It’s a cliché to say that the EU is divided. Naturally a bloc of 27 countries will differ fundamentally on key issues. Some Eurosceptics would say this is proof of the futility of the whole European project.
Yet the countries of the EU were broadly working in tandem when it came to Brexit. They all saw it through the same prism and thus had a unified response exemplified by Michel Barnier in his five years working to agree a satisfactory divorce deal with Britain. Yet, even five years on, it’s remarkable how little has changed in the way that European (and indeed American media) talk about Brexit.
Initially, it was shock and bemusement. Surely this can’t have happened. Senior EU officials were convinced Brexit would never happen. The British had made a silly mistake, give them a year and they’ll be bound to repent. After all when countries voted against the imposition of the Lisbon treaty and the European Constitution, Brussels simply instructed them to vote again.
Admittedly it did not help that 2016 saw not only Brexit but also the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. From the outset these two events, in the eyes of foreign media, and some domestic media were inextricably linked. “Brexit and Trump” was a phrase oft repeated when discussing that particular year. The two were inseparable.
Yet anyone with half an iota of sense who bothered to examine each saw very few similarities. Trump was a personality, a distinctly American response to its own problems. Trump, had indeed, come from nowhere. This is not true of Brexit. The British relationship with European integration has been fraught ever since it joined the Common Market back in 1973. It was popular at the time as Britain suffered malaise whilst continental Europe boomed. But what Britain joined then was nothing like the European Union of 2016.
The European question nearly split the Labour party in the 70’s over the issues of corporate power and a lack of democratic accountability, which are still uttered by left-wing Brexiteers (or Lexiteers, if you will) today. In the Conservative party, the European question led to the toppling of each Prime Minister from Margaret Thatcher to Theresa May. Some have suggested that this was a non-issue in British politics, and that despite the rise of UKIP from obscurity to being the third largest party and winning the 2014 European elections, the British didn’t care much about the EU. Clearly the fact that a million more people voted to leave the EU than remain disproves this.
Nevertheless, it became set in European minds that Brexit and Trump were problems to be dealt with. This was a short-sighted strategy. Trump lost in 2020 and is now gone, much to the delight of the vast majority of Brits (and a clear majority of Leave voters). The European establishment had the same vision for Brexit. The stupid Brits will realise their mistakes and stay. Yet it took not only the referendum but also the 2017 General Election, where 85% of people voted for a party committed to leaving the EU, the 2019 European Elections, where the Brexit Party, despite only existing for a matter of weeks, topped the polls and finally the 2019 General Election where Boris Johnson won the Conservative party’s biggest majority since 1987, on a platform of three simple words, “Get Brexit Done”. It was only then the EU properly realised that the Brits were serious.
The kind of tropes used by Remain backing publications in the UK, such as the Guardian, the Independent and (sometimes) the Times have been ubiquitous across the foreign media. The narrative is clear, 52% of the British electorate voted leave because they’re thick, xenophobic bigots who don’t like immigrants and miss the British Empire. It’s remarkable that such an uninformed take has been the main reference point for Brexit in well respected publications such as Der Spiegel and the New York Times.
When asked about why they voted leave, the most common answer was sovereignty, decisions being made closer to home by leaders that are accountable. The perfect example of this in action is the current Coronavirus vaccine rollout (see later), which has been handled shambolically by the European Commission. A third of non-white Brits voted for Leave, often because they favoured closer ties with the countries of the Commonwealth, which have been forfeited by the ever-closer union in Europe.
As for the charge that Brexit would make Britain more insular and protectionist. The UK is embarking on a multitude of new trade negotiations with countries such as India, the US and Australia, countries which so far, the EU has failed to complete negotiations with. At the same time, French President Emmanuel Macron has called for “a Europe that protects.” It is the EU, which is becoming increasingly inward looking, closing itself off from the rest of the world. Whilst in 2021, Britain takes centre stage, hosting both the G7 and the UN COP26 climate meeting.
Europhiles were insistent that the newly elected US President Joe Biden would eschew Britain in favour of the EU. Yet, his first phone call to a European leader was to Boris Johnson. His first trip outside of North America, will be to Cornwall.
The EU line has backfired
The arrogant EU line that Britain must be punished has backfired. Many former Remainers are disgusted by the EU’s line of attack, such as threatening to cut off food supplies from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. In the coverage of the past five years of these negotiations, there has been a complete asymmetry in the media coverage of each sides’ actions.
Any demand Britain makes is inherently unreasonable, anything the EU says must be taken as gospel and not challenged. This was emblematic of the coverage on both sides of the Channel (and indeed both sides of the Atlantic). Indeed, it was taken as fact that the City of London would be decimated by Brexit and tens of thousands of jobs in financial services would move to the continent. Likewise, the Nissan plant in Sunderland would close, they said, costing thousands of jobs in one of the poorest parts of England. The reality was very different, the flow of jobs from London has been a trickle not a flood and Nissan has recommitted to Sunderland. The company’s chief operating officer remarked that the Brexit deal had given Nissan a competitive advantage, “Brexit for Nissan is a positive,” he declared.
EU leaders have been smug that their hard line against Britain has seen a rise in support for the EU across the board. This has bred complacency. And support for the EU is fragile in many countries. Attitudes towards further integration are negative. Five years on from the Brexit referendum, the EU, the media and Europhiles across the continent have failed to learn the lessons of Brexit. The decision by the EU to buy Coronavirus vaccines centrally and divvy them up between countries was seen as wise at the time, and Britain was derided for not partaking.
Derided, no less, by the same publications that have been consistently wrong about Brexit. However, Britain has the third highest vaccination rate in the world, five times higher than the EU, which has descended into chaos over a mess of its own making. The Commission rejected the offer of 500 million doses from Pfizer (the first vaccine to be approved) and signed an agreement with AstraZeneca a whole three months after the UK. It’s now resorted to vaccine nationalism, lashing out at AZ, demanding that vaccines headed for the UK be diverted to the EU instead and threatened to ban exports. A sense of Schadenfreude was clear in the eyes of many Brexiteers.
If in 2024 the British electorate is unhappy with the government, it can vote them out. If European citizens are unhappy with the performance of the Commission, they can’t. It’s as simple as that.