Brexit is way more complicated than I thought, and it’s driving Brits crazy, perhaps even more than Trump is driving Americans crazy.
In 2016, the vote to leave the European Union took the UK by surprise, a few months before the U.S. was shocked to find Trump had won the presidency. Since then, with Prime Minister Theresa May unable to come up with an exit deal that would satisfy both the EU and Parliament, she has been replaced by Brexit enthusiast Boris Johnson. I arrived in Wales on September 20, soon after Boris (no one calls him “Johnson”) had shut down Parliament for three weeks to make sure he could meet the deadline of leaving the EU by October 31, even if there’s no trade deal in place.
The Supreme Court was still debating whether the Parliament shutdown was legal when I interviewed Joanne Taylor, who had recently moved from Coventry in England to the town of Denbigh in Wales and works as a manager for programs run by the local government.
“I feel like it should never have been put to the vote, because the outcome has literally divided Britain in half,” said Taylor. “Out of it has come a lot of nastiness from both sides. I voted to leave, and I have my reasons for that. But for people who voted to remain, there could be only one reason — because you’re a big fat racist. They don’t recognize that there could be a lot of reasons.”
Taylor has fishermen in her family, and they’ve suffered from not being allowed to fish in EU waters. Although she has a fondness for Germany, she feels the country has taken an outsized role in the EU, affecting smaller nations like Hungary that had no say in measures such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to admit refugees. Taylor blames Germany’s financial measures for causing severe economic depression in Greece.
The Brexit referendum itself was problematic. “There was hardly any information given out before the vote,” said Taylor, “about what it meant to leave and what it meant to remain. Some people said if we remained, there would be an EU army, and we weren’t sure if it was true. People had to make decisions based on very little information.”
I asked if she’s changed her mind about leaving the EU, given the developments since then. She has mixed feelings. Given the animosity that has resulted, she said, “If I was asked to vote tomorrow, I’d vote no. But I’m also disappointed by the way the EU has responded to Britain saying we’re going to leave. It’s a horrible atmosphere. Do I really want to be part of that? All we know now is that it’s more complicated to get out of that relationship than we thought.”
Taylor feels the government should have given the negotiating responsibilities to people in business, who are familiar with trade interests and don’t have a party agenda. “To become an MP [member of Parliament], anyone can become a councillor. You start knocking on doors, and you work your way up. What tools does that give you to try to negotiate a deal on behalf of a country?”
Boris hasn’t been in power long enough for her to decide what she thinks of him as a Prime Minister. His threat to leave without a deal could put Britain in a better negotiating position with the EU. On the other hand, said Taylor, “If October 31 comes, and we leave without a deal, we’re fucked.”
By the time I spoke to Victoria Bancroft, Britain’s 11 Supreme Court judges had ruled unanimously that Boris’s shutdown of Parliament was illegal, and the legislature was preparing to reopen. Bancroft is from Ferryside in Wales, where she works as a community organizer for a non-profit social agency. She agrees the Brexit referendum should never have happened.
“I’m a Remainer,” she declared, “or a ‘Remoaner’ as the Brexiteers like to call us. ‘We had a vote, and that’s democracy. Are you going to moan on forever?’ But Brexit makes no sense. The chances I’ve had through my lifetime, because we’ve been part of the EU, are being taken away from next generation.”
Bancroft spent three years working in Germany. Many of the social programs she administers in Wales have been funded by the EU, and the English government at Westminster is not likely to take up the slack. “If you add up the amount of money the Welsh economy has put into Europe, we’ve put in less than we’ve got back. The economy is going to take quite a knock, and it will take years to get back on its feet. From a selfish point of view, I’m 53, I’m going to retire at 67, and my pension values are not going to be worth that much after Brexit. I expect to be poorer in my old age.” She also regrets that she and her brother, a Leaver, can’t discuss Brexit without shouting at each other.
Given the impasse in negotiations, there have been suggestions that a second referendum should be held. “I would be very happy with a re-vote,” said Bancroft, “but it would be difficult. People who voted ‘out’ will bang on about how democracy is being undermined. It may have been a democratic process, but lies were told more on one side than the other.”
Bancroft believes the EU, formed to unite Europe after World War II, is essential to peace in the region. “Democracy is a complex way of living, but it’s more civilized. Once you’re part of it, you struggle to maintain it, and there should be increased benefits. Breaking it up just increases the dangers.”
She blames the mess on former Prime Minister David Cameron, who initiated the Brexit vote. Cameron was sure Brexit would lose and wanted to show up Boris, his classmate at Eton, the prestigious prep school. When I floated this theory with other Welsh people, no one would confirm or deny the story but would shift the topic to the role of the English elite in European politics.
A Swansea University professor, for instance, observed that steelworkers in Port Talbot were annoyed with their MP, Stephen Kinnock of the Labour Party, because the steel mill might have to close if the EU blocks Tata Steel’s merger with a German company as nearly monopolistic. The workers couldn’t bring themselves to vote against Labour, so their pro-Brexit vote had been a way of sending a message of disapproval to Kinnock, who has ties to the EU, including his marriage to Helle Thorning-Schmidt, former Prime Minister of Denmark and former member of the EU Parliament.
Meanwhile, this Google ad from investment firm Hargreaves Landsdowne kept popping up in my email:
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One group of Remainers sees Brexit as an opportunity. Plaid Cymru (pronounced “plide CUM-ree”), the Party of Wales, leads the movement for withdrawal from Britain, despite widespread skepticism regarding independence as impractical and impossible. If Britain pulls out of Europe, the thinking now goes, Wales could pull out of Britain and rejoin the EU on its own. A Guardian columnist reported a recent poll found a third of people in Wales would support Welsh independence if it meant the country would stay in the EU.
Chafing under what they consider shabby treatment from Westminster, the party has adopted the slogan “Remember Tryweryn,” referring to the 1965 flooding of villages in the Tryweryn Valley in northern Wales to make a reservoir that supplies Liverpool. On October 4, at the annual Plaid conference in Swansea, I spoke to Rhys Thomas, a physician who lives in the Welsh town of Llandeilo.
Eighty percent of the British economy is about banking, which is based in London, Thomas explained, while Wales, a country of 3 million among the UK’s 67 million, makes up 0.6 percent of the economy, largely from tourism and farming. “We’re an exporting country, and we can’t do it competitively if we have to pay tariffs to the EU,” said Thomas. “Our economy is going to be destroyed.”
When I asked about the David Cameron rumor, Thomas replied by saying Brexit is really about the English elite taking control. They want to leave because they hide their money in offshore accounts to avoid paying inheritance tax, and the EU, with its socialist leanings, is about to make offshore accounts illegal.
Despite the funding and investment Wales receives from the EU, many Welsh voted for Brexit in the referendum, a majority of 52.5 percent to 47.5 percent. At the Plaid Cymru conference, the current leader of the party, Adam Price, blamed the UK’s failure to address poverty in Wales. “People voted ‘Leave’ because politics had left them behind. But it’s not Brussels but Westminster that has sold us down the river. Putting faith in Brexit is not taking control of our future.”
As Boris continues to seek ways to push Brexit through, one Welsh woman told me, “We used to feel sorry for you about Trump, but now look at the mess we’re in.” And vice versa, I sighed.