Back in the land of my birth there is political chaos, confusion and concern about “Brexit,” which is shorthand for the British exit from the European Union.
Back in the summer of 2016, 52 percent of over 33 million British citizens living in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar voted in a referendum to leave the European Union (EU). The exit was originally planned for Friday, March 29, but has been delayed at the request of the British government.
The large European trading block of 28 member nations evolved from the idea of a unified European union that began after the end of the Second World War in 1945 when European nations badly needed rebuilding – much assisted by the American Marshall plan.
As a first step towards European integration, the European Economic Community (EEC) was established in 1958, and was informally known as the Common Market.
Fourteen years later, I vaguely remember as a young child the adults talking about joining the EU, and they voted to do so in 1972. This had the effect of making British law secondary to European law.
However, there was always a strong feeling throughout my childhood, perhaps fed by parents and grandparents talking about the divisive days of the Second World War when Britain stood alone in Europe as an allied country not occupied by the Nazis – that there was an “us and them” feeling between us Brits and those living over on “the continent.”
After all, we had different passports, currency and resisted the move to the metric system.
Whenever I went on a school trip to France and we crossed the narrow English Channel on a rickety old ferry saying goodbye to the white cliffs of Dover, it became official – we were going “abroad to Europe.”
The English Channel, an arm-shaped body of water (the French call it “La Manche” which translates as “the sleeve”) is that part of the Atlantic Ocean separating the southern coast of England from the northern coast of France. This is only about 21 miles at its narrowest point.
However, this was enough to mean that we believed we were separate and different. We never felt fully a part of Europe, no matter what the law said.
In many ways, we Brits of the 1970s felt closer to Americans and Canadians, who at least spoke English (sort of!), while the French ate frogs’ legs and snails for dinner.
As I grew into a young woman, the “continent” of Europe – that landmass that is still smaller than the United States’ combined states – seemed to became closer and have more in common with the British.
I clearly remember the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which granted EU citizenship to every person who was a citizen of a member state, so we started voting in European Parliament elections as well as British ones.
When I visited the EU headquarters in Brussels, we marveled at the EU flag above all the member state flags, and we waited for the introduction of a central banking system and a common currency – the Euro. It was adopted by most of the EU countries (but not the U.K.) and starting in 2002 we said goodbye to French francs, German marks, Italian lira and many others.
As tourists, we no longer had to have a bag full of different currencies but simply exchanged our British pounds (sterling) for Euro notes and coins. There is more information at www.britannica.com.
In 1994, a truly monumental connection with Europe happened: the new Eurotunnel (also known as the Channel Tunnel or “Chunnel”) opened. This allowed us to now travel by car and train to Europe rather than only by air and sea. This long-awaited tunnel dug under the seabed created the first land link between the U.K. and the continent in modern history.
So where are we today, and why is Brexit constantly in the news right now? Two years ago, on March 29, the United Kingdom invoked “Article 50” of the Treaty on European Union, which began the formal process of Britain’s withdrawal.
Article 50 includes a two-year deadline to complete (which is tomorrow), but the U.K. government can’t make it. The British Prime Minister Theresa May keeps negotiating “divorce agreements” with the EU, but the British Parliament keep rejecting them – in spite of dire warnings that a “nodeal” or “hard Brexit” could lead to chaos.
Some in Parliament vote against them because they view her various EU agreements as too aggressive, some because it isn’t aggressive enough, and others for a number of other reasons. Some never like the idea of Brexit in the first place and see this as an opportunity to derail it.
Last weekend the struggle over Brexit spilled onto the streets of London as some citizens marched in a major protest to demand that another referendum be held. This will no doubt be followed by another march demanding that the government stick with the results of the first one.
And in the middle of all this, another general election is a possibility since Theresa May’s position as her party’s leader is substantially weakened because she cannot get a deal through.
At the time of going to press, the other 27 EU member countries have allowed a delay to the deadline until at least April 12, and potentially until July when a new European Parliament needs to be in place – without British members as Brexit intended. All we can do from beautiful coastal Georgia is watch and wait.
I will leave you with a quote which seems appropriate right now, from 19th century British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli: “The English nation is never so great as in adversity.” All I can say is that I hope so, I really do.
God bless America, and the United Kingdom, too!