“I honestly don’t know whether I should have voted Remain or Leave” – A Belgian-Brit reflects on Brexit
Tim Gheysen, 30, is a businessman and Belgian-British dual national based in Brussels. He contacted me, completely out of the blue, after reading a recent interview I did with Alex Skinner: a Brit who was born, raised and now lives in Belgium. Tim suspected that his own background and views on the UK’s current political situation might be of similar interest to Brussels Express readers – and after interviewing him, I suspected that he was right.
During our conversation we touched on a variety of topics, including Tim’s background, his relationship to the UK and Belgium, and of course the Brexit process.
Thomas Moller-Nielsen: Can you speak a little bit about your parents’ backgrounds?
Tim Gheysen: My mother is from a single-parent, working-class family in Sheffield, who, with a bit of intelligence and a lot of hard work, was able to gain a place studying modern languages at Oxford. My father is from a Flemish working-class family in Kortrijk. They met while working for the European institutions in Brussels.
TMN: What language was spoken at home?
TG: My parents always spoke English together. In fact, the language spoken at home was almost exclusively English. I picked up my Dutch from speaking with Flemish friends who lived nearby, and from very occasionally speaking it with my father, with whom I mostly spoke English.
I remember making a conscious decision when I was very young to try to speak Dutch more regularly. I realised that my entire schooling was either in English or in French, and that I really wasn’t getting the chance to speak much Dutch on a day-to-day basis. Moreover, I realised the importance and value that Dutch, and languages in general, could play in my future; I figured that, if I didn’t try to work on my Dutch now, I might end up losing the ability to speak it entirely.
These days, I speak Dutch just as fluently as I speak English, although English is still definitely my mother tongue. I also speak to my dad in Dutch far more than I used to; now we probably speak in English just as much as we speak in Dutch.
TMN: Where did you go for university?
TG: I went to the University of Sheffield. I read Business Studies, French and Spanish. At first, I was excited about going to live and study in England. But I ended up really struggling with British culture, particularly British university culture and the associated binge-drinking. I mean, freshers’ week was fine – it obviously involved a lot of drinking – but then it just stayed like that all year, every year!
TMN: So you never seriously considered staying in the UK after your degree?
TMN: Do you feel more Belgian, or more British?
TG: I definitely feel more Belgian than British, although I also don’t feel 100% Belgian. I think I lack a full cultural understanding of the UK – and this is in spite of the fact that I listen to a lot of British music, read British books, watch a lot of British TV shows and films, and so on. But, in some respects, I also feel that I’m not fully Belgian. For instance, because I went to an international school I don’t have any experience of the Belgian curriculum or school system. These kinds of things add up.
TMN: Did you vote in the Brexit referendum?
TG: No, I didn’t. I hadn’t registered, and on top of that I also didn’t really have the time: I was busy setting up my new recruitment business.
TMN: Do you regret not having voted?
TG: Yes, as I would have voted Remain. But I also partly feel that it would have been unjust to vote. I don’t feel very British, so why should I be making decisions on their behalf?
TMN: Why would you have voted Remain?
TG: Because I love the EU. I appreciate the way in which it tries to erode the divisions that tend to accompany the separation of territory into nation-states. I also feel that the EU furthers the ability of member states to collaborate, communicate, and achieve a better world. It’s a great example of what cooperation among states can accomplish.
TMN: What are your thoughts on the divisions within British society, in particular British people’s differing attitudes towards the EU?
TG: Well, there’s no doubt that there was a certain amount of hostility toward the EU prior to the Brexit vote. Having said that, there was no real demand among the British people for a referendum. It just wasn’t the main priority for most people.
TMN: So you don’t think the referendum should have been called?
TG: No, I don’t think the referendum should have been called. Or, rather, if it had to be called, it should not have been called in the way that it was. Basically, I think the referendum was held without the UK’s leaders having a real plan of what to do if the result was to leave. Cameron thought he could call the referendum and win it, but he fatally underestimated the opposition and the overall level of resentment among the British public. He had no plan of what to do if Britain left; he’d done no research. And now he’s dragged the entire country into this ridiculous situation. I mean, regardless of whether you’re for leaving or for staying in the EU, no one could seriously have wanted what’s happening in the UK right now.
I also feel that at the time of the vote there was very little actual information conveyed to the public by the British media. It was mostly very partisan and sensationalist, both from the right-wing and the left-wing press. In my view, the media really failed to help the British people grasp the central issues. As a result of this, I think the British people had no idea, really, what leaving entailed; about what it would mean. This even applies in my own case: I like to consider myself a relatively well-educated and well-informed person, and yet I felt at the time that I couldn’t in all honesty make a fully informed assessment of whether the UK should stay in the EU or leave. And if the population isn’t properly informed, it sort of defeats the whole point of having a referendum in the first place, doesn’t it?
TMN: Isn’t this rather an elitist view, saying that people are too ill-informed to be able to make such a decision?
TG: No, not at all – as I said, it applies to myself as well! I couldn’t truly say that I made a properly informed assessment of the situation, despite being well-informed on the matter relative to most other people. I’m also confident that there are plenty people in the UK who feel the same way as me.
TMN: Why wouldn’t you have abstained in the referendum, then, if you admit to not being sufficiently well-informed on the issue?
TG: I was going with the information that I had at the time. On balance, given the limited information that I had, I thought it would be best to vote Remain. (Though, as I previously mentioned, I didn’t actually vote.) I didn’t really know what the best option was, though. To be honest, I would have preferred not to have been in a position where I was expected to make such a decision.
TMN: Are you against having referendums in general?
TG: No, I’m not. But I feel referendums should only be used when the nature and consequences of the decisions are immediately obvious and clear to the public, for instance in the case of legalising abortion or the death penalty. Cases that are more complicated, such as trade agreements or Brexit, should mostly be handled by elected officials who are paid to understand, consider and research those issues.
So no, I’m not in principle against referendums, or even against having a referendum on the UK leaving the EU. But the UK government should have first spent a substantial period of time studying all of the likely consequences in the event of leaving or staying, and then presented those findings, honestly, to the British people. Similarly, the media should have done its job, and presented the information to the British people in a fully factual, non-partisan manner: “this is what happens if we stay, this is what happens if we go”.
If both the media and the government had done that, and people really wanted to leave, then fine, we should have left the EU: that’s part of living in a democracy. I just disagree with the way the referendum was run, and the reasons for it.
TMN: Are you angry with the people who voted Leave?
TG: No, not at all. Obviously, in a democracy they have the right to vote as they please. They’re not bad people. But I do think the vast majority of them were not properly informed of the central issues – which (to repeat) I think was also true of the vast majority of Remainers, including myself.
TMN: What do you think the future holds for the UK?
TG: I think the UK will probably leave the EU eventually. But I also think that the EU wants to punish the UK, to make an example out of them. And I don’t think the EU is wrong to do so: in my view, the UK should contribute to the EU system if it wants to benefit from it. It’s likely paying your taxes. You may not like it, but it’s necessary in order to have good things like roads, schools, and hospitals.
There’s also no doubt in my mind that the EU feels very hurt by the the UK’s decision to leave, which is very understandable: the EU was created as a model of unity with shared beliefs and values, where different nations with different languages and cultures could come together to form a stronger whole. It’s a model that the UK has played a large part in sustaining and developing over the years – and now, after the Brexit vote, it’s looking like it might collapse.
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