One only need arrive at Geneva airport, which serves Swiss, French, and Italian mountain resorts, to witness the humiliating degradation of British travellers. It’s particularly galling on Saturdays when the flights come in for the holiday change overs. Standing like third class rejects in the long lines reserved for ‘Other’, these former European Union citizens can only watch helplessly as their EU and EFTA counterparts whisk through their own fast-moving channels. When one British holidaymaker complained, another standing behind him commented dryly: “Well, we did bloody vote for Brexit.”
Had all British citizens worldwide been allowed to vote regardless where they are resident it might have proven a different story. Brits are disenfranchised if they have lived more than 15 years abroad, including the EU, while their American and Swiss counterparts can cast ballots even if they are second or third generation living outside the country. Their democracies do not deny them their rights. Another initiative (See Reclaiming Our Vote) is now in the offing to enable all UK citizens regain that privilege.
For someone with long-term family links to the UK, I can only watch with sadness at the steady disintegration of a nation I once admired. The irony is that Britain is proving far more supportive of Europe with its backing for Ukraine than most EU members. Yet so many British still fail to grasp what a disaster Brexit has been – and will continue to be. Like the emperor’s clothes, why does it take an outsider to point out that Leave has been costing Britain’s shrinking economy billions of taxpayer pounds with losses expected to rise even more? And that this is not primareily because of Covid-19, climate change, or the war in Ukraine as the current leadership likes to assert but rather their own blinkered Weltanschauung?
An enbarrassment to be British
It’s Britain’s young generation that I feel sorry for. Brexit has completely ousted them from the European job scene. It was they who used to dominate the pubs, chalets, offices, travel companies and sports centres in the ski resorts. Unless they happen to have Irish passports or operate illegally, such employment is now going to young EU nationals and even Canadians, whose Quebecois have a special relationship with France.
“You still hear English, but it’s now with a Dublin or Dutch accent,” said Francois, a veteran French holiday operator waiting to pick up clients at Geneva airport. He used to hire primarily British, and still occasionally does so off the books. “We miss them, but then Angleterre voted for this imbecile Brexit. They shoot themselves in both feet and then wonder why they were so stupid.”
Brexit, of course, has imposed similar restrictions from the South of France to the Czech Republic where Brits used to work as entrepreneurs, bartenders, skippers, tour operators, carpenters, teachers, and a host of other jobs. Countless UK nationals with residences in France’s Dordogne or Spain’s Malaga are now finding the bureaucratic management of their pensions, health care and taxes horrendous. Incredulously many now complaining voted Leave. “The (British) government told us that nothing would change, but it’s all become a nightmare,” said a UK retiree with a house near Aix-en-Provence. “I’m now exploring whether I can apply for an EU passport. It’s embarrassing to be British.”
Brexit: a destroyer of employment and educational opportunities
One of the harshest impacts of Brexit is the way it has destroyed so many opportunities for young people in search of life adventure. Visa restrictions mean that gung-ho Brits can no longer simply head abroad for a year or two in Berlin, Prague, or Amsterdam. This is what I am hearing every time I go to the UK or whenever I chat with Brits over here. It also affects love. My daughter, an EU national working in Vienna, has a long-term boyfriend in the UK. The two of them must now carefully work out their visiting dates. Prior to January 2021, when Brexit restrictions came into effect, that was never a problem.
Over the past 35 years, the EU’s prestigious Erasmus Study programme has attracted millions of mainly European students, a learning experience now largely denied to Brits. “It offered our students incredible possibilities. Now we’re cut off,” complained a University of Manchester lecturer in Geneva for a conference. Theoretically, Erasmus is still open to Britain as a ‘non-associated third country” but the UK must now compete with places like Togo and Sri Lanka.
British professionals are way down the list for European jobs. Eddie, an engineer from Sussex in his mid-twenties who had previously interned with an international organization on the French-Swiss border was obliged to return home because of Brexit. He recently found a high-tech job in Zurich but was only hired once the company could prove there was no competing Swiss or EU candidate. “I don’t think many in the UK understand just how disastrous Brexit has been for our future,” Eddie said. At the same time, he admits that he never bothered to vote in the referendum. “I didn’t think Brexit would happen,” he explains meekly.
The process, of course, works both ways. Young Europeans seeking to work or study in the UK can no longer simply grab an EasyJet. “I had originally applied for a traineeship in Bristol, but then changed to Dublin,” said Marie, a 26-year-old French biotechnician from Toulouse sitting next to me on a flight to London. “It just wasn’t worth going through the whole process.”
No longer worth studying in the UK
European universities are now offering many of their courses in English at often low tuition costs, or none at all. EU candidates who might have applied previously to Manchester or Durham are turning to Leiden, Copenhagen, and Brussels. The trouble is that European universities have become so popular that countries like the Netherlands are now telling applicants not to bother unless they have found accommodation. There is no more room.
As with many other EU residents, my family used to order books, electronic items and even food from the UK. No longer. The bureaucracy is too complicated, and costly. Nor do we head to Britain for weekend breaks. Air travel is no longer reliable. For me, I find it hard to be associated with a country whose leadership disparages its underpaid and overworked doctors and nurses with such disdain.
Several of my long-time British friends, including well-travelled professionals who should have known better, voted Leave. When I asked one of them why, he replied with the usual: “We want our sovereignty back.” Whatever that means. It was as if the British empire still existed and that Britain could somehow go it alone without begin part of its biggest economic partner, the European Union.
Another, a London barrister in his late 50s – and whose student age children virtually disowned him for voting Brexit – noted with admiration that economically successful Switzerland is not part of the EU. “So why not the UK?“ he asked. Switzerland, however, operates according to most EU regulations and even contributes financially – over 1.3 billion Swiss francs (1.16 billion pounds) – to foster what the Swiss government refers to as “cohesion and stability in Europe.” Switzerland is also part of Schengen, which the UK is not, so there are no borders with neighbouring France, Germany, Italy and Austria. De facto, it functions as if part of the EU with no one requiring a permit.
LEAVE: Any different from Russians believing Putin’s lies?
As a foreign correspondent for over 40 years, I have covered elections in countries ranging from Pakistan to Algeria where, despite corruption or efforts by the ruling parties to manipulate opinion, concerned citizens at least made the effort to ensure that the process came across as credible.
Today, nearly seven years since the Brexit referendum, I still fail to understand how the British public could prove so utterly gullible by accepting the lies and disinformation shovelled out to them by the Leave campaign, and at what cost? We like to criticize Russians for buying into the myths perpetrated by the Putin regime over Ukraine. But are those who voted for Brexit any different?
Britain’s ballot hardly constituted an expression of informed opinion. Nor did it acknowledge the consequences at stake. In contrast, the Swiss hold well-managed referenda – once every three months – supported by detailed ‘For’ or ‘Against’ pamphlets highlighting the issues at hand. If the government feels that people have been misinformed, they can order a new vote.
Egged on by a jingoistic tabloid press fed by shoddy journalism, many British, including the government, had no idea – and still haven’t – what form Brexit would finally take. Given the old age of so many Leave voters, they are now dying off and will thus not have to suffer its long-term consequences. Based on recent polls, however, the overwhelming majority of British youth consider Brexit a massive mistake.
At the same time, so many still fail to understand why so much is going wrong in the UK. While in London last week, I watched the news on morning television about the shortage of tomatoes in British supermarkets. One government official insisted that it had nothing to do with Brexit. It was a production issue. Back in France and the rest of the EU, including Switzerland, there was no shortage of tomatoes. Or anything else for that matter.
Yet the voices of Britain’s new generation are not being heard by either side of the political aisle. As one UK diplomat explained: “The sad reality is that the British are tired of Brexit, so we ignore it – a bit like the alcoholic who knows he’s got a problem but still thinks he’s in control.”
Global Insights editor Edward Girardet is a US-Swiss journalist and author who has covered wars, humanitarian crises and other related issues for more than four decades. Based out of Cessy, a French village near the Geneva border, he crosses into Switzerland daily without having to show his passport.