Europeans used to be in awe of Great Britain. The mother of all democracies, the biggest “melting pot” in Europe, a champion of tolerance, respect, organisation and democracy. Politics in Westminster was considered a calm and civilised affair compared to the general feeling of chaos, particularly in my own country, Italy. For many of us, born within the EU timeframe, having Britain as a founding partner and driving force of the Union somehow gave it increased credibility and added strength to a project many of us passionately believed in.
Then 2016 came and Great Britain’s long unease about the EU was laid bare for all to see. A referendum, considered madness by most other member states, had been promised and duly delivered. And the British turned out in record numbers, 72%, one of the biggest electoral turnouts in this country’s history, to speak their minds.
Did the people of Great Britain like the EU? That was really the question.
And the answer, after months of lies and ill-conceived predictions, shouted campaigns, broken electoral rules, populist anger at unregulated immigration, ignorance at what the EU had done for this country and many other divisive issues, was a resounding no. The Brits, or at least 52% of them, did not like the EU one bit. They’d had enough, they wanted out.
From that initial moment of shock (I was so convinced this would not happen that I tried to place a bet on Remain, thankfully without success) the UK was plunged into chaos, which ironically made it look much more in sync – for once - with most other politically-chaotic EU states.
I remember reporting for my Italian daily newspaper, Il Giorno, in those first few febrile days after the vote, which stretched into weeks and months of relentless work. We all felt betrayed and the gist of most of the foreign press’s articles revolved around the concept of “Britain the treacherous.” The backlash from the rest of the EU could only be brutal.
As in any divorce, the jilted partner never feels too charitably towards the jilter. Anger, recriminations, accusations of betrayal were so rife even in this country that I know of couples who have split, and friends who no longer speak to each other because they voted differently, or simply held opposite views. On Facebook, some of my own friends back home asked me how I could suffer to stay in such a hateful country, why wasn’t I going back immediately, how would I survive on solely British food once all imports of “decent provisions” from the EU were stopped?
The fact that the EU never really was the land of milk and honey evoked by disgruntled Remainers was completely forgotten. Day after day my colleagues and I, here at the Foreign Press Association in London, came up with new stories as to how these Brits never “got us,” how they had succumbed to the lies of the Nigel Farages and the Boris Johnsons of this world, how they were always “with a foot out” anyway: no Schengen, no euro, the “special concessions or else” attitude.
And this, incredibly, hasn’t really stopped, even two and half years down the line. There still seems to be practically no other topic of conversation whether I speak with friends, colleagues, acquaintances or people I’ve just met in the queue at the supermarket. The country is furiously divided and each half still lashes out at the other. It seems there will never be another calm dinner party, unless the topic is specifically excluded.
And yet, while we all await to see what Brexit actually means, I have found it absorbing and exciting to be reporting in these hugely significant historic times, when Britain has (finally?) forgotten its stiff upper lip and has, ironically, become much more “Italian.” Theresa May and her cabinet of rotating ministers have evidently given up on that most British and revered virtue: “calm.” Parliament and all political parties are entangled in daily wranglings, infightings, backstabbings and betrayals, in flagrant disrespect of the mantra we all have on our mugs: “Keep calm and carry on.” Britain seems to have finally Europeanised itself in leaving the EU.
What happens next is anyone’s guess but did any of this feel personal?
As soon as I say I am Italian (although I do now hold dual nationality) people queue up to apologise, or to reassure me that the vote was “not against Italians, of course.” It was for “many other reasons” (if they voted Leave) or it was “an ignorant and irresponsible bit of the country” that voted like that (if they voted Remain).
Having been in this country for a quarter of a century, having studied here and having many wonderful British friends, I understand that the reasons for that vote were often complicated, visceral, personal and in many cases absolute. I have found that you can’t really change the mind of a Leaver just as you can’t that of a Remainer. And it is far too simplistic to label one good and one bad.
That is probably why the question was far too complex to be put to the people in such a simple way: in or out. Nobody ever explained what “out” meant, as it turns out there are a plethora of possible “outs,” all of them not quite as good as staying in (especially in terms of the economy). The single market, the customs union, the backstop and many other “new terms” have entered the daily vocabulary of normal people, but behind them are hugely intricate processes. It is difficult to imagine that a second referendum could help unpack all these layers of complexity, in case the people were to be asked again. And what would the new question be? Without mentioning that the very principle of democracy, so central to this whole debate, would be at stake.
But whatever the outcome, the EU is obviously on tenterhooks and this helps to explain the rigid stance from Brussels: if Britain were to make a decent Brexit (not a success of it, even survival would do) whose to say other countries won’t start queuing up to get the same deal? Two years after that fateful referendum, the UK is no longer the only country who has fallen out of love with the EU. This whole process has shaken the whole European project to its core.