Can Britons overseas have a ‘detached’ attitude towards Brexit?

A former law lecturer and Briton in France, Dr Tim Blakemore, reflects on his reaction to the triggering of article 50

As article 50 is triggered we at Connexion welcome our readers’ reactions. Here is a letter from Dr Tim Blakemore, a former senior lecturer in Law at the University of Northampton, now living in France. If you would like to tell us your views, email us at news@connexionfrance.com

Regardless of its rights or wrongs, the arguments are over and the UK is heading inexorably towards Brexit, whether it be soft or hard, joyful or bleak, red white and blue or black and blue.   

Judging from some letters and articles, the affair has caused some expats to re-think their attitude towards the UK. There are many who are looking forward to seeing their home country re-born and triumphant in a new world order. 

Then there are those who envisage a few years of watching the economy degrade like an old house falling into disrepair, or who are embarrassed by the anti-immigrant and nationalistic fervor which continue to dominate the arguments in favour of leaving.

For expats who live in France and like to be European, the prospect of watching events from afar raises a dilemma as to what attitude to adopt. 

Putting aside obvious concerns about personal property or investments in the UK, and a worry about the exchange rate affecting pension income, how are we going to feel as events unravel? 

My own response is to try to manufacture a detached interest, rather like watching the local news from the town you used to live in. I might be pleased that they’ve finally demolished that hideous bus station, and sorry that the football team is doing badly, but I cannot say that I am emotionally involved. 

Of course, such efforts can only take you so far. Enthusiasm for the occasional successes of the French rugby team is as nothing compared to the incandescent joy at the triumphs of the England XV.

Similarly, there will always be deep emotions concerning the state of the UK economy, although it is fair to say that these will be closely connected to the value of my pension and so rather selfish. 

I would be embarrassed to show pleasure at any increase in the cost of living or inflation in the UK just because my index-linked pension would increase, so it is only fair that I hide my despair should the pound fall against the euro. 

As a result, my plan from now on is to cultivate my state of detached interest by observing those developments which have an intellectual rather than an emotional interest. That is to say, what is going to happen to the old bus station rather than the state of the UK economy.

So, what intrigues you? For me, it is the interconnected issues of immigration and borders. Let’s face it, the critical factor in the referendum vote was that of unrestricted EU immigration, because of the basic principle of the free movement of people. 

Those voters in areas that plumped overwhelmingly for Brexit will be expecting a visible diminution in the numbers of foreigners in their streets and town centres. They may very well get their wish, as there are already reports of a drop in EU immigration, but unfortunately there are corresponding reports of worker shortages in a diverse range of industries, be it agricultural, hotel and tourism or food-packing factories. So how will the government deal with these issues? 

Work visas seems the obvious choice, but quite apart from the costly bureaucracy, this would still see groups of off-duty Poles chatting outside McDonalds and thereby annoying the locals. 

Perhaps instead they could devise some form of encouragement for the native English to take these jobs and so I await the resolution of this dilemma with detached interest.

The immigration issue is also at the root of another fascinating problem, namely the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. With the Republic still in the EU, people from all over Europe will be free to travel there and then into Northern Ireland if there are no border controls.

Getting from there into mainland Britain may be more difficult but controls would still be necessary to prevent it – airports, ferry ports and even along the coastline.

Of course, the urgency to get to mainland Britain may diminish in the future, but I doubt that the UK government will be able to rely on that in the short term, or be able to simply stand by as Northern Ireland fills up with EU immigrants. The Irish will not be happy about border controls however, and they are not a people renowned for docile acceptance of officialdom.  

Many people are accustomed to move freely between the North and the Republic, whether for work or socially, and I pity the officials who have to try to restrict them. It is not just a question of movement of people either, because the post-Brexit regime may involve tariffs on the movement of goods, so the border controls may have the additional burden of HM Customs inspections. 

It will be intriguing (in a detached but interested way of course) to see how the UK government resolves these matters. If not handled carefully, it could even prompt the rather more frightening prospect of increased agitation for a unified Ireland.

Still, at least the UK government can see all this as a trial run for another potential border issue, although I doubt whether it is much of a consolation. 

The campaign for Scottish independence has already started and is perhaps a more realistic prospect than Irish unification, at least in the near future. Movement of goods and people would be much simpler across the Scotland/England border, although Hadrian had a solution about two thousand years ago and perhaps by then Donald Trump will be able to provide some useful advice on wall-building between nations. 

I suspect that England would have as much joy with getting Scotland to contribute to the costs as President Trump has had with Mexico, so English bricklayers can look forward to a rosy future.

Perhaps I am being selfish in thinking that immigration and borders won’t affect me, so that I can watch events with little emotional involvement while reserving my personal concerns for the erosion in the value of my pension.

I suspect however that it will not be quite so straightforward, as no matter how settled I am in France, and even if I am successful in obtaining French nationality, events in the country of my birth and upbringing will still affect me emotionally. Detached interest might be more difficult in practice than it sounds in theory, but then UK citizens might be about to face that truth in many other aspects of Brexit. 

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