Europeans 'indifferent' to UK's departure from EU
For the past 3 years I have been living and working in Austria and like many ex-pats, I still keep a close eye on what is happening at home, where naturally Brexit and a hard border in Ireland looms large.
In Europe not so much. Interest, much less passion about Brexit is almost non-existent. For most people the attitude is dismissive to the point of indifference. If there is a common view, it is a case of just get on with it, or rather, just get lost.
From an official perspective, the Brexit process is just another piece of work in the in-tray and it is hardly at the top either. The Commission has the pick of the brightest and best from 28 civil service administrations, i.e. a pool of 512m people to draw upon.
Naturally the mandarins from the bigger countries, (the paymasters), are represented at the highest levels, but the EU Commission is, by and large a highly experienced professional meritocracy. Consider the genuine emotion displayed by Juncker in Dublin recently when referring to the late Peter Sutherland. There was only one reason Sutherland had the career he did, his brilliance. Meanwhile on the other side of the table from Barnier and his team, the UK was led by David “I don’t have to be clever” Davis, supported by a much down-sized Whitehall.
As we say in Belfast, good luck with that one.
Truth to tell it’s a win-win situation for the EU, money aside whether Brexit happens or not. If the UK either changes its mind and, with its tail between its legs, asks to stay, or it leaves, with the inevitable costs and self-harming damage, the message to other countries will be the same, membership is a prize worth keeping. As to money, it seems the UK will end up paying in a significant proportion of its current contribution, anyway, even if it does leave.
Everywhere I go the reaction is the same from the warm, welcoming and interested all the way to simple indifference, all of which is fine by me. I am still recovering from the blow to my ego soon after arriving, when two days in a row, somebody got up to give me a seat on a tram.
The issue of course is racism and immigration. I am white and not seen as an immigrant or refugee, the issue which Farage & co exploited for Brexit, of immigrants swamping the UK is even more acutely felt here, on the continent. The successful right-wing populist theme of scapegoating other, playing on fears is neither new or unique. Curiously, nobody seems to link past sales of bombs and bullets sold by the US, UK and of course Germany, to Gaddafi in Libya or Saudi Arabia, and those boats crossing the Mediterranean.
In Austria the swing to the right has been marked since the refugee crisis came to a head in 2015. There is now an extreme right-wing party in the government Coalition. In Belfast we know all too well about fear of other, building walls and keeping communities apart.
For Austrians the latest example of xenophobia has seen the introduction of a law aimed at the burqa, prohibiting citizens from appearing in public with their faces covered. Unfortunately, the Austrian police are no different from those anywhere else. Two “successful prosecutions” included a young lady wearing a ski mask in public when faced, literally, with outside temperatures below freezing. Even more controversially a cancer patient, undergoing chemotherapy, with all the associated immuno-suppressant problems, was stopped and fined for wearing a surgical mask. For some reason the police now seem less enthusiastic in prosecuting this not so subtle and discriminatory law.
Last week the Austrian Chancellor Kurz, declared, with no sense of history or indeed irony, the formation of an anti-immigrant political “axis of the willing” with colleagues in Bavaria and Italy. That said, when it comes to tin-eared politicians, it was George W Bush who first started talking about “axis of evil and launching crusades” and Trump of course, is on a level or perhaps it’s a depth, all of his own.
The EU may well be heading for an existential crisis over the challenges posed by immigration for the freedom of movement and multi-culturalism, a looming trade war with Trump’s America, the possible threat to the Euro, from Italy or even a recession as the current global trade cycle matures all too soon.
Looking forward it would be ironic if the EU were to adopt, as a temporary arrangement, (sadly Irish nationalists know all too well how elastic the word temporary can be), some form of immigration control or fortress Europe, just as the UK leaves. As to the insular, in-fighting, and the soon to be fully detached British, what will Europe be saying? Most likely, as Clark Gable famously said to Scarlett– “quite frankly I couldn’t give a damn.”
:: Frank Hennessey lectured and was Head of Business Studies at St. Mary's University College for 35 years. Since leaving St Mary’s in 2015, he has been living in Austria, and working for the UN in Egypt