29 March 2019
Was something supposed to happen today?
We’ve generally steered clear of the overtly political in this blog but since we left on this journey today’s date has loomed like a brooding thunderstorm on a nearing horizon. Like everyone in the UK, and thanks (without any irony whatsoever!) to internet connections gifted to us by EU roaming rules, we too have grown weary to the point of exasperation of the endless talk of Brexit in the media, what it means, what will happen, when it will happen, who could do it better.
Well, it turns out that nothing actually does happen today and we are still EU citizens, for now.
It was, of course, entirely a coincidence that we untied Pintail from her pontoon at Essex Marina to leave for these adventures in Europe on the eve of the EU referendum. We had made sure, however, that being at sea on polling day did not disenfranchise us and our votes to remain were placed firmly in the post box at Burnham on Crouch in advance.
It was with increasing levels of horror on passage between Newhaven and Plymouth that we stayed glued to the radio through our night watches of 22-23 June and woke to the reality of a chaos that would start with the resignation of our Prime Minister and end with the UK’s exit from the European Union. I very clearly remember receiving a text message from my friend Fen as we sailed through the English Channel saying “Come back! Something terrible has happened”. I thought about it fleetingly and then realised that there was no better way to show our solidarity with our soon to be former EU partners than to spend time with them before our divorce got in the way. That, and perhaps the prospect of losing our freedom of movement in the near future, meant there might never be a better time to go.
It was not without some trepidation at the response that we might receive in the rest of Europe that we left Plymouth for Brest on 28 June 2016 but there is no doubt that leaving the UK and spending so much time in and around mainland Europe has made us feel more European at a time when our country has been busy ending its 43 year relationship with the EU.
Escaping the UK has not meant an escape from the constant conversations about Brexit, what it means and how it will go. Far from it. We have had endless conversations with both new friends and strangers, both Brits and other Europeans on all ends of the political spectrum about how it came to this and what it will mean for both the UK and Europe. There has been no escaping the debates. A Dutch man we got chatting to in the early days said, with typical northern European directness, “how can you be so stupid!”. In Greece, the response was more “let’s see how you get on but we wouldn’t mind escaping from those German banks”! A couple of older German tourists in Italy late last year expressed a real and deep sadness at the decision, not just for the UK but all of the EU.
And that is mostly how we feel about it. Sad. Maybe also a little bit angry too, at what we perceive to be a decision fuelled to a large degree by ignorance and fear, on false propaganda peddled by politicians but mainly on a lack of thought or care about what the EU and being European means to us.
Perhaps it is because the first friends we made were The Germans and our first winter pontoon neighbours Dutch that early on we learnt just how differently other Europeans feel about their identity and the EU.
A legacy of small island mentality mixed with an over inflated post colonial superiority and the arrogance of a mother tongue everyone else bothers to learn makes it too easy for Brits to feel separate and aloof from our European cousins. Perhaps it is the Scandinavian and Iberian genes found deep in my DNA or the 16th century heritage of Stefan’s name that help us choose to rise above all that.
Whilst even after joining the EU in 1973 the UK has had a underlying current of Euro-scepticism, enabling the media to propound myths about the regulation of the shape of bananas, the residents of other EU States can reel off countless examples of the positives membership brings. Flying the EU flag and badging cultural and infrastructure projects with it is done with a sense of pride not shame.
Perhaps it is because we have learnt so much more about our country’s shared but sometimes difficult histories with Europe and its constantly changing borders over the centuries. Perhaps it is also because this journey has taught that “our” patron saint, George, that Palestinian born Greek, is celebrated not just in England. We now know just how much more in common we have as Europeans than our British history books teach us or our media likes us to believe.
So it’s not just the selfish things that Brexit might mean for us – the loss of our freedom of movement between EU countries, joining the non EU sailors in their Schengen immigration dance and losing Pintail’s EU VAT status – or even the multiple collective rights and freedoms the EU has given us as individuals. It feels like we are driving an irrevocable wedge between friends and between our European family.
But today it turns out that nothing happens and we are no closer to understanding what will actually happen or when.
Reflecting on the chaos during our current sojourn outside the EU, Brexit feels to us much like walking around the medina in Tunis. You think you’re heading in one direction then hit a dead end so you wander aimlessly around only to find yourself back in the same place.
Maybe it will all be ok. Maybe it won’t. But when the reality of this new European schism finally settles one thing is certain – when Pintail eventually sails out of European waters we will leave feeling more European than we ever have. And we will continue to fly our EU flag in solidarity.
We will say just one final thing on the matter. No matter how hard we have tried, nowhere in any of the EU countries we have visited have we ever found a straight banana…