Alan Anderson grew up in Manchester. He moved to Brussels in 1970, returned to the UK in 1972, came back to Belgium in 1982 and has lived here ever since. He has now lived more than half his life in Belgium, and recently applied for Belgian citizenship. At the age of 77 he has been retired for several years. His entire career was spent in the chemical industry.
In this interview, Alan offers his own unique perspective on Brexit, Europe, and the political and historical relationship between the UK and the EU more generally.
TMN: Is it fair to say that you’re a bit of an anomaly, being a pro-Brexit expat living in Brussels?
AA: Well I certainly appear to be. Most of the people I know in the expat community either work or have worked for a European institution, mostly the Commission. All of them are Remainers – turkeys don’t vote for Christmas. But among the people I know who have worked in industry, you get a more mixed view.
TMN: So are you able to discuss Brexit with your expat friends here – most of whom, I assume, are pro-Remain?
AA: Not very easily, even if they are Leavers. People seem to be very fixed in their position, for example on whether the EU political process is democratic or not. As I see it this is also the case with UK politicians, whose opinions are the ones that really matter. I’m not aware of a single one who has changed his or her position in 3 years of debate. I think there’s also a problem of understanding; I’ve met people who think the EU is the same thing as Europe. So when I find myself being lectured on people’s EU beliefs, I change the subject.
TMN: Did you vote in the 2016 Brexit referendum?
AA: No, like almost all the people I know here, I’d lived in Belgium for more than 15 years and so I wasn’t eligible to vote. This issue of eligibility is interesting. There’s an argument that our home country’s membership of the EU affects us long term residents, and so we should have had a say in the referendum. There’s even a European Commission code of good practice on referendums which recommends that people resident abroad should be allowed to vote. But now that we can have Belgian nationality, long term residents like me should really play our part in Belgian rather than UK politics.
TMN: But you would have voted Leave?
AA: Yes, absolutely. I’m a Leaver, as the Monkees almost said.
AA: Because as I see it the UK has been slowly leaving the EU ever since its inception. The referendum has simply brought that to a head. I appreciate that such a claim requires a certain amount of justification.
In his first proposal for a European Coal and Steel Community in May 1950, Robert Schuman described it as a first step in the federation of Europe. Before then other leaders had been proposing a United States of Europe, most notably, as Guy Verhofstadt is fond of pointing out, Winston Churchill in 1930 and 1946 and other times. With the famous exception of Jacques Delors, most European leaders have remained fairly quiet about European federalism, but it remains an objective of the EU. And so it should in my opinion if Europe is to hold its own alongside the likes of China, Russia and the USA.
In 1973 the UK became a member – and a very positive one – of the European Community, and remained so for 20 years. But then a major step towards a United States of Europe was taken in 1993 with the Maastricht Treaty. The UK signed it, but negotiated no fewer than five opt-outs, most notably the Euro and Schengen. That is the point, in my view, when the UK started the process of leaving. They developed a sort of half and half membership, half in and half out. I think that’s bad for the future of the EU, and even the UK. The UK wants economic but not political collaboration with the EU. So given the chance, I would have voted to put an end to it. For what it’s worth, I did vote, to remain, in the 1975 referendum, along with two thirds of the electorate.
TMN: So, in your view, the UK’s political situation in relation to Europe was inherently an unstable one?
AA: Well it wasn’t during its 20 years in the EEC, but after Maastricht yes. I wouldn’t use the word “unstable”, to me it has been more a case of gradually drifting away. And of course the EU has moved forward since Maastricht, especially with a European Constitution, which although not ratified was incorporated into the Treaty of Lisbon. For me an example of this “drifting away” is the UK’s reaction to the concept of “ever closer union”. In David Cameron’s pathetic attempt to negotiate a “reformed” EU, which the electorate could then choose to leave or remain in, he arranged that the UK would be exempted from “ever closer union”. This would have been yet another opt-out. He also arranged that the UK be further distanced, protected even, from the eurozone. These are the actions of a country that wants to distance itself from a European Union which is trying to move its members closer together, not further apart.
If the UK was as fond of EU membership as the 75% of MPs who are Remainers would have us believe, it would have wanted to contribute to the development of the EU, as it did of the EEC. It would embrace monetary union, and Schengen, and the other things. The UK makes the second largest financial contribution to the EU, and it should make a large political one.
TMN: I’m a bit confused; it appears that you would have been happy if the UK was properly part of the EU. So why were you in favour of Leave?
AA: Because, as I suggest, the UK simply isn’t “properly” part of the EU. You can’t turn the clock back of course, but if the UK had joined the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, as it was invited, even begged to do, it could have made its appropriate level of contribution to all future developments, namely the EEC, the EU and towards, dare I say it, a United States of Europe. There are lots of interesting reasons why they didn’t join back then, which were very logical at the time. The history of all this makes very interesting reading and helps explain the very awkward position the UK finds itself in right now.
There’s another aspect of what we are calling “proper” EU membership. The ECSC was created to bind the coal and steel production of France and Germany together in a way that would prevent a repeat of the wars between them. But because of their relative size in the initial group of six, these two countries also established a dominant political position which has remained the case ever since. We can see this right now in the sometimes undignified process of selecting the EU’s new leaders. Macron even glorified this duo, if I can believe the BBC website, when he said on July 2nd “…the nominations were the fruit of a deep Franco-German entente”. At least he didn’t call it an entente cordiale. But if there has to be a group of top dogs in this union, then the UK should be one of the dogs.
I have been given examples of how Germany will break the rules if it suits them, and I’m not talking about my Volkswagen Golf. I would like to see the UK challenging this kind of behaviour, but I don’t see it happening.
TMN: So are you saying that, had the UK joined the ECSC when it was originally formed in 1951 – or, perhaps, had joined the EC earlier than it did – then you would have been in favour of Remain?
AA: I would certainly be in favour of Remain if the UK had been what we are calling a “proper” member. Joining the ECSC in 1951, or the EC much earlier than they did might have enabled this, but who can tell? There are a lot of “ifs” in all this re-writing of history. The UK was even cooler about Europe back then than it is now. Churchill argued for a United States of Europe but not with the UK as a member. The Labour party in the post war period was dead against it.
TMN: Do you also perhaps think that the UK is something of a “European outlier”, one which is crucially different to France and Germany in other important respects?
AA: I think this may have been the case until their first application to join the EEC, but that now, apart from what I’m saying about opt-outs, there’s no good reason for any crucial difference.
At the end of the Second World War the UK was in a very different position than other European countries that had been involved in it. The UK did not have to reconstruct itself politically. And it felt that its relationships with other parts of the world were more important. Its objective of preventing German domination of the continent had been achieved, with a great deal of help from members of the British Commonwealth. It was then time to return to its own agenda.
French President Charles de Gaulle twice vetoed UK membership of the EEC because (or at least he said it was because) the UK had too close a relationship with the USA. You could argue he was right, given the way that Blair took the UK into the Iraq war, treating the views of his EU partners with disdain, you could even say contempt. And the media like to talk about UK’s “special relationship” with the USA, but I am of the view that this is more a myth than a reality. The Americans do what suits them; Trump is making sure of that.
But it’s hopefully time for us to forget all this war stuff. The only people who remember anything about the war are oldies like me, and all I really remember is the end of sweet rationing. And that was in 1953. A younger generation of British politicians will need to work out what should be the UK’s role going forward. I think it will be easier for them to do this with the UK outside of the EU than in it. Is it the UK’s destiny to have a unique position, trading with the European Union in the same way that it trades with other major blocks, but politically independent? Can they even do it? They will find out.
Nothing stays the same in geopolitics. There could come a time, not in my lifetime and possibly not in yours, when a UK that has forgotten about its empire and imaginary special relationships is ready to be a real member of the United States of Europe.
TMN: I’m assuming you’re against having a second referendum?
AA: Based on what I’ve been saying I am. But if parliament wants to give the electorate a second vote, who am I to say they shouldn’t. Although the government said it would implement the result, the referendum is not legally binding and a new government could decide not to.
TMN: What do you think of the possibility of a no deal Brexit?
AA: It looks as if it’s more of a possibility than negotiating a different deal. And if the UK leaves without a deal there will no doubt be significant problems. The UK might well go downhill for a couple of years. But I don’t believe the economic damage needs to be irreversible. Businesses in the UK and the EU will work out how to continue to trade with one another whatever the rules. That’s what business does. Not sure if you can say the same about the politicians.
TMN: Final question: Do you feel British, or Belgian, or both?
AA: I think the simple answer to that question is that I’m English and European. I will become a Belgian citizen in a while and that will oblige me to vote. So I’ll have to get more interested than I was in Belgian politics. But I should say that how I feel about my nationality is unaffected by the UK’s membership, or not, of the EU.
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