You’ve heard a lot about the British Exit, or Brexit, from the European Union some three weeks ago. The seismic vote has been scrutinized and analyzed to death by pundits, but I doubt you’ve heard firsthand reactions from real Brits.
This week I’m in Germany for the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists 60th annual congress. I have lots of friends who write about agriculture around the world, and a couple of them from the UK agreed to tell me firsthand what it was like during the Brexit vote.
Caroline Stocks, 34, is a freelance journalist who writes about agriculture for the United Kingdom’s leading farming and mainstream national media. She was a strong ‘stay’ supporter. Adrian Bell, 42, founder of international marketing firm Agromavens, was a staunch ‘leave’ supporter.
What was it like before the vote?
Caroline: “Up to the actual vote, there was a lot of mudslinging on both sides. Even though the ‘leave’ supporters had gained traction we all expected the UK would remain in the EU, and the event would be seen as a protest vote only.
“There was a lot of rhetoric around immigration – the leave people were creating a climate of fear, saying immigrants were taking money from hard working UK people. That’s widely assumed to be the main reason people voted to leave the EU. It’s frightening to look across the world and see the same messages put out, in France, the U.S. and Australia. To me, this is the time for unity, not for people breaking away.”
Adrian: “For me I was disappointed by the scaremongering from the ‘remain’ supporters. The whole ‘remain’ campaign was dubbed ‘Project Fear’ because that was the heart of their argument – we’ll put fear into people over the unknowns of leaving. They were predicting things like an immediate recession, that if we left the EU our national security would be at risk. Former Prime Minister David Cameron even implied that if we left EU there would be an actual war.
To me this was a vote on our prime minister, who was saying if we leave the EU we would not be able to stand on our own two feet. For a PM to feel that way about his country was really concerning to me.”
How did you feel when you heard the result of the vote?
Caroline: “I actually cried when I saw the result, which is extreme because I’m not normally emotional. It was amazing to hear so many friends in their 20s and 30s feel the same way. Even now three weeks later I’m swayed between anger and sadness. It felt like no one bothered to actually do their research. I’m angry at politicians for allowing the decision to be made by the public. The referendum should have been used as a guide for politicians to make the final decision for the country.”
Adrian: “I stayed up all night to watch the vote and was elated when it was declared. There was talk about having another vote, but it won’t happen. We had a prime minister who offered us a vote, we took the choice and it’s done; there’s no going back. The ‘remainers’ have been vocal about the upset but to be honest, it’s something we often see in the UK after any political event.
Now that you’ve had time to process this, how do you feel about the outcome?
Caroline: “The worst thing is the powerlessness you feel. I’ve signed every petition and made every protest and joined groups on Facebook. There’s nothing we can do and the emotion in the country is strange; this has legitimized racism. The things people might have only said at home are being said on the streets. It’s allowed this awful thing to come out of the woodwork, and that’s frightening.
People say you should be positive because this is our opportunity to create something from the ashes, but all of the people who promised these things have resigned. We have a lot of uncertainty around the new government and a new prime minister that nobody elected. It’s just a mess, and I’m even less confident about agriculture. We have a conservative government who has never wanted to give farmers support. The worry now is that these people are just not going to care about food and farming.”
Adrian: “The vote to leave the EU makes me feel optimistic. Britain itself is the fifth largest economy in the world, a major player in G7 and G20. We have a respected heritage with our economy and we are a player on the world stage. We live in a free trade world, with WTO. Yes we still have tariffs and some trade wars, but increasingly we’re moving toward a free trade world. We will no doubt have an agreement signed between the UK and the U.S., no matter who is elected president this fall, because they still value the UK. China has already started making overtures, and New Zealand has offered us its trade negotiators to help us.”
Will Brexit provoke changes in the EU?
Caroline: “EU policy is complicated and it did need to change, but it would have been better to have helped change it from within, not to watch from outside. Now we must look through a window at policymakers making decisions on food or environmental safety that we will have to abide by if we want to trade with the EU -- only now we don’t have a say in how those policies are formed.”
Adrian: “I’ve been against the direction of the EU for 24 years, since the European Community became the EU. I support the original concept of the EU, which was to create a common market with free trade. It was set up as a way to stimulate economies and rebuild a continent which had been ravaged by war. Had it stayed a trading bloc, I think the UK would have stayed. But the EU has become this massive political, fiscal and regulatory bureaucracy. It has too much power. We have effectively given away our sovereignty to a bureaucratic organization of people who make laws but are not elected.”