So the B day finally arrived and the hangover from 3 years ago returned with a vengeance. The mayor approached me outside the boulangerie earlier in the week to say ‘bad news – you are not allowed to vote in the local elections’. OK its not the end of the world and it will make no difference to his re-election but nevertheless it conveyed a sense of statelessness and finality and non European-ness that is hard to convey in words at the end of the weirdest month. Crikey – Boris could at least have chosen May 31 not January 31. It’s raining, its cold and everyone is broke not to mention desperate for a drink perhaps after a dry January. And then we have the pitiful sight of Farage and Widdecombe waving farewell to the European Parliament with little Union Jack flags whilst the Grand Place in Brussels is lit up in red white and blue with London cabs and red phone boxes in a classy display of sadness that the Brits are leaving and never coming back.
In truth we were never fully paid up members of the European Club. We came in on our knees and leave with our heads bowed. Had it not been for 3 day weeks, miners strikes and power cuts the UK may never have sought membership in the first place. De Gaulle had said ‘Non’ many times already but then this is the classic French response to most questions and one should not be deterred. We first applied back in 1961 and it took another 12 years to finally join in 1973 although the first referendum on whether we should remain took place pretty quickly afterwards in 1975. 45 years later it has finally come to pass and we join Greenland as a former member. Even though we never wanted to be aligned to the Euro or the exchange rate mechanism as it was known before the arrival of the Euro itself.
Euro talk in the 70s was from memory mainly about wine lakes and butter mountains, the Common Agricultural Policy and whether our roast beef would be allowed into France, whether our Welsh lamb was up to standard, or the cheese pasteurised enough. This all seemed rather alien to me when I set off for France and a summer of working on campsites for Canvas Holidays. Best job ever. Imagine that – having to explain to a family of 4 from Norwich that the adjoining beach was totally nude. Oh no that’s not for us dad would say. By the end of week 1 they were happily joining in the nude volleyball tournaments and we were friends for life with nothing to hide. From there I eventually headed further south to Spain with an average degree and a desire to learn Spanish. With a day to spend in Barcelona en route to Madrid I was astonished to inhale the anti Spanish feeling pouring down from the balcony of the town hall as the Catalans celebrated the annual date of Franco’s death – he who had kept Spain isolated for 40 years and ensured that in French eyes at least Africa started at the Pyrenees whilst in British throats cheap sangria flowed from Lloret de Mar. Onwards to Madrid and in the knowledge that I had to be at the English language school the next morning at 9.30 I persuaded a taxi driver to help me find some 2 star accommodation near the Puerta del Sol. This wasn’t easy pre booking.com at almost midnight but the search was eventually successful and he found me a bed. All was well the next day at the new school until the end if the day and I realised I had no idea where I had slept the night before. Couldn’t exactly Google it. With some slick detective work from some Spanish speaking teachers we eventually narrowed it down to 3 places and one of them came up trumps in the end. So began a year in Spain working next door to the headquarters of the Spanish fascist party, trying not to date my students, talk about religion or politics ( as instructed) and failing miserably. Crikey – why on earth would you argue about the time or the football or the power of the king. All alien stuff to a 21 year old from 70s Britain but I thank Spain for opening my eyes to passionate debate, politics and Catholicism.
Back then Europe was our playground. Train travel was affordable and air travel not. InterRail passes were the thing, cheap flights to Bali not available so we worked our way around Europe as students. Gap years were yet to happen and only 5% of the UK population went to University. The rest of the world was not yet accessible whereas it is now. 20 somethings these days will have partied in Thailand or windsurfed in Colombia by the time they get a real job so perhaps they are not as reliant on an accessible Europe as we once were. The geo political landscape has changed forever and we now have a global economy where with a bit of persistence you can work anywhere you like, within reason. And yet Britain will seemingly become more of an island than it ever was; culturally we are perhaps closer to Connecticut than we are to Calais and gradually the British psyche has become more and more American than it ever was – certainly more commercial and overly obsessed with instant fame and virtual celebrity. It’s sad to hear Nigel Farage saying that the war is over – we have won. What war? Has Farage actually seen the film 1917 I wonder. We are at peace with our neighbours and hopefully that will prevail for ever and a day. I have never felt more European or for that matter more disenfranchised. I speak a few languages and can get by in a couple more. I love the difference between these neighbouring countries – a difference that folks living in many corners of the world would swap in a heartbeat where they have to travel by plane for hours to get somewhere remotely different. Within 2 hours of London you can be in as many foreign cultures as you like and it is the proximity of these cultures that has enabled Britain to prosper in recent decades rather than biting off the hand that feeds it.
As president Macron said in his recent letter to The Times, this is not Goodbye but an early Bonjour as he prepares to award the Legion D’Honneur to the city of London in June. That will be some day for the Remainers to replace Farage in Westminster Square. For us Brits living in France the future is far from certain. Do we need a Carte de Sejour? Can we get a Carte Vittale (access to health services) ? And in the long term will it mean less Brits coming to live in France or buying second homes? There would certainly be a profoundly negative economic effect on rural France if the Brits stayed away – be it wine sales or property renovation. But then maybe the younger generation have less interest in being in France anyway with Airbnb making the world a smaller place and no interest in owning property or cars. I sense that Macron is worried about the aftershocks and the possible tendency from one or more larger economies to review their relationship with Brussels. As a truck driver said to us 18 months ago on our way to live in the Dordogne: perhaps other countries are waiting to see the impact of Brexit before taking a similar route.
So finally The Sun was right. Up Yours Delors was their famous headline from the early 90s and if you read the front page again the jingoistic rhetoric (lofty word for The Sun I agree) is shocking. However it has come to pass and Farage and Johnson have indeed put two fingers up to the idea of being European. Hopefully the dust will settle and life will go on across this wonderful continent that we should all consider home. Vive la difference.