Brexit to Brussels

Weeks after Brexit I still didn’t know how I felt about it. I felt the need for closure, to move on, so I could think about what Post-Brexit Britain could be. I set off on my pilgrimage to Brussels, the home of the European Parliament, to mourn the passing of British membership of the EU.

Spirit of Britain

While we waited on the tarmac at Calais, a tanker reversed down off the ferry with 5 people sitting atop the tanker.  Several high viz police were ushering the vehicle away from the ship grandly named the Spirit of Britain.   You could tell we were heading to Britain, the border at Calais was the first time we had our passports rigorously checked.  There was no doubt we were about to pass over into a different country.  You can sense a fortress mentality as Britain is surrounded by an expanse of water on all sides like a castle moat.  As we watched the migrants on the lorry and fellow passengers took pictures, I wondered what these migrants hoped to find in Britain that they wouldn’t in a European country such as Germany, France or Sweden.  The immigrant I worked with in Sheffield told me it was the language, he had tried to learn German but found it too difficult compared to English.  I guess if you’ve crossed deserts and seas and survived imprisonment at the hand of Libyan people smugglers, the English Channel doesn’t seem like a big deal.

On our journey from Brussels we had stayed with a lovely social campaigner in Kortrijk who again showed us a humbling generosity and welcome.  She talked about the frustrations of working within a political party and how she had left to go back to social work.  She was also an impressive photographer.  The day we left her the gentle landscape of Flanders and a pleasant tailwind ensured us easy riding on our last long day on the continent.  Once back on the roads in England I instantly missed the wide cycle lanes and respectful drivers of Belgium.  Speeding lorries accompanied me to Folkstone where I was getting a train home.

As I sat on a cushioned seat hurtling across the country mesmerised by the speed of travel, I wondered how the pilgrimage had changed me.  I heard the thick eastern European accent from the man selling drinks and felt reassured that our connection to Europe was still intact.  The Brexit vote hadn’t isolated us from Europe yet.  Whilst I’m sad we voted to leave the EU my main concern is with the tone of the referendum.  The kindness of those we met along our way made me feel we have friendly neighbours who understand us.  They have a similar rising of nationalist parties across Europe and population divides of their own.  Our challenge is to improve the debate we have.  Brexit it may make us poorer but it alone isn’t the Armageddon it was made out to be.  It is up to us to decide how this independent Britain relates to the world.

Brexit 4 Malawi

I guess its Nigel Farage’s fault I have a sore bottom right now.

If it hadn’t been for the successful Brexit campaign (spearheaded by Farage even if he wasn’t part of the official Vote Leave faction) Chris and I wouldn’t be riding back from our pilgrimage to Brussels and I wouldn’t have saddle-sore.

So for me Brexit was a bummer in more ways than one.

I guess the other culprit for landing me on this trip is the cyclist Mark Cavendish. It was while watching the Tour de France this summer that Chris told me about his expedition. Inspired by the daily highlights of each Tour stage as the peloton rolled across Europe I was keen to get out onto the roads of France and Belgium and relive Cavendish’s exploits which saw him claim four stages of this year’s race.

I’m aware the European Union is far from perfect, but the ethos behind it, of collaboration across cultures and language, is something I think we should strive for. As an island nation with cold seas hemming us in, being part of the EU was an enforced link to the rest of our continental neighbours. The people we’ve met on our journey, the open minded, multi-lingual, free moving Europeans, have a certain positivity and freedom which I think many Britons would benefit from.

cycle selfie

Cycle Selfie

Despite this, according to the polling, it was comfortable middle class people who voted to Remain and poorer, working class people who voted for Brexit. As the brilliant Guardian reporter John Harris has said, if you woke up on the morning of June 24th feeling scared and worried for your future, then that is how millions of Britons who voted for Brexit feel on a daily basis.  The fact it is likely to be these very people who suffer the most from any Brexit-induced recession once we eventually leave, is a cruel irony.

But here’s one way we can make some good come out of the Brexit bad and also stick it to Nigel Farage.  The former Ukip leader is known for his dislike of how the UK helps some of the poorest people in the world through our international aid commitments.  

So in honour of Brexit and the European Union, why don’t you donate some money to Christian Aid’s Malawi Food Crisis Appeal?  It’s not in the news over here, but the poorest people in Malawi are currently facing crippling food shortages and are in desperate need of help.  So bad is the emergency that the Scottish Government has agreed to match every pound raised until October 31st.

These slow onset emergencies rarely get the media coverage they need to generate the vital funds required to alleviate the suffering.  Only when the bodies are piling up and pictures of orphans covered in flies are beamed around the world does the money come in. This appeal is designed to try and avert such a catastrophe from happening.

So why not stick it to the aid bashers, ensure at least some good comes out of Brexit and help some starving Malawians.  And remember, your money will be doubled.

For more details and to make a donation visit: http://www2.christianaid.org.uk/emergencies/malawi-food-crisis

You Broke My Star

After 215 miles we’ve arrived in Brussels, the home of the trinity that is the European Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament.  In amongst these three institutions that make up the EU is the Parlamentarium.  The free museum at the heart of the European Quarter of Brussels.  Brussels is defined by the EU as London is by ‘The City’.  The industry of the EU brings jobs and languages from all over the world to work in the myriad tower blocks of offices.

EC

The European Commission

The Parlamentarium is well worth a visit, it charts the formation of the EU as leaders respond to the aftermath of the second world war.  In this context is was widely supported.  Churchill was with others calling for a United States of Europe.  Out of this history of conflict, the European Union has been a resounding success.  In the context of war, the case for the EU is overwhelming.  At one of our host’s I listened in to a conversation between a Spanish lady and her Dutch boyfriend.  She had recently started working at the commission and spoke with passion and conviction about the good of the EU.  The dutch boyfriend was less convinced and was sympathetic to the Brexit vote, complaining that regulation hurt small businesses.  In response and as a finale to the discussion the young Spaniard simply replied “its about peace”

parlamentarium

The Parlamentarium

It is fitting that Belgium hosts the centre of this endeavor to unite conflicting regions.  It has been fought over relentlessly and is now host to three parliaments and languages within the boarders of Belgium.  The political factions divide by language creating an array of parties that struggle to work together resulting in the record breaking 589 days without a government that started in June 2010.  The art of compromise that is needed to bring difference sides together can result in absurdities.   For the EU an example is the monthly trip to Strasbourg where the whole parliament moves for 4 days of voting.  A price worth paying for peace, but when we learn to expect peace this becomes a symbol of bureaucratic waste.

you broke my starWhilst we walked through the museum one recording jumped out at me.  A slightly triumphalist comment bragging of the democratic support received from so many referenda.  I couldn’t help chuckle as this would have been recorded before Brexit.  I wondered how much editing would need to be done in light of our vote.  I assumed these events too recent to get a feature but there at the end of the corridor display was a photo marking our referendum.  The picture shows a woman with a placard reading “you broke my star”.  We were told by our electronic guide that the diversity of Europe is it’s greatest challenge and it’s greatest opportunity.  It’s easy to see the challenge faced by Brexit, but maybe we need to look for the opportunity.

 

 

Heading for the Exit

Leaving London I was pleasantly surprised by the cycle lanes starting to thread through the city’s busy streets.  I followed my brother on his usual commute over Tower Bridge and thought there is hope for British cycling infrastructure.  We were heading towards Faversham and our first host who showed us the town, fed us and regaled us with astonishing stories of her cycle tour from Paris to Peking.  I was delighted that my brother witnessed the abundant generosity of the hosting website Warm Showers, and more was to come.  We got to Dover in plenty of time the next day and queued to present our passports with Bulgarian lorry drivers who were struggling to get their goods past unsympathetic customs officials.  There seemed to be a laissez-faire attitude with regard to our passports and tickets and before long we were rolling into Calais.

Menin Gate

Menin Gate

I have developed a theory that cycling infrastructure improves the closer one gets to the cycling Mecca of the Netherlands.  Once we got into Belgium there was a marked difference and the roads became easier with wide cycle lanes and before long our route took us alongside beautiful canals away from any sound of an engine.  As we went through Flanders there was a plethora of war cemeteries and memorials to the soldiers who fought and died here.  When cycling through the Menin Gate in Ypres I saw the inscription above which read “to the armies of the British Empire who stood here from 1914 to 1918 and to those of their dead who have no known grave.”

I was already starting to mourn my perceived rejection of this place through Brexit and once we arrived at our host family the pangs of loss were felt all the more.  They were such a kind and welcoming family who spoke fluent English as a third language.  The youngest daughter had been shown kindness as she toured across America and this was their way of paying it back.  They treated us like royalty and as we ate delicious food in their courtyard the days warmth slowly faded.  We told stories of past adventures and dreams of future journeys.  We discussed politics across the globe and noted the seismic changes and instability of politics the world over.

vorbeke

New friends in the EU

It pained me that this family with which I shared so much in common, which was so kind and good, were distanced by a feeling that the UK had turned their back on Europe.  It pained me that they had friends and family living in the UK who now felt rejected.  The vote to leave was interpreted as isolationist and I wanted desperately to say it wasn’t so.

Taking on Travelers

A week before departure my brother requested to join me in this adventure.  Consequently we agreed to rendezvous in London to prepare for the journey.  I arrived in London to a wonderful apartment overlooking the Olympic velodrome with the company of my brother and his lovely friends.  It struck me that the London my brother lives in is inhabited by an abundance of beautiful and talented young professionals.  A metropolitan and liberal elite for whom the world has offered itself as a rich buffet of opportunity.  It is these young London professionals who sit demographically at the extreme remain end of referendum voters.   The antithesis of the deprived northern industrial towns that voted so overwhelmingly to leave.  The nearest I get to the other extreme is the young homeless people I work with in South Yorkshire who have nothing and rely on £57.90 a week in Job Seekers Allowance or low skill apprenticeships that pay £3.30 an hour.  Many of the the young people have family in Rotherham, Doncaster and Barnsley who demographically voted 70% to leave the EU.

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My Lovely Brother

These two groups are not opposed to each other.  Many of my brothers friends work and vote with the intention to alleviate inequality and help the people I work with.  The divide in this case in not between two groups seeking self interest at the expense of the other, but rather a difference of opinion on how to most effectively achieve a goal.  This feels like a healthier way of discussing Brexit.  Rather than vilifying those with different political opinions we should be seeking to find solutions we agree on.  We have several years of reshaping the UK and it’s relationship to the world and we need all parts of the UK to be involved.  We may have ignored the negative impact that globalisation and mechanisation has brought to industrial towns but perhaps now’s time to look anew.

Other than talking politics in Jeremy Corbyn’s constituency I have found time to give my brother tips for his first cycle tour, from the advantage of going commando under your cycling shorts to the importance of flapjack.   As a professional writer I’ll leave him to explain his thoughts on our Brexit journey for the next blog post.

Meanwhile I have been sending requests on couchsurfing.com and warmshowers.org in the hope that we’ll be welcomed into homes along the way.  Whilst I expect that the people I meet will be self selecting in the views and outlook I hope that I will get a variety of opinions from people who are getting on with life since the Brexit vote.

 

What Just Happened

On the 23rd of June 2016 I found myself sitting alone through the night at a friends house in Solihull.   When I arrived we chatted casually into the night, nervously confident of a vote to remain in Europe.  I was frantically following twitter for updates and when Nigel Farage conceded remain would win I breathed a sigh of relief, put my phone away and played cards for an hour in the warmth of the conservatory.  As we all headed to bed I briefly checked my phone.  Sunderland had announced a much bigger vote to leave than expected.  As my friends lay down their heads, I turned on the telly to worried faces and a sinking feeling as the result unfolded.

I was one of the 48% who voted to remain, and since the result, it feels like we’ve had a political whirlwind rushing through the UK.  Once the referendum result was in we watched the pound plummet and financial markets react with cliff edge graphs for a few hours before David Cameron walked out from his front door to steady the ship.  But his wife was there too and suddenly it became clear he was resigning.  The opposite of what he said he’d do.  And we were cut adrift without anyone in charge.  Since then our politics seems to be disintegrating as Theresa May becomes party leader and Prime Minister with 183 mp’s support and not a vote from members of party or public.  Meanwhile the opposition leader loses the confidence of 172 MPs, can’t fill an opposition cabinet and refuses to go because of the mandate of his 251,417 membership votes.   The icing on the cake of this farce is the appointment of Boris Johnson, winner of The Spectator’s President Erdogan Offensive Poetry competition, as Foreign Minister a week before an attempted military coup in Turkey.  With this appointment, political satire as we know it is dead, it can’t compete with real life.  

Our frantic 24hr news cycle doesn’t even let us sleep.  The sacking of Hilary Benn at 1:30 am on Sunday morning snatched me from my slumber.  There has been too much change and not enough time to process my thoughts and feelings.  I decided I needed to carve out a space to deal with my own reaction to Brexit.  I will cycle to Brussels, the home of the European Parliament, to pay my respects to British membership of the EU.  I hope this will allow me to come to terms with the seismic shifts in our politics and meet people from the UK and the EU who haven’t changed since the vote.