On Optimism and Pessimism

February 2016

And now we reach the moment when the EU referendum was set loose. 

In February this year (can anyone else believe it was only so recent?), David Cameron set the date for the referendum and announced the few and slight concessions the EU were willing to make to ensure the UK’s continued membership. They, like so many others, wildly underestimated the lack of attachment the British (or rather, the English) felt towards their institution.

In the UK, in London, we misjudged it too so it is no surprise that from outside Brexit seemed an impossibility. I cannot count how many times I was asked, in disbelief “but the UK wouldn’t actually vote to Leave, would it?”

When the question was first raised during the last general election, I told my European friends that no, I didn’t think we would. But also not to dismiss how little the English feel a part of Europe. The example I always gave was that we holiday “in Europe”.

I once told a German friend of mine that I couldn’t wait to get back to Europe and she invited me to visit. To which I replied that I didn’t mean Germany; I meant the Latin-speaking Med. She was not impressed.

The same friend, while working for the Goethe Institute oversaw the installation of a big, blue cockerel on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square. It was meant to be a symbol of European solidarity, one of many ventures the German cultural society set up across Europe. And yet, I read in a British paper that it was a French symbol (a very famous, overtly French symbol, I might say. Perhaps not the Intitute’s finest hour).

But that is how Europe worked on the UK. Some small bureaucrats in Brussels made some small decisions about product packaging and health & safety (that were derided as a nuisance) but otherwise they stayed on their side of the channel. It had always been us and them.

EU funding was hardly mentioned while the projects were announced by members of our government. If our ministers could not meet exacting demands, it was because their hands were tied by red tape in Brussels. There were no EU flags flying in the UK.

I told my friends that the EU referendum would be decided on whether or not the British felt European. When the idea first floated, I thought enough of us did to carry the vote through. By the time a date was set in Feb 16, it was becoming apparent that many did not. 

When I was asked then if we would vote to Leave, I no longer answered “no” with such confidence. But I still thought our modesty and good sense would steer us clear of an ugly result. This referendum proved me wrong on so many counts.


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