BREXIT and the British Community in France : Personal Thoughts by Sarah Gould
Brexit. A word now imprinted on my mind and one I’ve not contemplated before. The UK has been part of the EU since 1973 (a bit younger than me), a decision taken, also, following a public referendum. Today, after another referendum and with a 51% vote for Brexit, the UK Government triggered Article 50. I consider myself European and voted to ‘remain’. Maybe there are benefits to Brexit, but I’m struggling to see them and if nothing else, it brings uncertainty particularly to non UK Europeans living in the UK or UK citizens living elsewhere in Europe. Politically, one can argue there is no right or wrong. However, there will be consequences. Article 50 is complicated, the EU is complicated, and whilst I’m not saying the EU is perfect and that it has made mistakes; what will really be the consequences of Brexit? When WPNG was offered an opportunity to meet the UK’s ambassador representing Lyon in April, I volunteered to attend and paid my 30 euros for lunch. This is what I learnt, along with some personal thoughts.
The meeting was held in a lovely 18th century building in Cordeliers; a typically French affair with apero, full three courses and coffee. We took our seats at pre-designated tables scattered around the room, were given a brief introduction, and informed that questions would be taken at the end of the meal, with a sharp stop at 14.00. The ambassador then spoke.
He certainly had the appropriate credentials, having served many years in Government, including as private secretary to the ex-Prime Minister, David Cameron. His accent suggested he may even have been educated in a similar establishment. He seemed a bit nervous, perhaps unsure of what to expect from the audience, but his message was clear and one of optimism. He re-assured the audience that Brexit was best for Britain, and “was a decision made as a consequence of the voting UK public.” The latter statement created some muttering around the table, as to how approximately 51% in favour of Brexit had become ‘the people’. He told us proudly that he is married to a French woman, has two children, and that there is a keen interest for the Government to maintain relations between France and the UK. An office has been set up to to manage Brexit (the name eludes me), but he didn’t tell us who occupied this office, what their credentials were or how they would ensure they would address all the potential issues likely to be faced, particularly by people like ‘us’.
As he spoke, I couldn’t help but wonder whether he believed what he was saying. Maybe my filters were influencing my perception, but something made me question his authenticity. As soon as he finished, we hungrily tucked into a lovely French lunch.
The noise in the room escalated as everyone chatted at their tables, until coffee was served and then the floor was opened for questions. It was slow to start but eventually the questions arrived and concerned the following: the presence of the British Embassy, dual nationality and whether it was possible to maintain both (the answer to this was yes), and inheritance tax. These questions seemed tame. I was considering asking a question, but based on the ambassador’s speech, I realised he either wouldn’t be able to answer, or I would get some placating response.
I mused on my feelings; the meeting had served to remind me that Brexit was going to happen and that it brings feelings of frustration and disappointment. For me, his speech lacked substance and presented an unrealistic optimism. Perhaps it is too early to have all the answers, but there was not even the slightest acknowledgment that Brexit was complex. Instead, I heard unconvincing optimism with a lack of authenticity, which left me wondering whether anyone really knows what they are doing, or whether they simply won’t admit that they have no clue. I want to be optimistic. I hope Britain and Europe will come out of this, relations in tact, with no major recession or financial impact; let alone concerns at an individual level, for people like myself. However, only time will tell, and in the meantime, it couldn’t be clearer; we are going to live with uncertainty for some time to come and March 2019 is the only date in the calendar.