What Europeans talk about when they talk about Brexit


IMAGE/Duck Duck Go

Some years ago, a UK tabloid ran a contemptuous article claiming that the majority of Belgians weren’t proud to be Belgian, and that surveys revealed Belgians to be the world’s least patriotic people. Statistics like these make me proud to be Belgian, but they also miss the point, because Belgium is something of an abstraction even to Belgians, whose sense of cultural and linguistic belonging starts at the regional level rather than the national, and where political power lies not with the nation-state but with the regions and provinces.

When people talk of Belgium and Belgians, they need to specify which Belgians. Words like ‘patriotism’, ‘control’ and ‘sovereignty’ mean very different things in a country less than two hundred years old, which was created as a post-national state. Those words, which are batted about ad nauseam in Brexit debates, come pre-packed inside inverted commas in Belgium. Our families and communities, not to mention many of our trees and houses, have longer histories than our country. My family home in Bouillon, on the French border, is decked with photographs of relatives who were born before Belgium was created. There are wooden clogs under the stairs that are older than Belgium. My family is working-class and post-industrial: Walloon first, European second and Belgian third. Their Belgitude, which they celebrate when the ‘diables rouges’ are playing in the World Cup and disdain for royal weddings or the king’s Christmas message, is part of a modular identity, and like so many of the things that define us, they don’t notice it and find it boring to talk about.

When Belgians – whether from the Flemish, the Walloon or the often overlooked German community – watch the Götterdämmerung of ineptocracy that is Brexit, they are baffled but entertained. There may be some well-deserved Schadenfreude as they watch what happens to a country that becomes addicted to fetishising its own nationhood and imbibes too many of the clichés it once produced for export: commonsensical, mild, tolerant people led by pragmatic, cultivated politicians upholding the dignity of their office in the Mother of Parliaments. My cousin points out that the English (and he does say les anglais, not les gallois or les écossais) are the last people to believe those myths. In Scarface, Elvira Hancock (Michelle Pfeiffer) tells Tony Montana (Al Pacino) not to get high on his own supply. Cataclysms like Brexit, and politicians like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson, are what happens when an entire country gets high on its own supply, but everyone else stopped buying long ago.

I was in Brussels recently, taking my son to watch Anderlecht play, when I heard some English people in a café asking the waiter why no one liked the English. They were nice people asking a genuine question, but often it’s the wrong people who ask the right questions. The waiter replied, politely and in perfect English: ‘We can read your newspapers and watch your television; we hear what your politicians and your journalists say about us.’ That summed it up: all this time we Brits thought we were talking to ourselves, and we were, but everyone else was listening in. Belgians are not surprised by Brexit: it’s just the coagulation as policy of what’s been flowing as attitude for decades.

In the UK things seem to be happening both very fast and very slowly, as if Brexit had created its own durée: every hour there are new crises, new declarations, new denunciations, and yet things are no further advanced than the day after the referendum. I found more preparation for Brexit on Zeebrugge port’s website than I’ve seen, read or heard from British politicians or (most of) the media. Zeebrugge will be ‘entirely Brexit-proof’, the port authority says. The view from Belgium is that the only place that isn’t Brexit-proof is Britain itself.

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