This bog was written on Friday Feb 8, 2019
It was a week of Brexit big things:
- Nissan announcing that new models would not be manufactured in Sunderland after all.
- Theresa May turning up in Northern Ireland and Brussels to tell people that she had a problem, but no solutions.
- The Labour party setting out proposals which would see the UK as an equal partner with the EU in a “mini customs unions and single market”. But without the stuff the Jeremy doesn’t like.
Yet it is the little things in the great scheme of things that people going about their daily lives generally care about. For the most part, few of us bother with politics. Politics are something that happens somewhere else as we just get on with organising the kids for school, driving to the job, doing the shopping, getting home, cooking dinner, falling asleep in front of the television. Life is just everyday ordinariness.
Brexit is a big thing in the great scheme of things. But it is also full of those little things. My Scottish friend, Robbie, who lives in Wales, brought this home to me during the week when he emailed me to say how difficult it would be for him, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, to drive across and visit us here in France.
He sent me a link to a recent, UK government paper Prepare to Drive in the EU after Brexit. Now, the paper is about how to go about getting a local driving licence if you are living in the EU, having GB stickers on your car and so on. But here are the killer paragraphs:
Road traffic accidents in the EU
From 29 March 2019, in the event that there is no EU Exit deal, UK residents involved in a road traffic accident in an EU or EEA country should not expect to be able to make a claim in respect of that accident via a UK-based Claims Representative or the UK Motor Insurers’ Bureau (MIB).
Instead, UK residents involved in a road accident may need to bring a claim against either the driver or the insurer of the vehicle in the EU or EEA country where the accident happened. This may involve bringing the claim in the local language.
In the event of an accident in an EU or EEA country caused by an uninsured or an untraced driver, UK residents may not receive compensation if there is no EU Exit deal. This will vary from country to country.
Let me put this very simply. The above three paragraphs mean that if there is a no-deal Brexit then your insurance may be worthless if you drive in the EU after March 29th next. Let’s say you plan on a camping holiday in France. You have a small accident on the motorway near Dijon. Today, you exchange papers, get the car fixed, go home and sort it out in the UK with your insurance company.
After a no-deal Brexit you would have to find a French lawyer to file a claim on your behalf in a French court against the other driver and his or her French insurer. All transactions will be conducted in French. Who has the time or resources to be able to do that? Maybe rich Brexiteers who have moved all their money to Dublin but not most people.
But would you even be allowed on the road in France in the first place? Would the French authorities not insist that you take out French insurance to cover your trip? After all, they will be concerned about what happens to their citizens if you crash into one of them, wreck their car and cause serious injury or worse. The French can be demanding that way, as can the Germans, Spanish, Italians, all of them in fact.
If you think about it, the UK has been a member of the EU since 1973. You need to be seventeen to get a driving licence in the UK. So, most people under the age of sixty have had their driving licences while the UK has been a member of the EU. As motoring holidays in Europe became popular in the 70s and 80s, the previously required paperwork to drive in Europe began to disappear. Millions of people do so every year and cross La Manche for holidays in the sun or snow. Or to go to places steeped in history and culture, reminders of the wars and cruelty that have ravaged our land for centuries which the EU has helped bring to an end.
Today, you can wake up on a Saturday morning and decide, on the spur of the moment, to spend the weekend on the Belgium coast, in, let’s say, De Panne. A quick Google check tells you that there are a couple of rooms available in the Donny hotel. You drive to the Chunnel, buy a ticket and an hour later you are there. No paperwork required. No booking ahead. As the late US chef Anthony Bourdain might have put it: No Reservations
This is the world that Brexit will leave behind. A seamless world, even if the refusal of the UK to be part of the Schengen travel zone means that you do have to show your passport to cross the Channel. But once on the mainland, there are no borders. The old customs’ post on the road between France and Belgium where I live is now a shop selling Leonidas chocolates, where, unfortunately, I have stopped once too often.
Of course, if you do manage to make it across La Manche it is going to be an awful lot more expensive to phone home. As HuffPost reported
Brits travelling in Europe will overnight face the return of mobile phone roaming charges in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
A little-noticed government regulation laid before parliament on Tuesday confirms that the UK will revoke the current legislation that allows holidaymakers and business people to use their smartphones in the EU at no extra cost.
The draft ‘statutory instrument’, which has been tabled as part of a raft of no-deal preparations, means that from March 29 phone users will be liable for surcharges when they travel on the continent. After years of battling for it, consumer groups across Europe were delighted when roaming charges were scrapped in 2017, saving travellers tens and even hundreds of pounds. Phone companies across Europe fought the scrapping of the charges at every turn.
According to HuffPost, in a note accompanying the secondary legislation – the Mobile Roaming (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 – the government admits that consumer groups lobbied hard for a new scheme to maintain the current arrangements. But, “after careful consideration”, the government decided otherwise, saying
…that if the current system continued after Brexit, UK phone firms would face “increased costs” from EU carriers that they might then pass on to customers.
Well, I suppose that is what the government would call “taking back control” but it is probably not what millions who voted for Brexit would have expected.
Brexit is all about borders, reintroducing them where now there are none. Ending freedom of movement is, above all else, what appears to drive the UK prime minister. It often seems to me that people in the UK think that ending freedom of movement is a one-way street. “We can stop people from the EU coming here but we can go to Europe as we always have. And the EU will be punishing us for leaving if it does not let that happen.”
When it comes to roaming charges it is the UK government that is doing the punishing. It had the chance to leave things as they are and deliberately decided otherwise.
There are other little things. Like health insurance.
I recall a conversation in Spain with Chris. Chris had retired there some ten years ago after a career in the Royal Navy and then as an engineer in the IT industry. He owned his own apartment and had a pension sufficient to keep him reasonably comfortable. It was some months after the Brexit vote in 2016 when we spoke, and Chris told me he was deeply afraid for the future. Already, he had seen his pension, paid in pounds, fall by some 20% when changed into euros.
He would still be OK, he said, as long as he had his European Health Insurance Card (EHIC). This meant that if he fell ill and had to go to hospital he would be treated the same as if he was a Spanish citizen. But if he lost that he would be in real trouble. He had already had a couple of health scares and that would make private insurance very, very expensive. Yet, he couldn’t afford to sell up in Spain and go back to the UK.
Chris was a realist. He knew what might happen. But he went on to tell me that what really worried him was the attitude of many of his local English friends, less well financially secure than him, who believed that Brexit was a good thing and also believed that the Spanish government would agree to everything the UK demanded because “… the Spanish economy would collapse without us Brits”.
I met some of Chris’s friends a little later. Needless to say, the conversation turned to Brexit. “The Spanish won’t be able to stand up to the British” was indeed their attitude. When I pointed out that the UK would not be negotiating with Spain but with the 27 EU countries as a bloc the answer was “that won’t last, they’ll fall apart and don’t be surprised if others leave the EU as well”.
They thought things might be even better for them with the UK out of the EU. Theresa May would be the new Maggie. Those Brussels bureaucrats would not know what had hit them. Of course, those were the days when Michael Gove was telling everyone that the UK held all the cards and would be able to dictate terms to the EU.
One or two of them argued that it would be good when the UK stopped being “overrun” with immigrants from the EU. They were ruining the place. When I said that they themselves were immigrants here in Spain I was told indignantly that they were no such thing. They were “British ex-pats.” Very different from immigrants, apparently.
I wonder how they see it all some two years later as the UK stares down the barrel of a “no-deal” Brexit? Probably, that the EU has treated the UK unfairly but that will be little consolation for them if the pound drops further and they lose their health insurance. “Taking back control” can come at a cost.
When you are out, you are out, and you cannot expect to be treated as if you were still in. It just does not work that way. It appears to me that the majority of the British political class and the commentariat have simply not fully internalised what Brexit actually means. Reading newspaper and magazine articles, blog posts and Twitter feeds you are forced to the conclusion that many believe that the UK can leave the EU yet still retain all the benefits of EU membership and still be a powerful voice when it comes to EU decision making.
As Theresa May put it in November, 2017: The UK is a big, important country compared to Ireland, and Irish concern’s should not be allowed to stand in Britain’s way.
But they did, because Ireland was “in” and the UK was on the way out.
After March 29th next, one way or another, unless Brexit is reversed, the UK Prime Minister will no longer attend meetings of the European Council, government ministers will not be attending council meetings with ministers from the EU27, and civil servants will be out of working groups and committees.
The EU will be “over there” making decisions at meetings in which the UK will not be involved and will have no voice other than as a “third country” on the outside lobbing for its interests.
Make no mistake about it. While ardent Brexiteers will welcome the ending of EU entanglements, the UK cannot escape geography. It is just 33K (21 miles) from Dover to Calais. After Brexit the EU will be a political and economic grouping of some 450 million people. The population of the UK will be around 66 million. Decisions taken in the EU will, inevitably, have an impact on the UK.
Brexiteers may rail against this but you might as well argue that as the Earth has voted to leave the solar system the Sun should have no more influence on the planet. It is just not going to happen.
Most people won’t notice the “big thing” that the UK no longer has a voice in EU decision making. But they will notice the “little things” like the need for additional licences and insurance to drive in Europe, that phoning home will cost more, and that, if they fall ill while on holidays, they better have private insurance.
The Brexit of little things. But, by the time people notice, it will be too late.