Written in a holiday park in Drenthe, Netherlands
June 5th 2016
I’m glad we’re having some time apart. I know you feel like you’ve got a lot of things to say in the run up to your big day on June 23rd. But I was starting to find it all a bit overwhelming, so it’s good to have some space and distance.
It’s peaceful here on the other side of the North Sea. Not many British people know about this rural corner of the north east Netherlands. I don’t know if you’d like it here to be honest – I always get the feeling that different cultures aren’t really your thing. But the cycling is brilliant, on quiet flat roads, the countryside is full of wildlife, the people are friendly and the food – as long as you like ham, eggs and cheese – is delicious.
I’ve been coming here for about 30 years, because in 1986 – via an international penfriend club – I became friends with a Dutch girl. Yes, that’s right, I said friends. With someone of a different nationality. I know that may sound strange to you. But I had a bit of a penfriend craze back in the 80’s, and I grew up knowing that I had a lot in common with teenagers from elsewhere in Europe. With my Dutch pen pal I shared matey banter and insults, and gossiped about A-ha. With my French friend I discovered a shared interest in astrology and exchanged more celebrity gossip about A-ha. To my Spanish penfriend I confided secrets (not just about my true feelings for Morten Harket) that nobody else knew, knowing instinctively from her handwriting that she was a kindred spirit. And a fiercely political German girl taught me that people whose grandfathers had fought against mine four decades earlier could be full of determination to avoid the mistakes of the past. She wrote and told me how she’d cried with happiness at the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and her letter made me cry too. (We did also trade Aha posters as well).
The point I’m trying to make here, Brexit, is that actually we are all the same, us Brits and Johnny Foreigner. “If you tickle us, do we not laugh?”and all that (that’s Shakespeare by the way. And yes, they do know who he was).
And that’s what turns me off your whole ‘leave the EU’ argument. It’s all couched in the language of ‘we’ and ‘us’ vs ‘them’, and I just don’t get it. I don’t know what definition of ‘we’ could feasibly lump me together with Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage instead of with my Dutch, French, Spanish and German friends. Some of my best friends are from neighbouring EU countries, and there are plenty of British people who I really don’t like at all. Separating from the rest of Europe makes as much sense to me as Merseyside, where I was born, separating from Yorkshire where I live now. We live in a shrinking world, with communities that span continents, and there are so many things – not least an appreciation of Norwegian pop gods amongst women of a certain age – that we have in common.
I know what you’re going to say – it’s not the ordinary European people, it’s the remote, unaccountable EU leaders you’ve got a problem with (not sure I believe you though, what with all the whinging about Polish plumbers). Frankly I’ve always thought British politicians were pretty unaccountable too. It wasn’t the EU that wiped out our mining industry in the 1980’s, or introduced the poll tax, took us to War in Iraq, gave us austerity and the bedroom tax. No, that was British politicians – “our guys” who took all those fairly crappy political decisions. So you’ll excuse me for thinking that actually we do need some friendly European influence to keep us from completely screwing everything up. I quite like the workers rights and clean beaches and recycling that you view as European meddling.
I’ll be flying home today, and no doubt I’ll soon catch up with all the latest jingoistic, xenophobic arguments you’ve been coming out with lately, and I’ll be shouting at Question Time as usual. If I was young enough to learn a foreign language properly and adjust to driving on the other side, I’d be very tempted to stay here. Brexit, being away from you has made me realise just how much I disagree with you, and how much I appreciate all that you’re trying to take away from us. It’s brilliant here. Everything from the food, the weather, the ease of hiring bikes so that the kids can bomb around on safe cycle paths. My Dutch penpal’s daughter, who is 13, can join in with English conversations at a level which puts language teaching in the UK to shame. The EU may not be perfect but anything that makes it easier for us to get to know and cooperate with our European neighbours, rather than going to war with them every few years as we have for the last few centuries, has got to be a good thing in my book.