At 11.00pm tonight (midnight European time), the UK formally leaves the European Union (EU). It’s been a long time coming with 52% of the UK voting population deciding to leave in a referendum held as far back as June 2016. As probably the only member of staff old enough to remember when the UK joined the “Common Market” as it was then called, and the subsequent 1975 referendum on joining what was then called the European Community, today is an opportune moment to reflect upon the UK’s EU membership and write a few words by way of eulogy.
The 1970’s were a time of international turmoil and change. Boom and bust, war and peace. As a child living through that time, I remember cars queued up at forecourts due to petrol shortages, many strikes and shortages, power blackouts and the like. But reflecting back, the one thing I remember of that time was hope – hope for a better and more prosperous future. It was that sense of hope that conveyed the UK into the Common Market and European Community. A feeling that there was change for the good. A hope that the shortages would be over and the world would be a better place. Flags were waved, people smiled and we entered into a union that would then persist for over 45 years. It is very much with a sense of irony that writing today I see on the news much flag waving, smiling and rhetoric about how the future is going to be so much rosier now that the UK is on the brink of leaving the EU.
I think the history books will say in the decades to come that although EU membership changed the shape of the UK, that the UK never really fully embraced the EU in the same way and to the same extent as the other member states. Euro currency anyone? No thanks, we prefer the British pound. The British press has always been quick to highlight “barmy” European laws whilst conveniently glossing over the many positive changes such as workers rights, free trade movement, conservation and the like. Unfortunately, it is always the bad things that we tend to remember and I think it fair to say that such adverse reporting has probably clouded the views of many of those who wanted out.
So what changes now?
Well, like any divorce (trust me I know), not a lot. We will all wake up tomorrow and get on with the rest of our lives. The practical things that change straight away aren’t really earth shattering:
- -We no longer have members sitting in the European Parliament;
- We get a new commemorative Brexit £0.50 coin;
- We revert back to “blue” British passports (I had one of those!!);
- Apparently Germany will no longer extradite their citizens to the UK;
- The Government department responsible for Brexit will disband.
- Just to button an urban myth you might have heard (don’t know where this came from), Polish sausages will not be immediately banned.
What doesn’t change (for now anyway):
- Travel to and from the EU for both UK nationals & EU citizens;
- Driving licences and pet licences, so long as valid can be used in the UK/EU;
- EHIC’s (European Health Insurance Cards) remain valid;
- Freedom of movement ie the right to live and work in the EU/UK;
- Pension payments for UK nationals living in the EU;
- Budget contributions ie we still pay towards the EU budget even though we are not a member;
- Trade between the EU/UK.
So what happens next?
This is going to be a slow burner. I do not for one second believe that we will know the full impact of leaving the EU for many years if not decades to come. On the immediate political agenda are sorting out a lasting trade deal and the continuing economic relationship with the EU. Obviously, we already know that EU citizens need to register to remain in the UK and there will in future be the same immigration rules applied to EU citizens as non-EU citizens. The one comfort I think any EU citizen already resident in the UK can take is that migration to and from the EU is a two-way street. There are many hundreds of thousands of UK citizens living and working in mainland Europe. Any restrictions imposed by the UK government on EU citizens living here are likely to be echoed by the remaining EU states.
The UK has benefitted greatly from EU membership over the years, as has the EU from the UK being a member. It is inconceivable that either party embarks upon this new relationship with a feeling that today is the end of that accord. We have a saying in my family that no matter what “life goes on.” As we lament the UK Brexit today I think that is an appropriate thing to remember. Life goes on…