I have little economic insight to add to the various projections made by other economists in Britain about the Brexit scenario that follow under various outcomes of the negotiations with the EU. Like all of them, I think severing trade ties will not work out well in the short run for the economy of the UK, though I am less convinced than others that it will necessarily all work out badly in the longer run.
Most importantly, Britain can always come back to the EU in the future, so if it doesn’t work out as you thought, you Brits can change your mind again.
Yet, I think economics is a distraction, even though all kinds of economic interest groups are tugging in various directions. Break-ups are nearly always bad for the purse, but the immediate reason is seldom money but emotions and identity.
I thus want to talk about the feelings and identity of the Brexiteers, which I think is the heart of the matter.
A large number of you were persuaded you did not belong with the rest of Europe. You were seduced by over 30 years of negative media stories that the rest of Europe looked down on you and was looking for ways to get one over you. You were constantly told and encouraged to believe that you were different, better in fact, than the rest of us Europeans. That mentality is perhaps best illustrated by the ‘Football is coming home’ anthem so popular in the UK at the time of the World Cup. That smug entitlement mentality stings us ‘other’ Europeans but we will try and keep our disdain to a minimum because you remain family. In my case, with an English mum and a Dutch dad, you are literally family.
What I want to mention is the political perspective from one of your main friends in Europe: the Netherlands, perhaps your strongest and oldest ally, sharing royal families since William and Mary, and being very close language and culture wise too. We are close cousins in the Germanic language tree, with old English very close to Frisian (a language and people in the North of the Netherlands and along that coastline into Denmark). There were also several waves of immigrants to Britain via what is now the Netherlands. And of course, we have been on the same side in the second World War when our government and Queen was seated in London.
In truth, English culture is largely a blend of the Dutch and the French. The structure of your language is largely Dutch, with massive French influences. Whilst your words for some of the animals you eat are hence the same as in Dutch (‘Cow’ is ‘Koe’, ‘Sheep’ is ‘Schaap’, and ‘Goat’ is ‘Geit’), what you call them when they are cooked is French (‘Beef’ is ‘boeuf’, ‘veal’ is ‘veal’, and ‘Pork’ is ‘porc’).
So too English culture. The class structure, with elite schools and an upper layer that has owned most of the country for centuries is quintessentially French. They got rid of their nobility in the Napoleontic Wars and in the two World Wars, whereas you were (un)lucky enough not to have yours swept out by an invader. Your nobility, which of course is largely French or other-European in origin, headed by the House of Hannover (!), never left. You have elite private schools and Oxbridge, the French have ‘Grand Ecoles’ and ‘Lycea’. Like your language is old-Dutch, your class system is old-French.
The organisation of your civil service is similarly French, with smatterings of German. You have a meritocratic civil service answering to a public code of service to the country. Very French. Your large welfare and health services followed the examples of the German welfare systems introduced generations before Beveridge (though, typically English, you tend not to want to know such things, preferring to believe you were first, something your European family has to forgive you for).
On the other hand, your underlying egalitarianism is very Dutch. You demand of your police, your National Health Service, and your roads that everyone is treated equally, forever suspicious of being short-changed. Your newspapers are full of the fear that the elites are encroaching such equal entitlements. That underlying idea of equality is very Dutch. Similar egalitarian ideas are embedded in your system of having a criminal trial judged by ‘a jury of your peers’, the one-man-one-vote principle, the notion of the village commons, and the notion of a right to walk everywhere in Britain. You are far more Dutch than you know, not merely in that genetic and linguistic sense.
Many of your biggest companies are Anglo-Dutch ventures, such as Unilever and Shell. The combination of Dutch bluntness and English politesse (a French word!) works remarkably well in the international economy and governmental environment, something I have experienced in my own job many times. Of course the whole notion of a stock exchange and the limited liability company on which the financial centre of London floats, are direct copy-cats of what was set up in Amsterdam previously. We had the East India company, so you had the British East India Company and ‘took over’ quite a few of the assets of the Dutch, including of course New York.
So we share a long history and we Dutch see you as close family in terms of language, culture, and economic interests. Your Brexit will affect the cousins across the North Sea.
Simply put, we will miss you Brits. We will miss your diplomatic and military muscle. We will miss your support on trade and expansion politics within the European Union. We will miss your humour and use of language. We wont miss your belief that you are better than the rest of us, but we will miss your take-downs of the other big egos in Europe, like the French. We are sad that this will probably spell a difficult economic period for you and that this might work out badly for the poorest amongst you, so we hope that is not the case.
But Brexit is not farewell. You will remain less than an hour away by plane, a tunnel-trip by car, a day ferry. We will keep trading, keep sharing tourism and joint visits. Your island is not going anywhere and we will need each other when pressures come from the truly large countries in this world: China, the US, and eventually India. Compared to them, all the European countries are small, you included. Only as a family will we have any real say. We will need each other when it comes to the internet, to banking, to our joint trade interests, and, who knows, to defending our joint continent.
We share a long history with flows of people and ideas in both directions. You are part of us and we hope you will come back soon to the family table. We are not giving up on you.