‘After Brexit, I have lost some of my understanding of Britain ’
A huge amount of effort is needed to get the terrible genie of hate back into the bottle
A “Leave” campaigner and a supporter of “Remain” during demonstrations over the Brexit vote in London, July 2, 2016. Photograph: Andrew Testa/The New York Times
In March 1972 fate decreed that I should go to an English school. Not by choice, but by necessity. The French school in Rome did not accept new pupils, so my father, whose work brought us here, decided it would be Saint George’s English School instead. I did not speak English, but I did understand a bit – thanks to the Beatles, the Avengers and the Thunderbirds.
Being Dutch, my parents assumed that the only difference between us and the English was that they drove on the wrong side of the road, had the peculiar habit of refusing any form of decimal system and were so much better at being unflappable under any circumstances. Oh, and of course they mastered the art of queuing to perfection. But otherwise, no difference could be found between our two nations.
My parents were wrong, of course. That is what I discovered at school. We are different. Quite different. And what a joy it was to make that discovery. Because every time I stumbled into a misunderstanding caused by our differences, I learned more about what it is like to be Dutch. Something you can be mercifully unaware of if you live in completely Dutch surroundings.
In this process I was obviously constantly exposed to high doses of radiation of Britishness. Enough to last me a lifetime. Enough to instill a deep sense of admiration, affection and love for this most unique of European nations. Also a sense of frustration and bewilderment, sometimes, when one is forced to endlessly ponder words spoken to try and distill the true meaning and to find out if someone is being exceedingly friendly or simply taking the piss. It took me a while to understand that when someone says he is going to see a man about a dog, there is no dog involved. Nor a man, for that matter. A Brit knows all these hidden messages and emotions without thinking. After almost 45 years of constant practice, I’ve finally got the hang of it. Or at least my English friends enjoy pulling my leg and pretending I have.
Saint George’s taught me more than I can describe in these few paragraphs. My brother and I had previously been at a village school in Flanders, close to Brussels. Nearly all our classmates shared our working class background and community life was almost identical to what we were used to at home in Limburg, across the Dutch-Belgian border. So when we moved to Rome because of my father’s new job as an archivist at the Dutch embassy, it felt like moving to another galaxy. From a village to a huge city, from being the only two foreign kids in a Flemish school to an international school with more than fifty nationalities, with a lot of rich children with lifestyles we couldn’t imagine, a new language and of course a school uniform with compulsory tie and jacket. Quite a shock. But to this day I am grateful to teachers who brought literature, history, music and yes even maths into my life.
How I dreaded being forced to read Shakespeare! Followed by the electrifying insight when you discover that, once his genius is skillfully unveiled by your teacher, he is virtually unputdownable, and becomes a lifelong companion and indispensable dissector of human nature in all its aspects. How I loved playing minor parts in school plays like Alice in Wonderland! Nobody who has seen me as Mock Turtle will have forgotten my brilliant performance, I’m sure. I also got disciplined quite a lot. Mostly by the headmaster himself who bore an uncanny resemblance to the character played by John Cleese in Clockwise.
And I fell in love for the first time. With an English girl, an English rose if ever there was one. Deeply and madly, but sadly unreciprocated.
During those four years in Rome I received not just an annotated introduction into Britishness, but I was also Italicised. Since those formative early teenage years Rome has become my home away from home, and AS Roma my Italian love affair next to my home team Roda JC in Limburg. These experiences, a variant on the life story of many Europeans, makes me who I am; deeply rooted in Limburg, embedded in the Dutch nation, enriched by my formative years in Belgium, Italy and France. And of course shaped by Saint George’s.
Being in touch with all these different nations and cultures did not fudge my own identity. It made me more aware of my Dutch identity, it put it into perspective, and it made me love and appreciate it more. And I learned so much by being curious about all these other identities. I learned a lot about them, and even more about me.
Very recently my family bought a car. Its concept is quintessentially British, it oozes ‘Cool Britannia’. Its engine and its technology are mainly German, its components come from all over Europe and it is built less than 20 km from my home in Limburg. We chose the roof with the Union Jack. As a tribute to the people who came up with the idea of the original Mini, the coolest car of my childhood. But also because to my father’s generation the Union Jack is one of the defining images of the liberation of Nazi occupied Holland and I strongly believe that beautiful national symbols are not the sole property of those who use them to promote a narrow minded nationalistic agenda. The Union Jack has and will continue to inspire millions, just as all the other flags of European nations do. And just as that blue flag with yellow stars can do, when it is used by young people at the borders of the European Union who crave the liberty we take for granted, or by young people in London saddened by the choices their country has recently made.
Oh, yes, and of course the Union Jack looks really cool on the car! Would I have enjoyed everything British culture has to offer as much as I did and do had I not been to Saint George’s? Probably not. Would I have felt so oddly at home and simultaneously out of place whenever I am in the British Isles? Who knows? What I do know is that in the course of the last couple of weeks I feel I have lost some of my understanding of Britain. I watched the Brexit campaign as closely as possible. And I just did not understand how it could become so nasty. Do not get me wrong: it is not the result of the vote that took me by surprise. It was clear from the outset that the result would be a close call and that both sides could win. So there were no huge surprises on that Friday morning, only huge sadness. But the hatred and bigotry the campaign unleashed took me completely by surprise.
Of course, these sentiments are present in all (European) societies. They surface regularly and are more often than not subdued by common decency. But here they went on a rampage in a way I would not have deemed possible in Britain. I do not have an explanation for what caused this. But I do have some questions to the campaigners. Why was it necessary to descend into personal attacks to make a point? Would it not have been enough to say that you disagree with the American President’s point of view? Why discredit not just his motives, but even his persona, with borderline racist remarks? Does that make your arguments stronger, or is it just a cheap ploy to stir up emotions? And I know Godwin’s law applies to many debates on social media, but why did you find it necessary to bring the Nazis into this campaign? I have no problem whatsoever if people argue that the EU is something that goes against their interests and they do not want to be part of it. But to accuse people who believe in it of trying to finish where Hitler left off is, to say the least, a bit rich. Why would one, in a bid to become leader of the Conservative Party, first profess to like things German and Swedish, but then add with force that they “hate” the EU? How did hatred become an integral part of all this? Why is it necessary? Surely arguing that the EU does not serve Britain’s interests well enough to justify staying would do the trick? Or is that argument too weak without it being reinforced with a substantial dose of hatred? The problem with hatred however is that, once used casually as an instrument in political discourse, it can prove very effective in reproducing itself. And then it has the propensity to spiral out of control.
Of course this loss of control doesn’t happen when one is simply debating big topics with the chaps at the Oxford Union. There the consequence of winning or losing an argument is the difference between a slightly inflated or slightly deflated ego. Whatever arguments you might bring to the fore to carry the day will likely not survive the first round of drinks in the pub afterwards. And they will have no consequences in real life. But in the real world of a Referendum on the future of your country the kind of arguments used have consequences. What looks like daring hyperbole in public school debating clubs, good for a couple of laughs over beer, will be taken on face value by people who do not see all this as a game, but whose livelihood truly depends on it. Should politicians not be more aware of the potential impact of our words, our advice, and our actions? Our job is not a game. Choices made and recommended have real consequences for real people. And the least one can ask of politicians is that they are prepared to face the consequences of their actions, once these consequences become apparent. Jumping ship should not be the first thing on our minds.
But hatred came into play and we have seen the effects. This has me worried beyond words, because I know that if it can happen so easily in the UK, it can happen even more easily anywhere else in Europe. In fact, we have seen it happening all over Europe. Hatred is a primary human emotion. Every single one of us is capable of hating. Hatred needs an object if it is to grow and be exploited. And more often than not something different or foreign serves best as the object. Almost all our European societies are now so diverse that the potential of setting people against each other is ever present. So hatred, stirred up or left unchecked, is pure poison for all of us. In other words: whatever the choices we make about our political future, we need to agree that a tremendous amount of effort will be needed to get this most terrible of genies back into the bottle.
I can only imagine how horrible millions and millions of Brits must feel about all this. How they want it to stop and go away. It is now for the Brits to decide how they want to shape their relationship with the rest of Europe. We didn’t want the UK to leave, and most of us are deeply saddened. Some of us feel rejected, especially if it is the second time in their life that an English rose did not reciprocate their feelings for her. It’s not something one ever gets used to. But we do get over it, don’t we? Eventually...
Whatever our political and institutional relationship might be in the future, we Europeans will remain a community of values, and we desperately hope that the UK will continue to share and shape those values. We strongly believe in democracy, the rule of law, human rights, including the right to diversity. The English Channel did not get wider on 24 June, the Eurostar does not need more time to reach St Pancras from Brussels. I will continue to watch Graham Norton on Fridays and Match of the Day with Gary Lineker on Saturdays. And what happens in the UK will continue to influence us, just as the opposite is true. What happens in one country affects all countries, directly or indirectly. That is why I believe we need to express our lasting solidarity with the British people, whatever their position is on the EU, because the fight against xenophobia, bigotry and hatred is as much theirs as it is ours. And we expect their solidarity in return.
In its most concrete and fundamental form that solidarity has saved us twice in the first half of the last century. The cost in human lives and utter destruction was huge. Two collective suicide attempts that barely failed and finally brought Europeans to their senses. Our ancestors understood that disagreeing at a conference table and using shared institutions – whatever their current imperfections - to help countries solve their differences in a peaceful way based on law rather than brute force is a less costly way to look after the national interest than what had been tried time and again for centuries. It is my firm belief that this principle will not change if we are all wise enough to keep sight of it. Whether we like it or not, whether it makes us feel comfortable or not: our destinies are and will remain linked, whatever happens. Let’s try and make the best of it, shall we?
Frans Timmermans is first vice-president of the EU Commission, in charge of better regulation,inter-institutional relations, the rule of law and the charter of fundamental rights.