in 2000, and then couldn’t get their green cards renewed in 2005, even though some of them had married and settled down? I fear casual racism in the workplace. One or two companies that I worked for in the past, have been exceedingly underhanded with their foreign employees, thinking that they can get rid of them quickly due to their lack of knowledge of German employment law. Even if the proposed EU citizenship for Brits comes through, it will mean paying for it. And finally, British Citizens will cease to be citizens, with rights that have to be in place for EU membership and become subjects. That’s a huge step back. Finally, the fate of EU citizens in Britain and UK citizens living in the EU is now considered to be a “bargaining chip”, despite the Lords doing their best to prevent it. I feel that I am being punished for taking a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I don’t want to go back to the UK : I’ve made a life for myself here that is far better than I could have had in the UK, especially where I come from.
Samantha: At this point, I have no idea how Brexit will affect me personally. UK citizens in the EU, like EU citizens in the UK, are chess pieces in the negotiations of the UK’s exit agreement, which means that neither side will make any guarantees that could weaken their position. At this point, the future is uncertain for a lot of Brits in Europe. We may be offered some kind of dual nationality or personal EU citizenship, we may need to give up our British passports to remain in the homes we have made for ourselves abroad, or we may be forced to move back to a country that some of us haven’t lived in for decades. I hope that I will be able to get European citizenship somehow, whether that is a Scottish, an Irish or a German passport I can’t say. I don’t know where I will be in a few years or what my nationality will be. But, to be honest, I worry more about what the future holds for my family back home.
Why do you think people in the UK voted for Brexit?
Paul: Because they felt cheated. In 1975 they wholeheartedly voted to remain in the Common Market. But were not asked to vote on Maastricht. Since then there has been a whole slew of treaties that they have not been asked to vote on. In countries where people were allowed to vote, the results of these referendums have not been honoured. We’ve got flags and anthems and all the trappings of a state, none of which were mentioned in 1975. The EU is a stealth project. The British people understood that and because they don’t like having the wool pulled over their eyes, rejected it. In the run up the referendum, politicians, world leaders, heads of finance and industry all ganged up on them. The British public listened to their arguments and rejected them, preferring to fall back on their own British, now essentially working class, values of love of country, mistrust of authority and social conservatism. I’m so proud of them.
Of course, immigration also played a huge role. Here to the British public made the right call. Despite strong growth in GDP, per capita GDP has been shrinking in the UK. Basically, while the cake gets bigger, the slices get smaller. Declining living standards and competition for resources have made working-class voters more aware of this than any other group.
Steve: Because they were ill-informed. The sheer number of lies that still abound about the EU are incredible. There seems to be a growing right-wing movement in the UK, who care little about the real truth, just as long as they can gain power. No-one seemed to care about British citizens living abroad – the so-called reassurances we were handed down about the “Vienna agreement” were lies.
Sam: I think that many people were facing economic hardships in the wake of the financial crisis and that they were unhappy and looking for change. As always in times of hardship, parties with more extreme political views gain power by offering people a target for their anger. In this case, the Leave campaign managed to convince a lot of people the UK had lost its sovereignty and the EU and immigration were to blame for all of the UK’s financial problems. Many UK voters have little understanding of the political and economic nature of the EU and took what they were told at face value, believing their politicians to be truthful. More educated voters understood the Leave campaign’s claims to be misinformation intended to further political agendas, but some voted Leave nonetheless to express their unhappiness with EU institutions. Among other things, they criticise the excess bureaucracy and call into question how democratic the EU really is. While I can understand these criticisms, I do think that the UK is politically and economically stronger as part of the EU, and that they can only hope to improve the EU from the inside.
Were you able to vote in the referendum?
Paul: Nope, I’ve lived here too long. Nevertheless, I should have tried. I have friends (all remainers) who managed to vote despite being on the wrong side of the 15-year rule.
Steve: No. I wasn’t allowed to, as I have been here longer than 15 years. I feel that this was a deliberate tactic, as Expats could have largely swung the vote in the other direction. This was, after all, a referendum, not a vote, and on a subject that was likely to drastically change our lives.
Samantha: I registered to vote months in advance and set up a proxy vote so that a family member could vote for me. However, due to a series of unfortunate events, this didn’t work out as planned, In the end, my vote wasn’t counted, which is something that makes me feel both angry and guilty.
Will you be applying for German citizenship?
Paul: Nope. There is absolutely no need to. Nothing will change, or at least not substantially. May offered the EU a reciprocity deal in November. As part of the political posturing in the run-up to the negotiations, Merkel, amongst others, rejected it. Behind the rhetoric, a huge amount of common ground still exists. There will be a deal on the right to stay, and on trade and many other areas of mutual interest. Along with money, the free movement of people is a sticking point but, ultimately, the UK isn’t seeking to stop immigration altogether, only manage it. I expect this idea will gain traction in Europe too as things progress. Uncontrolled immigration, just like the Euro, is a pyramid scheme. Ultimately, even the politicians will have to understand that.
Steve: Yes, I already am. I passed the Einbürgerungstest with 33/33. I feel that I have no alternative but to apply, to protect my future.
Samantha: I have always been a European citizen and my European citizenship is more important to me than my British citizenship. If I have to, I will apply for German citizenship, even at the cost of my British passport, although I feel that I am being forced to choose between different aspects of my own identity.
Paul Embleton is a British copywriter and translator who lives in Cologne. He set up the Tasty Pasty shop with now sole owner Daniel Geal, and although their opinions on Brexit differ widely, they remain good friends.
Steve Dix is a web programmer who lives in Cologne. He’s a stand-up comedian in his spare time and also a fully-fledged sci-fi fan.
Samantha Park is the co-owner of the Overseas Club in Cologne, a multi-lingual bar that offers language courses and events.