THE BIG BREXIT MESS
Photography by Fabio Barzaghi
Text by Fabio Barzaghi and Karin Svadlenak-Gomez
Fabio Barzaghi is an Italian photographer who likes to explore places through people and tell stories with his photography. In September 2019, when the confusion over Brexit was at its peak and the actual Brexit date was still up in the air, he visited Scotland. There he delved into the hot topic of Brexit state-of-the-art from the locals’ point of view.
On June 23, 2016, the British people voted in a referendum with a majority of 51.9 percent in favor of leaving the European Union (EU). After lengthy negotiations and three extensions of the withdrawal period (due to multiple rejections of the withdrawal agreement by the British parliament), an agreement on a withdrawal agreement was finally reached. The United Kingdom left the EU on January 31, 2020. The withdrawal agreement entered into force on February 1, 2020. It includes, among other things, the "divorce bill": outstanding financial obligations the U.K. has to the EU. The agreement provides for a transitional phase until December 31, 2020, during which the EU legal framework remains applicable to the United Kingdom. What will follow thereafter is still subject to negotiation. Even if an agreement is concluded on time, the UK will be a “third country” to the E.U. from January 1, 2021, which comes with all kinds of impacts on residence rights, travel, trade, student exchanges, data protection issues, etc.
When Fabio traveled to Scotland in September 2019, things were even unclearer than they still are now. He talked to us about his experiences and thoughts. This is his story.
Oh Brexit, Brexit, what art thou, Brexit? Three years – and counting – and both the UK and Europe are still working hard to figure it out, with the topic getting more intricate everyday.
So, last September I spent some time in Scotland to delve into the hot topic of Brexit state-of-the-art from the locals’ point of view. Knowing that Scotland has a reputation for wanting independence from the rest of the UK plus having read of the social-economical-geographical traits of that beautiful region and some comments from experts on politics about the Brexit vote in Scotland, I must admit I didn’t know what to expect: would I find EU supporters or EU leavers?
Brexit is about themes such as identity, mobility, prosperity, security and sovereignty, and so it is not an easy game to play. At the same time it seems to be rooted in the Scottish nation's DNA: so many Scots I talked to weren’t much surprised about the result of the 2016 vote. Interestingly enough, many of them mentioned lots of historical events to explain and analyze why Great Britain decided in 2016 to cut itself off from Europe*. (*The British people often refer to “Europe” as if it were a separate continent, even though the island of Great Britain is geographically part of Europe.)
The people I spoke to offered some meaningful, engaging and stimulating conversations. In general, I was surprised to encounter so few who rooted for independence, which I had imagined would be the common ground. The majority of the people (of all ages) that I talked to put the 2016 vote into some historical perspective and context to give me the best and most reasonable explanation of the “take back control” idea that led 51.9% of the British population to opt out of EU membership. It was unexpected and so very interesting to hear people using both the ancient and recent history of their country to interpret what is happening right now.
From their words it was clear that the “Great British Empire” is a heavy-weight legacy whose memory will never be forgotten and will forever be wanted back. The people I met all recognized that the world has (obviously) changed since the height of the British Empire, and that with a fluid society that grows at the speed of globalization, pursuing policies of isolation not only won’t work, but may be suicidal. That, along with the still-lit-up grudge towards France, Britain’s economic decline in the 1970s and in more recent years, and the loss of its colonies, have been fertile ground for the Brexit campaign. It is centered around the idea of the British identity being under attack from the outside, Britain having given away too much sovereignty to Europe when it entered the European Union. Many cited economic inequality, too much money being sent to Brussels, the decline of quality of the NHS (the National Health Service), and other problems — wrongly attributed to European immigrants. They all recognized that those are all untrue myths, but, sadly, myths that are easy to share and absorb by people who only rely on modern — but poor-quality — informational channels.
If it were up to me, personally, I would call myself a Remainer, so when I heard about the results of the vote that made it official for the UK to leave European Union, I was in a state of disbelief. I have visited the UK many times and my personal experience is of a country that treasures and values welcoming and integrating people from all around the world, knowing that diversity enriches every aspect of life, whether it be culture, art, food, economics, or technology...
I have ideas and opinions shaped by my own experience and upbringing, but I believe that nowadays putting on the table topics such as imperial ambitions like the UK has done with the Brexit campaign is anachronistic. It is unthinkable to stop immigration by closing borders or fighting dinghies. That’s a simplistic answer to a very complex issue. Laws and actions are due and necessary, but cannot come from a single country; I know this well, seeing hundreds of people every day trying to reach Sicily. Those laws must be conceived at a European level, because the topic is multi-layered and affects every country.
Entering the EU was a reason of great joy for me: I mean, freedom of movement among the different States, a single currency, strict laws to assure the best quality on food and clothing (among others), a stronger health system - and the list could go on and on. That’s why I see the EU as the place where democracy, tolerance and empathy happen, and I am proud to be part of that, as well as to contribute to that. That’s why it makes me angry and sad to think of the confusion and the division that poisoned the UK society and resulted in Brexit.
As Alcide De Gasperi, one of the "fathers of Europe" said: "The future will not be built through force, nor the desire to conquer, but by the patient application of the democratic method, the constructive spirit of agreement, and by respect for freedom".
All photos © FABIO BARZAGHI
Cover photo: Skye, 15 years old from St. Andrews. She doesn't vote yet but she believes "stay" is the right answer.
Further official information on Brexit from the European Union