Brexit: Brussels should have stood up for itself more

France-based author Stephen Clarke spent a lot of time in the corridors of power in Brussels researching for his new book. Here he argues that the folk in suits at the EU should have got off their pedestal and joined the fight.

Brexit: Brussels should have stood up for itself more
Photo: AFP

I've heard a lot of people saying that the Brexit vote was won by a mixture of racists, empire sentimentalists, and people who think that politicians' promises and tabloid headlines are literally true.

That must be an exaggeration, though personally I can't think why anyone would want to believe some of the false statistics and xenophobic nonsense that was being trumpeted in the pro-Leave newspapers unless they really wanted it all to be true.

There are also, of course, Brits who have genuine economic and political grounds to believe that the EU isn't working, and that a financially wasteful bureaucracy, empowered to intervene in every aspect of our lives, isn't the way to govern Europe (although I suspect that that last category is a small minority of those who voted to leave).

But putting aside all the scare stories on both sides of the referendum campaign, I think there's another reason why Britain voted itself out.

Last year, when I was researching my novel, Merde in Europe, I spent quite a bit of time in Brussels talking to the people who worked there. I asked them what they thought of the absurd stories about Europe that have been peddled in the British press for the last few decades.

All of us Brits have seen them – Brussels wants to ban English sausages, smoky bacon crisps and bagpipes; the EU wants to rename Waterloo Station and the English Channel; eurocrats want to forbid singing in pubs and barmaids' cleavages. The usual stuff.

The eurocrats I spoke to had heard of some of these, but were astonished by the sheer number of them – I'd brought a whole catalogue with me.

Most of these euro-myths were perverse interpretations of actual European laws.

The “sausage ban” story, for example, was inspired by an EU ruling on the definition of meat products – basically, some of the scrag ends scraped off bones and skin can't be called “meat” any more, much to the chagrin of certain sausage-makers.

The “barmaids' cleavage” fable was based on a ruling about protecting outdoor workers from excessive UV exposure.

The “renaming Waterloo” rumour emerged after an off-hand remark from a British eurocrat that it probably annoyed the French.

It was all so easy to contradict and explain (which is exactly what I do in my novel), so I asked the people in Brussels why the EU didn't do so.

The answer I got from their press department was honest, but scary: we don't dare stand up to the British press, they told me, because it'd only get worse.

That was all very well when the tabloid stories were just so much ambient noise while the EU got on with its work, but not in the context of a referendum campaign. And anyway, staying out of the public opinion battle for so long, or rather acting as though they were above it, has so dented the EU's credibility that even a well-argued, amusingly-worded rebuttal of every single lie would have been ignored by a large chunk of the British population.

The EU could have run – or at least provided the information for – a targeted poster campaign along the lines of “Do you really believe that Westminster is going to allocate [fill in sum of money] for [fill in name of local, EU-backed project]?” Or “Do you think that Westminster would have renovated this [fill in name of local building, bridge, road, sea defences, etc]?”

The Scots and Northern Irish knew this, and voted accordingly, but some of those pro-Brexit English cities might have thought again.

What it all comes down to is that, even if you believe in the need for European Union and the single market, and love the idea of being able to travel the whole continent freely in search of work and education, you have to admit that Brussels is out of touch with, or unable to cope with, public opinion about it.

It's not really surprising when almost no one in Europe knows who their MEP is (I've never met anyone who cares), and when so many eurocrats are so privileged and so conscious of their power.

The sad thing is that I found that everyone I met in Brussels when I was there for my research was fundamentally well-intentioned. They were a bunch of (admittedly overpaid) teddy bears who wanted everyone in Europe to have clean water, clean air, healthy food, unpolluted beaches and safe working conditions.

They didn't want to ban anything useful or fun, and they wanted us all to be able to trade safely on the internet, have access to cheap utilities, and drive safely on the roads.

They were also very willing to share a few pints of Belgian beer with a visiting British writer, which made them even more talkative, so I got to know them pretty well.

The Leavers say they wanted to “take back control”, but quite frankly, I would trust the people I met in Brussels much more than any Westminster government, with its short-term, “let's get ourselves re-elected” policies.

The trouble is, no one really knows who these EU officials are, or what they do. And if they want the EU to survive, I think they have to step down from their generously funded pedestal and start telling us.

Stephen Clarke's latest novel is Merde in Europe, about a Brit who goes to work in Brussels and tries to find out what everyone really gets up to.

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France may cut Channel islands ferry service after post-Brexit collapse in visitor numbers

Visits to the Channel islands from France have halved since Brexit, and French local authorities say they may be forced to cut the regular ferry service, asking for the passport requirement to be waived for French visitors.

France may cut Channel islands ferry service after post-Brexit collapse in visitor numbers

Travel to and from the Channel islands – which are British crown dependancies – has reduced significantly since Brexit, when passports became a requirement for those travelling in and out of the islands and their ports.

Now the president of the local authorities in the Manche département of France has asked that passport requirements be lifted, with hopes of increasing travel to and from the islands.

Jean Morin told Ouest France that there has been a “considerable reduction in the number of passengers on routes between the Channel ports and the islands” and as a result the ferry service between France and the islands was seriously in deficit.

“On these lines, we will never make money, but we cannot be in deficit”, explained the Morin. 

He added that if a solution is not found by the deadline of May 1st, 2023, then local authorities will stop funding the shipping company DNO, which runs the Manche Îles Express ferry service.

“If the passport requirement is not lifted by then, we will have no choice but not to renew the service contract for 2024-2025”, Morin told Ouest France.

Only around half of French people have a passport, since the ID card issued to all adults is sufficient to travel within the EU. 

READ MORE: Ask the Expert: How Brexit has changed the rules on pensions, investments and bank accounts for Brits in France

DNO re-launched operations in April and since then, the company, and by extension the département – who plays a large role in funding it via a public service delegation – has been losing significant funds.

According to Franceinfo, the number of passengers has been cut in half since passport requirements were introduced. Franceinfo estimates that for one ticket for one passenger costing €30, the département spends €200.

According to Morin, the ideal solution would be to require a simple ID for tourists seeking to take just day-long or weekend-long stays on the islands – which reportedly represents at least 90 percent of the boats’ usual passengers.

“The Jersey government is working hard on the issue and is waiting for an agreement from London and the European Union. There is the possibility that things could move quickly”, Morin told Franceinfo on Tuesday.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit, boats going to and from the French mainland carried at least 110,000 people per year. In 2022, only 40,000 passengers made the journey, Olivier Normand, the sales manager of Manche Îles Express, told Actu France.

Normand had expected the decline, however. He told Actu France that the company had taken a survey, which found that almost half (between 40 and 50 percent) of their clientele did not have a passport.