No Longer European, a Divided Britain Seeks a New Identity
Skyscrapers stand on the skyline in the City of London, U.K. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

No Longer European, a Divided Britain Seeks a New Identity

(Bloomberg) -- At 10 a.m. inside Aux Merveilleux de Fred, a patisserie in the heart of London’s French quarter, the air is thick with the aroma of butter. Aicha Boubakri, 30, is arranging neat rows of pastel-colored cream pastries in front of the bakery’s only customer.

“It’s a bit sad—the fact that the U.K. will no longer be in Europe,” she says. “It will be more difficult to come here.”

South Kensington is one of numerous European districts within the British capital. In these neighborhoods, migrants have clustered together with their fellow nationals, opening shops and restaurants, and raising and educating their children. They have brought an unmistakably continental flavor to a restless city that has been shaped by waves of immigration for over 2,000 years.

No Longer European, a Divided Britain Seeks a New Identity

Now, London’s Europeans are facing a moment of seismic change. At 11 p.m. on Friday, the U.K. will legally withdraw from the European Union, severing the 47-year relationship with its trading partners and redefining itself as a country standing alone in the world.

Initially, nothing practical will differ. EU rules will continue to apply until the end of the year, under transitional arrangements. But culturally, legally and, perhaps, emotionally, the U.K. will experience an earthquake, instantly becoming a different country, when the divorce is complete.

After EU membership ends, so too eventually will the free movement of European citizens into Britain, and with it the rights of British people to move to the 27 remaining countries in the bloc.

New U.K. visa rules will involve a points-based system designed to attract the world’s “best and brightest”, and to keep out lower-skilled workers from Europe. That policy is designed to appeal to working class British people who backed Prime Minister Boris Johnson, first in the 2016 Brexit referendum and then at last month’s general election. But it seems likely that over time, Brexit will change forever the nature of the capital and perhaps the rest of the country too.

No Longer European, a Divided Britain Seeks a New Identity

South Kensington, with its grand mansions and genteel, tree-lined streets, has been a welcoming place for French locals, who feel most Londoners never wanted Brexit.

Even so, Melinda Kourouma, store manager at a dry cleaner, is already thinking of returning to France earlier than planned. “They are kind of saying if you don’t have specific skills, you might not be able to get those higher jobs, so then I think a lot of us won’t have much reason to stay,” she says. “We will see a lot of change.”

In Ealing, west London, eastern European immigrants have their own bakeries, doctors, and church. “I don’t think I will stay,” says Adelina Moisa, who arrived from Romania three years ago and now earns a living as a care worker. Asked if she likes Ealing, she winces: “Could be better.” The higher wages in London were the main attraction but Brexit has taken the shine off that. “We came because we have to,” she says.

For many residents as well as businesses based in the capital, the 2016 Brexit vote was a tragedy. London itself voted overwhelmingly to remain inside the EU but was outgunned by millions of euro-skeptics living across the rest of the country.

For the past four years, in the dark wood paneled corridors of Westminster, pro-European politicians have banded together, often setting aside party loyalties, and tried to stop the damage of they fear Brexit will do to the economy. Many searched for ways to reverse the referendum result entirely.

That campaign finally died on Dec. 12 when Johnson’s Tories won a huge majority in the general election, crushing all hope for the U.K.’s remainers that Brexit could ever be stopped.

No Longer European, a Divided Britain Seeks a New Identity

“My heart was broken,” said Bashir Ibrahim, a campaign manager for the People’s Vote group, which pressed for a second referendum. “For 20 months I’ve been dedicating weekdays, weekends and evenings to this and I’m incredibly saddened that it ended in the way it did.”

Other pro-Europeans see reasons to keep up the struggle, even though Brexit is now inevitable. Over the next 11 months, Johnson will face intense negotiations with the EU’s 27 remaining members as he tries to secure a Canada-style trade deal that will determine the degree of cooperation on everything from fisheries to security and data protection.

“If the war is lost in the sense that we’re out of the European Union, then there’s still a peace to be won,” says Alistair Carmichael, a pro-EU Liberal Democrat member of Parliament. “Brexit happens on Friday but there’s a lot of politics still to be done after that. This could be with us for another decade still.”

No Longer European, a Divided Britain Seeks a New Identity

But Carmichael and many of London’s business leaders are all in danger of missing the point. In 2016 Britain did not vote for economic stability, or to protect companies from difficulties. The Brexit vote was driven by Johnson’s campaign for “sovereignty,” to “take back control” of the nation's affairs, and—crucially—its borders. To some extent, it was also a strike against London and its rich and powerful elites, a blow gleefully delivered by voters in the rest of England who felt left behind.

Follow the Thames downstream from Westminster—in the general direction of Europe—and where the river meets the sea lies Canvey Island, in the county of Essex.

Although it is barely 40 miles from London, this faded seaside resort may as well be in a different country. Separated from the mainland by a series of creeks, it is home to some of the most fervently pro-Brexit voters in Britain, and was the place the veteran euro-skeptic Nigel Farage chose to launch his election campaign five years ago.

Canvey Island’s residents are looking forward to a party on Friday night. For many, it is the moment the U.K. regains its pride and takes back control of its future. Some plan to get out their Union Jack flags, dine on “bangers and mash“ (sausages and mashed potato), and celebrate with Spitfire beer, brewed in the nearby county of Kent.

No Longer European, a Divided Britain Seeks a New Identity

Lisa Slater, 59, voted for Brexit but says she “loves” European people. Her issue is that she doesn’t want “them, or their rulers, telling us what to do.” As for those pro-EU campaigners upstream in the capital, it is these “rich inner London people” who are causing all the division. “They’ve probably got sour grapes,” she says. “I think our economy will prosper, I really do,” Slater adds. “Once everybody knows England is not going to turn into a third world country and we are prospering, the remainers will come round.”

As locals walk along the beach, the out-of-season amusement parks, with their peeling paint and children’s rides battened down for the winter, speak of a place forgotten, sidelined as London gained from the economic boost of EU membership.

No Longer European, a Divided Britain Seeks a New Identity

On the other side of the sea wall—built after the flood of 1953 devastated the English and Dutch coasts—container ships glide past to and from the massive London Gateway port a little way down the coast, its cranes visible on the horizon. A gas storage unit to the west is a reminder of Canvey Island's past as a place for the unloading and storage of the U.K.’s oil and gas supplies. A planned development of a massive oil terminal in the 1970s fell victim to that decade’s economic shocks.

“I’ll feel great on Friday night,” says Brian Marchant, 83, as he walks his whippets along Concord beach. The EU has been “ripping us off for years, with fishing and other things,” he says. “We’re better off without them.”

The prospect of a period of hardship doesn’t matter much to Marchant. “We’ll struggle for a few years, but we’ll be O.K.,” he says. “I’ve lived through the War. We just want the country back.”

For Marchant, Britain was at its best in the post-War years, long before joining the European Economic Community in 1973. It was a time of street parties, Queen Elizabeth had just ascended to the throne, and with World War 2 finished, “people stuck together” even in London, he recalls. “You could leave your door open. You can’t now.”

Perhaps this is the true voice of Brexit Britain. Not far outside the capital, but a place of patriotism and pride in the nation’s pre-European past.

No Longer European, a Divided Britain Seeks a New Identity

Adam Woods, 38, works in the town’s Fantasy Island amusement arcade. He says he voted for Brexit to regain control over immigration and law-making, and he believes the country can “thrive” if the government does its job properly. Leaving the EU will restore a sense of “Britain’s identity,” he says.

“Every country should have its own identity,” Woods explains. “That’s the problem with the EU, you can see everything becoming the same.”

Despite the influences of almost half a century of EU membership, for many of its citizens, Britain was never quite European enough to make it work. Now, at last, it can stop trying.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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