The Brexit Puzzle Two Weeks On

An Interview with Virgil Simons on Radio Kanal English Hour

Today, Jordi Vilanova and I were interviewed about Brexit by Virgil Simons on his English Radio show on Radio Kanal. I generally like to think about what I'm going to say beforehand so here are some possible answers to the questions Virgil sent me. Obviously, the conversation went in completel different directions but this article covers what what I might have said if I'd had the chance.

As many of you know, I erred towards Leave but having been out of the UK for over 15 years wasn't allowed to vote. I didn't watch what was going on in the UK so wasn't really influenced by the uglier side of the campaign.

One of the things that strikes me two weeks on is that I'm still learning lots about the pros and cons of the EU and modifying my opinion on a daily basis. I think a democratic decision is a democratic decision so those who want a rerun are mistaken. However, it's very clear that both the Remain and Leave side ran very poor campaigns and certainly didn't give the public all the information they needed to make a well-balenced and informed decision.

Anyway, my answers to Virgil's questions follow below:


We’ve all read multiple commentaries on the situation, but let’s start with the core; what were the actual issues being voted upon and their results?

An oversimplification would be economics and freedom to move around Europe on the Remain side and immigration and sovereignty on the Leave side.

I thought the Remain campaign was particularly poor and was based around everything that the UK would lose as a result of leaving the EU and soon became known as Project Fear. The argument was very similar to the one used against Catalan independence by Spanish unionists and is quite easy to counter by saying that there will be a period of instability and that whilst the EU is the part of the world with one of the slowest rates of economic growth, an independent UK would be free to make its own trade agreements with countries from all over the globe. As I understand it, current international trade agreements are all dependent on the EU so the UK can't trade separately with countries outside the EU, including countries with which it has a special relationship, such as the US and the Commonwealth.

The advantages of having the freedom to move around Europe for work and holidays and study on Erasmus programmes was also easily countered by citing immigration levels and the so-called refugee crisis. This was also Project Fear in its own was much more emotionally charged.

Leave argued that immigration levels to the UK are incredibly high. According to official figures, 318,000 immigrants came into the UK last year but many experts suggest that the number is closer to half a million. Although it must be pointed out that only half the new arrivals come from the EU, people have been coming into the country at this rate for about 20 years and in parts of the depressed post-industrial north of England, Eastern European migrants, who were the main target, make up between 10 and 15% of the population. 

The reason why the Leave Project Fear worked was that this has changed whole communities and one of the major complaints is that the new arrivals are prepared to work for as little as a third of what a British worker earns so wages are being driven down. In many towns, there is also a housing shortage and the education system and health service are both under severe stress. My own suspicion is that this is a deliberate social engineering policy with the specific aim not only of bringing wages down but also dividing and ruling.

Furthermore, EU Vice President Frans Timmermans admitted earlier this year that 6 out of 10 of the so-called refugees who entered Europe were not from Syria or Iraq and were in fact, economic migrants. ISIS had stated that they would be smuggling jihadists into Europe by this route and apparently, two of the terrorists involved in the Brussels attack had entered as 'refugees'. Once these people become EU citizens they will be able to travel to the UK freely, you can see how easy it was to construct a Fear campaign.

The Leave campaign argued that Britain needs to get back its sovereignty not only in order to control its own borders and strike its own trade deals but also to stop the EU encroaching on British law through its regulations and directives. Basically, the argument is that the EU is developing from a simple trade agreement to an economic union to a poliical union without ever have consulted the people of any European country.

With this vote to exit the EU, is this an immediate act, or will this all unravel over a period of time, e.g. the three months of David Cameron’s time in office or longer?

Basically, nothing happens until Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which allows a member state to leave the Union, is invoked and then there is will be a negotiation period of up to two years. At the moment, the most likely successor to Cameron looks like being Theresa May, who was also on the Remain side, and it's likely that she will wait as long as possible before triggering Article 50.

You will have heard EU Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, saying that if the UK wants to Leave it should trigger Article 50 as soon as possible but doing so is the prerogative of the leaving country so the UK will do so when the time is right.

One of the key points of impact is whether London will remain the financial center in Europe that it became in part because of Britain’s participation in the E.U. Now other cities are being touted as an attraction for capital and the human talent that serves it, including Barcelona that has garnered a higher rate of foreign investment than any other city in Europe. What are your thoughts?

Barcelona is in the running to become home for two EU agencies, the European Banking Authority (EBA), which is a regulatory agency that aims to increase banking transparency and obviously has something to do finance, and the European Medicines Agency, the agency for the evaluation of medical products, which obviously has nothing to do with finance.

If Barcelona wins the EBA, this will probably bring more financial services to the city in time but the main challengers to London as European financial centres are Paris and Frankfurt.

Barcelona is an extremely attractive destination so it's bound to be on the receiving end as many businesses relocate from London to other parts of Europe. I don't expect there to be a massive exodus of major companies just yet, though. For any sizable business, relocation is a very expensive process so I think most companies will wait to see how the UK overcomes the immediate economic challenges.

We’re now hearing about a rise in racism in Britain as a result of the referendum. Is there any truth to that or are there other factors in play?

I think you first have to point out that being concerned about immigration levels doesn't necessarily mean you're a racist. However, not only has the UK got the very worst kind of journalism in its tabloid newspaper, such as The Sun, The Daily Mail and The Daily Express, who regularly demonise and insult foreigners but on the last leg, the Leave campaign sank to the lowest of the low and used propaganda tactics which can only be described as foul.

The result of a Leave win has emboldened people who were racists anyway and yes there has been an increase in prejudice and in verbal and sometimes physical abuse. I have seen footage of people behaving in ways that I haven't seen since the National Front in the 1970s and 80s. I really didn't believe that anybody still thought like that, and was moved to tears on a couple of occasions.

However, despite claims to the contrary not all Leave voters are racists although, it is perhaps true that all racists voted Leave. A lot has been made of the five-fold increase in online reporting of hate-crimes in the first week after the vote but it's worth pointing out that the original figure was only 63 a week for the whole country and this went up to 331 reports after the vote.

We are seeing in Britain, Europe and the U.S. sentiments that are anti-minorities, anti-immigration, anti-business, etc., all of which have at root an economic genesis. What do you think some of the economic next steps should be?

The problem is that nobody knows what the next steps of any kind should be because the whole political system is in meltdown. I think it was irresponsible for David Cameron not only to call the referendum but also to lead the Remain campaign so ineffectually and then announce so quickly that he would be stepping down as Prime Minister.

I was truly amazed to see Boris Johnson announce that he wouldn't be standing in the Conservative Party leadership race. He had caused the mess and isn't staying around to help clear it up.

Nigel Farage's resignation as UKIP leader is actually more coherent, however much one might dislike him. He has achieved his lifelong aim of getting the UK out of Europe and isn't in the party of government so he can't do very much anyway. Also I'm pretty sure we haven't heard the last of him.

To add insult to injury, the Labour Party is in tatters with the majority of the Shadow Cabinet resigning. However, Jeremy Corbyn refuses to budge and although many people disagree with me, I think his time has come. Most of the parliamentary Laour Party were for Remain and have criticised Corbyn for not campaigning strongly enough. That was because in his heart he supported Leave, which means I think he does have an important position as Opposition Leader.

It took me about an hour to get my head round the idea that the UK was actually leaving the EU and once I had I though the only thing to do was to grasp the nettle and act with confidence and determination. However, it really does seem to be the case that nobody on the Leave side had a proper plan and now we have to wait until September 9th before we'll find out who the next Prime Minister is.

This period of uncertainty really is disastrous because the divides in British society remain and they won't be patched over until people get the sensation that we're moving forward.

Does Brexit point toward a change in the quality of life for British locals, and expats?

Not immediately, I don't think. Article 50 has to be triggered and then the negotiation period will begin. So I don't the EU status of British citizens will change for a couple of years.

During that period, I'm confident that some kind of reciprocal agreement will be reached possibly between the UK and the EU or between the UK and Spain, which will cover British residents in Spain and vice versa. Yesterday, a massive majority of the British Parliament voted in favour of recognising al EU citizens' right to remain in the UK, for example. That's a good first step.

Also US citizens and people from other non-EU countries reside here quite easily. It just requires a little extra paperwork. Having said that, I am considering applying for Spanish citizenship. I've been here for 28 years and have now spent more than half my life here. But if I do, I won't be looking into it until after the summer.

If I'm lucky, I might be able to become a Catalan citizen first.

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