Magdeburg l Wherever I go at the moment, one question always greets me. “So,” people abruptly say. “What's going on with Brexit?” This happens several times a week, but I still haven't figured out how to respond without impolitely screaming a wordless howl of anger. This is my attempt to formulate a proper reply.
1. Brexit means Brexit
Theresa May got elected in 2016 by saying “Brexit means Brexit” to everyone. Obviously, it is not technically a lie, which makes it sound strangely refreshing. Imagine it in a dictionary, though. “Brexit noun. Brexit.” I'm no lexicographer, but I don't think that's enough.
Brexit has always meant a variety of things. To some people it is an expression of anger against immigration. To some, it is some warped expression of patriotism. To a select few, it is a way to profit from obscure financial interests. Literally, it means Britain leaving the European Union, but the reasons people want this to happen are varied and sometimes contradictory. Which makes it impossible to imagine any Brexit deal that would make a majority of British people - or even a majority of Brexit enthusiasts - happy.
2. Whoops! Northern Ireland
When I was young, I had a book called Mind-Bending Lateral Thinking Puzzles. They were puzzles like: how do you put a pin in a balloon without popping it? To which the answer was: don't inflate the balloon. That sort of thing.
The British political establishment has treated the Irish border issue like a mind-bending lateral thinking puzzle. You are leaving a trade bloc with which you have a land border. Doing this means there will have to be barriers along that border. However, you cannot put barriers along the border because of historic political problems. What do you do?
Politicians seem to have assumed that at some point they will be able to flip to the back of the book and check the answers. But they obviously can't, because this is real life, not a children's puzzle book.
3. Post-Brexit Britain will be poorer and angrier
Various official reports have concluded that, whatever agreement is reached, Brexit will damage the UK's economy. Naturally, then, anti-Brexit protesters will continue to complain bitterly. With good reason. The country is shooting itself in the foot.
However, pro-Brexit protesters will keep complaining as well - things will be worse for them, too, after all. And this wasn't what they were promised during the referendum: many of the lies the Leave campaign told have yet to be definitively disproved. They will be, but only after Brexit has actually happened. So Brexiters will keep complaining. With good reason. They were lied to.
Perhaps the two sides will come together, united in anger against the political system that delivered this catastrophe? More likely, they'll continue to yell at each other.
4. People are less important than cheese
Over a million British people live in the EU, and over three million EU citizens live in the UK. We were promised multiple times that we wouldn't be treated as “bargaining chips” in the Brexit negotiations, yet of course we have been. We stand to lose some of our rights, although of course it'll be worse for people looking to emigrate in the future. How comforting.
Trade has dominated the headlines: German cars, French cheese, Italian wine. What will become of the port at Dover? Will the price of food rise in the UK? But it is people who drive cars, eat cheese, drink wine. People who buy stuff, and benefit from trade deals and a healthy economy. Which people will they be? Shouldn't that have been the first question answered?
It feels a little bit like British politicians have confused “citizens’ rights” with “citizens’ access to Camembert”. And haven't even managed to secure that.