When the referendum result was announced a storm of fury swept across social media. Many of my generation were screaming betrayal. It seemed as if they thought the world had just ended. Likewise, we were told of anger from European leaders, that Britain would be vilified and punished (though it now looks as if cool headed German pragmatism will win the day). But, as for the people they are supposed to represent, the view from across the channel seems very different indeed.
In the wake of the historic vote back home, it was almost impossible to meet someone whilst travelling without them inevitably asking about the vote. One thing I've been struck by when the conversation has turned to Brexit is how much more optimistic the young Europeans I've met are about the situation than their British counterparts.
When I met a group of young Italians, some of whom are planning on starting studying in Britain in September, a week after the vote and the conversation inevitably turned to Brexit I was expecting a degree of awkwardness. Instead I was taken aback with how positive they were about the result. Whilst they were indeed somewhat saddened by the symbolism of Britain leaving “the European family” as they call it, about Britain's prospects outside the EU they were strikingly positive and optimistic. “Britain's economy is strong” they said perhaps a touch enviously, maybe thinking about the economic turmoil back home in Italy. Nor did the result or concerns about paying higher international fees seem to dampen their enthusiasm for studying in the UK among those who had applied to do so.
But I noticed there was something deeper there too. There was a hope for their own homelands too. They came from a country with nearly 50% youth unemployment, whose economy was on the brink of collapse and whose democracy had been trampled over when Brussels removed a democratically elected President and installed an unelected technocrat to do their bidding. Their romanticised visions of Europe were colliding with the ugly reality. Rather than the saviour they hoped, for the EU had turned out to be more like an abusive parent. “Italy is the EU’s b****” one of them said in blunt, if a little crass, terms. There was no future to speak of for people like them. No real hope. That is until now.
The British vote showed them that the future of Europe still lies in the hands of the peoples of Europe. If the British people can take on the full combined might of the international establishment: the EU, big business, our own government and political class and even the President of the United States. If the British can take on such a fearsome foe with all their power and wealth against impossible odds and win, then why can't the Italians? Or the Spanish? Or, dare I say it, the Greeks?
Likewise, much of my family in Poland also rejoiced at the news that Britain had voted to leave. At first glance this too may seem counterintuitive. Young Poles in a country that is a net beneficiary of the EU, with family in Britain and who have at various times worked in Britain as immigrants, should be archetypal modern Europeans. But they knew leaving the EU would not put a single extra centimetre of distance between our family. Britain was not after all leaving Europe, just as Poland was a part of Europe before 2004, merely rejecting the political systems of the EU. It's those political systems, and their incessant antagonism and interference with Polish democracy that they resented. For them the British vote was a victory for democracy and hope that that the people can take control and force the EU to change course.
The most, perhaps only, positive thing I heard about the EU came from an American Bernie Sanders supporter. He raved about how the EU was a symbol of hope, peace, prosperity and everyone getting along. “Unless you’re Greek” I politely interjected and he fell awkwardly silently before mumbling something about it being their own fault and changing the subject. It's the truth that dare not speak its name. That the progressive ideal young people have convinced themselves the EU represents is grossly at odds with the often ugly reality. It is easier to sweep Greece under the carpet than confront the abhorrent way the EU impoverishes its poorest members and strips away their democratic rights. Out of sight, out of mind. It betrays a stunning lack of compassion and empathy for the Greeks and other impoverished people of Southern Europe.
Support for the EU was unsurprisingly strongest amongst the Germans that I met, though none doubted that Britain would be anything but prosperous outside. But even among vocal proponents of the EU there was strong discontent simmering away under the surface. One German girl declared a little pompously that Germany had saved Greece, before complaining that the Euro was a mistake because it was unfair for Germany to have to pay for the irresponsible Greeks. Almost perfectly encapsulating the lack of European demos, even amongst the EU’s supporters, that has doomed the EU.
Another German girl expressed sadness that hostility to immigration had been such a decisive factor in the referendum. She said that she supported Merkel and her refugee policy. But then in a hushed voice, as if worried that someone might overhear, admitted that for the first time she no longer felt safe walking at night in the streets of her hometown due to the large influx of young men from cultures that have little regard for women’s rights. Once again, youthful ideals were clashing unpleasantly with ugly realities.
Of course all this is anecdotal. Pollsters and experts always tell us how pro-EU and left wing my generation is, and social media noise by a loud minority seems to confirm it. But what you find when you scratch the surface is fascinating. When people are taken out of their social media echo chambers and feel they can give their opinions free from judgement or social media backlash. It’s an honest subtlety that I suspect may not be picked up by polls and may go some way to explaining why they are so often erroneous. With such a strong undercurrent of discontent even amongst the EU’s supporters it’s easy to see why the young people who three decades ago voted to keep us in this time voted to take us out, and it’s not hard to imagine our generation making a similar leap. Or perhaps it’s just that the people I met were more well-travelled, citizens of the world rather than little Europeans, which gave them the perspective to appreciate the global opportunities Brexit has offered us.
The theme was the same, particularly amongst those from southern European countries whose economies have been impoverished and democracies eroded. There was little appetite for leaving the EU themselves, but no doubt that Britain would be successful outside. There was a new hope though that the Brexit would force the EU to change course and that their people could take control and assert their will over the EU, just as the British people had done, to reform it. When the British people spoke, we didn’t just speak for ourselves. We spoke for all the peoples of Europe who had no voice. For them, trapped in a cycle to despair, economic turmoil and political stagnation, Britain has just lit a light at the end of the tunnel. It is now up to us to make a success of Brexit so that we can show Europe a brighter way, a better way, into the future.
Liam Taylor has a Master’s degree in Economics and Experimental Economics from the University of Exeter. He was also a former Student Development Officer for The Freedom Association.