Belgium, Brexit, British Government, healthcare

At the Heart of Europe – a Literally True #Brexit Story

Written on Mon, March 19th, 2018

ecg-resultsLast Saturday, John, who lives with his wife Patricia (“Patsy”) and their two dogs in a small village on the French North coast, close to the border with Belgium, suffered a serious heart attack, though he did not know it at the time. But he felt ill, really ill.

Patsy suggested that they go to Veurne Hospital across the Border in Belgium but he wanted to see Ireland hopefully beat England at Twickenham in the rugby that afternoon giving Ireland the Grand Slam and, later on that evening, the ManU/Brighton game. So, he agreed to go to the hospital next day if he still felt unwell.

Just after eight o’clock the next morning, dogs on the back seat, they were on the way to Veurne Hospital. While John presented at A+E, Patsy dropped the dogs off with nearby Belgium friends. Within an hour John was diagnosed as, in all probability, having suffered a heart attack the previous day and was immediately sent by ambulance to Ostend where he was operated on and was, by a quarter past one, back in a recovery room and able to talk with Patsy by phone.

As they drove from France into Belgium, using their Irish driving licences, they weren’t stopped at the border because there is no border. In fact, the old customs post is now a shop selling Leonidas chocolates. No problem with the dogs coming along, they had their pet passports. Paperwork at the hospital was minimal because John was an EU citizen.

Phoning from Ostend back to France after the procedure was easy because there are now no roaming charges. Meanwhile, a couple of Irish friends of John’s are planning to grab a cheap Ryanair flight to come and see him.

This is not a fictional vignette, though it is written with a little poetic licence. It is what happened to me last Saturday and Sunday.

That you are reading this Briefing today, Monday, shows that I am well on the way to a full recovery, thanks to the skills and dedication of all the Belgium medical personnel who looked after me. There cannot be many better medical systems anywhere in the world. Five hours from presentation at A+E to the recovery room.

But what happened to me shows that the European Union is now built into the warp and weft of our everyday life to such an extent that most people do not actually realise it. Like oxygen, it would only be missed if it weren’t there.

Anyone in the UK (and Ireland) aged 65 will have spent the whole of their adult life in the EU, or the Common Market as it was widely known in 1973 when the UK, along with Ireland and Denmark joined the original founding six Member States. Those aged 45 have spent their adult life in EU’s Internal Market. EU membership has greatly shaped the everyday world of work and travel within which we live in Europe.

Free movement means that people are free to go and work and study and live in other EU countries. Hundreds of thousands of British people have retired to the sun in Spain. Once in mainland Europe there are no barriers to travel between EU member states. You can drive from Calais in France, into Belgium, through Luxembourg, back into France and then across the Border into Spain without once being stopped. The only placed you are stopped is when you are leaving the UK and only then because the UK refused to join Schengen.

If you fall ill in any EU Member State, you are entitled to medical treatment through the use of the European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). Your UK driving licence entitles you to drive in any EU country without any further paperwork being needed. Your pets can travel with you thanks to the European Pet Passport.

When it comes to air travel, as the Financial Times notes (here)

Britain’s gains from a quarter of a century of airline market liberalisation rest on a complex lattice of international commitments and regulations — a platform of law spanning up to 155 countries that will fall away in the event of a severe break from the EU.

Airline market liberalisation saw the growth of carriers such as Ryanair and easyJet, making travel throughout Europe affordable for millions. Too easy to forget the days when only the rich could afford the beaches of the Costas. Or students, who never much cared how they travelled or where they slept.

Complex manufacturing supply chains have developed across Europe as a result of frictionless borders resulting from the EU’s integrated internal market, made up of the Single Market and the Customs Union. This has contributed enormously, for example, to the rebuilding of the UK’s car industry which was all but wiped out in the 1970s and 80s.

To be completely accurate, that should read “to the rebuilding of the car industry located in the UK” because practically none of it is UK owned. The overseas owners, Nissan, Toyota, BMW, Peugeot and the others will rethink their presence if and when borders and customs controls are re-established after Brexit. A note from Japanese business organisations last week made that clear.

Speaking on the BBC program Question Time last Thursday, the UK Transport Secretary and leading Brexiteer, Chris Grayling said:

We will maintain a free-flowing border at Dover, we will not impose checks in the port. We don’t check lorries now, we’re not going to be checking lorries in Dover in the future. Absolutely clear, it cannot happen.

If the UK leaves the EU’s Custom Union and Single Market, as it has said repeatedly it would, then there will be a border between the UK and the EU and World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules state that goods crossing such a border must be inspected for a variety of reasons. Even a Free Trade Agreement will not obviate the need for border controls, as currently happens between Norway and Sweden and the US and Canada.

Grayling’s remarks are a denial of reality, whether conscious or unconscious. I suspect the latter. Such denials of the reality of Brexit appear to be widespread among UK politicians and among much of the commentariat. The UK will leave the EU and “take back control of its borders, law and money”, nothing will change and everything will continue exactly as it is today, save that the UK will control the movement of EU citizens into the UK.

Yes, they want change. However, what it really comes down to wanting free movement for everything, accept people and then only no free movement for EU citizens to come to the UK. Of course, there should continue to be free movement for UK citizens who to go and live or work or retire elsewhere in the EU because “they have always been able to do so”.

Grayling believes that trucks will flow freely between Dover and Calais, and in the opposite direction, because it would be economic madness for them not to. But they won’t flow freely because of the decision of the UK to become a third country, completely outside the EU’s economic, trade and legal architecture. Out means out.

Driving freely across borders, bringing your pets with you, receiving medical treatment, making inexpensive phone calls, and all the rest is not the way the world naturally is. Things are not ordained that way. They were made this way by the elected representatives of all EU Member States working freely together through the European Union to make life better for ordinary Europeans. Yes, the European Union has its faults, glaring faults, but we can fix them over time. Most things that last are not made in a day.

What is true for ordinary people in their everyday lives is as true for businesses. Seamless, frictionless trade between 28 Member States. Trucks that take two minutes to pass through Dover on to continental Europe. Supply chains that criss-cross the Union making a Nissan possible in a place where that might not have previously been possible. The food we eat and the products we use made safe by a comprehensive framework of regulations, as are the airplanes in which we fly.

When the UK becomes a third country it will fall out of all of these arrangements. “But we don’t want to, we don’t need to”, many Brexiteers say. “You are punishing us”. Not so. As we again commented last week, no one asked the UK to leave the EU, nor was it expelled. It decided to leave. In the word of Luxembourg Prime Minister, Xavier Bettel, “The UK was in with a lot of opt-outs.

Now it wants out but with a lot of opt-ins”. With its opt-outs, from Schengen and the Euro, for example, the UK had the best of both worlds. But that wasn’t good enough. It wants all of its own world and the best of the EU’s. It won’t happen.

Sure, agreements can be negotiated between the EU and the UK to replace what will be lost through Brexit. But these replacements will not be as good as what the UK now has as a member of the club. Outsiders never get the same deal as members and there is no knowing how long it will take to replace the matrix of agreements that are in place now, or at what cost. The UK will be negotiating with the EU to be worse off in all respects. Never before in human history…

Based on the UK government’s own economic analysis (here) it is clear that there is no scenario in which the UK will be better off outside the EU than inside it. “But it was never about the money”, say the Brexiteers, “it was about recovering our sovereignty, without it being constrained in any way by EU membership.” Better to be somewhat worse off but have our sovereignty.

It is worth noting that those who usually make this argument are themselves generally fairly well off and unlikely to be financially hit when Brexit eventually happens. In the words of the former UK Prime Minister, John Major, they are not going to be the ones who find that the “week is longer than the money”. But they are happy for others to be in that position for the sake of a notional sovereignty.

For in todays global economy a notional sovereignty is all it can be. Membership of the WTO or trade agreements with other countries will all involve some curtailment of sovereignty because once you agree to give up some things in exchange for other things you are no longer fully sovereign. The only real act of sovereignty is agreeing to limit your sovereignty.

As I learned over the past days being a citizen of the EU, as well as of Ireland, is a wonderous thing. It literally saved my life. It is not something I would ever want to give up. There are many millions of Europeans who are not yet EU citizens who dearly want what UK citizens already have and are about to throw away. Never too late to think again. You will only miss it when it is gone.

If I was a UK citizen and in return for surrendering part of my sovereignty the choice was between a European Health Insurance Card, which allows me to travel worry-free throughout Europe, or a chlorinated, US chicken for Sunday lunch, I know the choice I would make.

Finally, to all those wonderful Belgian medical staff who helped me through the past days can I say: Dank U wel. Jullie zijn de beste van de wereld.

2 thoughts on “At the Heart of Europe – a Literally True #Brexit Story

  1. It’s strange reading on Twitter the many Gammon comments – I’m almost 45, but I still remember the days before Schengen, when we crossed real borders (Long waiting) with passports, instead of just ID Card; when travelling to Italy for summer required travel health insurance; and dozen other things which EU improved in the past 2 decades.
    Did British People travel so Little, have so Little contact – were they really that insular?

    Also, I hope your health has improved, and am glad that you got good Treatment.


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