Monday, June 27, 2016

Cyprus, the EU and Brexit

As my family and friends know, I am not a night-owl. Far from it. I like to be in bed by around 10pm (earlier if possible) and asleep soon afterwards.

I am also not a fan of big crowds, or loud noises, or cheering, or fireworks. I keep away from most of the major festivals and other celebrations in Cyprus which are exuberant, full of colour and cheering.

But twelve years ago, I went with my family to the sea-front at midnight. There were more crowds than I had ever seen before; there was scarcely room to move. People were excited, and in Cyprus that means LOUD.

There was patriotic music too.

Our older son was playing in the municipal band at the time (though we couldn't get a photo that included him), so he had to be there.

But I didn't. I was tired, but this was one celebration that I could not miss. It was the entry of Cyprus into the European Union.

At midnight, the fireworks started:

We went home elated. Not just because life would become so much easier for us: now we had the right of abode in Cyprus, whereas previously we had to spend many hours applying for visas, supplying different paperwork every year. Not just because it meant the start of better relations with other European countries; not just because it would help Cyprus economically, and improve the standard of living (or so everyone had been told...).

No, there was a sense of rightness about it. At last we could feel that Cyprus was truly 'home', part of what we - in our forties at the time - saw as our cultural and ethnic heritage.

A little history for those who read this from across the Pond:

The UK went into the European Economic Community in 1973. I was a young teenager then. I didn't understand most of the implications. I was aware that there might be some new - possibly over-the-top - regulations, but I very much liked the metric/decimal system (adopted in 1971, prior to this). It's great deal easier to use than the old style imperial one with its variety of complex units.

The 1975 referendum saw a two-thirds majority of people in the UK wanting to stay within Europe, and thus when the EU was formed, the UK became part of it. Brits did not want to take up the common currency, which was an important part of the EU formation, so they insisted on an opt-out clause. That's why the UK still uses pounds sterling (I fail to understand why it matters, but that's another issue entirely).

The Single European Act of 1987 created "an area without frontiers in which the free movement of goods and persons, services and capital is ensured." 

I'm only just old enough to recall anything about life before the EEC. But for our children - indeed, for anyone under the age of about 40 - European membership is all they've ever known. They have European passports. They have had the freedom of travelling and working anywhere in Europe, without the need for visas. We have been able to choose to live anywhere in Europe; we can transport and buy goods from other European countries without paying extra taxes.

Then on Thursday last week, the UK voted - by a narrow margin - to leave the EU.

The exit (dubbed 'Brexit') hasn't happened yet, and is likely to take many months, perhaps two years or more, to take effect. But still, it left us in a state of shock.

We had been following the campaign, at least on the news websites and social media, and it appeared that there would be a majority (albeit small) voting to remain, at least for now.

But the polls were wrong. The results became clear first thing Friday morning: almost 52% of those who voted wanted to leave the EU.

On Friday and Saturday we tried to understand what had persuaded so many people to vote that way.

Unfortunately, as is the way with the media (both the normal and social forms) extremists came to the fore. We saw articles about hate crimes from a tiny minority in the UK who are xenophobic, who somehow thought that leaving the EU would mean that all immigrants could be sent away. An interview clip went viral, showing a man insisting that he had no problem with Europeans in the UK, but had voted 'leave' so that all the Middle Easterners and non-whites would have to leave.

Assuming it was not satire, he had missed the point entirely. I hope someone explained to him that it's only Europeans who will find it harder to come to the UK as they'll no longer have right of abode. It won't make any difference to the refugee intake; indeed, it may lead to MORE refugees from the Middle East and other parts of Asia, as the EU border controls will no longer be relevant to the UK.

There was also an outbreak of 'ageism', which was unpleasant; charts showed that younger people mostly voted to remain in the UK, older people (including my generation) were more likely to vote to leave. Statuses and articles were being shared in the initial anger and deep hurt that so many, particularly those in their teens and twenties, were (and are still) feeling.  No longer will they have the freedom of travel, study and work that we have enjoyed for the past thirty or so years.

Europeans - particularly Eastern Europeans from former Soviet countries - in the UK often take low-paid jobs that Brits don't want. It's true in Cyprus, too.  Some euro-sceptics twelve years ago insisted that crime would rise when Cyprus joined the EU, and there was, for a while, a slight increase in burglaries. But violent crime in Cyprus has remained at the lowest percentage in Europe.  There's xenophobia here, but it's nowhere near as damaging as it was even twenty years ago.  We Brits and other Europeans have had to be treated the same as Cypriots legally speaking. It hasn't always happened in practice, but we've had the law on our side.

This will no longer be the case.

On Saturday evening, after spending far too much time on social media, feeling confused and upset by the result, and even more by the angst and negative feelings that were arising, I wrote this on Facebook:

"I honestly thought I would accept whatever the result was; indeed, though I was shocked and a bit numb at first, that's what I said when I heard the news first thing yesterday morning. But then, through the morning, the numbness gave way to an immensely deep sadness, which I compared to a bereavement. And no, that's not hyperbole. It honestly felt that way. 
When we lived in the US in the early 1990s, we realised how very European we were. We love being part of this big continent, both geographically and politically. We were thrilled when Cyprus joined the EU 12 years ago, as it made life so much easier for us as ex-pats, and there were a lot of benefits to this little island too. Around 10% of the population are ex-pats, many of them Brits. 
So the EU, despite its faults and bureaucracy, has felt like an extra guardian for decades. Now we're going to have to give it up, and it is deeply distressing. Not just to me: I've seen dozens of other people express exactly the same thing. There's a sense of grieving; those who wanted to leave may find it difficult to comprehend, but we're in a period of mourning. 
Normal expressions of grief, according to experts, involve feeling distant from others, feeling as if nobody understands, shock, numbness and anger. I've seen a lot of these things floating about and inevitably those who are not mourning are feeling attacked. I don't think it's intended."

I took a break yesterday. I didn't read any news articles, although inevitably we discussed the issue, yet again, at home. We hope the implications for us won't be too bad; Cyprus has issued a statement that Brits living here are still welcome, and if we have to start applying for visas again every year, it's an annoying inconvenience, but in the scheme of global tragedy and suffering, not much of an issue.

But what still concerns me is the huge divide amongst thinking, intelligent adults around the UK. If we exclude the extremists and those who voted in ignorance of what the EU is, people have taken the same facts, presumably seen TV news and read media articles, removed the inevitable bias one way or another, attempted to ignore the spin... and yet have been about evenly divided with two such different conclusions.

Nobody knows what the future holds now. Legally speaking the Referendum doesn't mean an inevitable exit. The government has to ratify it (as they have had to do with all EU regulations) and will have to make an official request to the EU for the exit, if they decide to go ahead. Many are calling for a further Referendum, since the margin was so narrow in the recent one; EU law itself suggests that, for such a big change, there should be a rather bigger majority wanting to leave than just under 52% of those who voted.

There are extra legal complications in that although the UK is a country, it is made up of three separate countries and a province (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Is it the UK that is part of the EU, or the individual countries? The Scots, in the recent Referendum, voted overall to remain in the EU. So did the Northern Irish. Does this potentially mean the end of the UK, or can Scotland force the Referendum results to be overturned?

The British Prime Minister has resigned, and there does not appear to be any clear plan for the way forward. At present, the UK is still part of the EU, although the pound sterling has dropped from 1.3 euros last Wednesday to 1.2 euros today. Share values have dropped, too. Perhaps this will change - perhaps not.

My impression is that the majority of 'Leave' voters have a stronger feeling for the UK than they do for the EU, while the 'Remain' voters are the other way around. Patriotism is a strange thing, something I have never really understood until the past few days, when I realise that yes, I did - and do - have a very strong allegiance to Europe as a whole. I visit the UK because family and friends are there, but if they all moved to Cyprus, I would have no reason ever to go to my country of birth.

I understand the dislike of 'big' government. I'm all for smaller city councils, with people who care about their local schools and hospitals and so on, rather than all decisions coming from bureaucrats who have never been to the places concerned. But those still exist. As do the individual country governments and parliaments.

So what puzzles me most of all is the claim that the EU makes 'most' of the UK laws. The EU does not make any UK laws. I checked an independent fact site and it said that EU regulations do affect about 13% of UK laws, and in addition there are a significant number of trade and travel details related to EU requirements.

There are, of course, some regulations which countries have to follow in order to trade within the EU (such as extensive labelling of food products, and various health/hygiene standards) but if the UK wants to continue to trade with European countries, they'll have to continue following those rules. And when I look at specifics of EU regulations, either they don't actually affect the UK directly (such as fishing rights in Scandinavian countries, or the processing of olives...) or they're helpful in maintaining standards of living, equality for minorities, treatment of animals, importing of products from elsewhere, and so on.

Since Cyprus entered the EU, quite apart from making it easier for other Europeans to live here, we've seen increased quality of restaurants and other food preparation places, the first few years of the major task of putting sewers everywhere in the island, full European style labelling of all food products (essential for those with allergies and intolerances), a much wider range of goods available from other European countries, laws requiring motor bike helmets, requirements of MOTs for cars, ramps and other facilities for the disabled, and introduction of no-smoking policies in many public places.

That's just off the top of my head.

And while smokers might disagree, I cannot think of anything negative about any of those laws.

Perhaps the Cyprus government might have passed some of these laws without being in Europe, but somehow I doubt it. They still had to ratify them although some were a requirement of receiving EU funding, some are necessary for trading. People still get around them if they can, as they do with any law, European or otherwise. But as far as I can tell, with my admittedly limited perspective, being in the EU has been overwhelmingly positive for Cyprus.

So I'm now wondering: what specific laws in the UK, originated in Europe, do people object to....?


Anvilcloud said...

This is a great overview of the situation. Perhaps there are some things that the masses shouldn't vote for. I dunno.

In Canada, with the treat of Quebec separation, we passed a law that there must be a clear majority.

Steve Hayes said...

For what it's worth, I linked to this post from here Expecting the unexpected: UK leaving the EU | Notes from underground. I didn't really have an opinion either way, so I put opinions of English friends in my blog, with a link to yours as well.