Don't Bong for Me Angleterra!

It has been a long painful path to exit day. Scars will remain and lessons must be drawn from years of turmoil. It will take time to heal.

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The UK joined the then European Economic Community (EEC) on New Year's Eve 1972, Big Ben's bongs chimed. But this was to ring out the old year as every year and had nothing to do with the country's odyssey to „Europe“. As „The Guardian“ put it, „Britain passed peacefully into Europe at midnight last night . . . it was difficult to tell that anything of importance had occurred.“ Other news agencies reported „government centres remain dark and silent“.

It sounded almost funereal and indeed the Conservative Prime Minister, Edward Heath, was at the time out of the country in Canada (what is it about Canada?) attending a funeral. Before leaving however he had left a reassuring message for his fellow citizens: „We are not submerging ourselves in some alien form of government.“

When the UK joined the EEC there was no European flag to wave around excitedly or anthem to play on ceremonial occasions. By the time countries of Eastern Europe were ready to join, the European Union had become an attractive proposition proffering democratic values and freedom. The UK had long had all that so why cheer for „Europe“?

Even right up until the referendum on Brexit, the symbols of the EU were sparsely seen or heard in Britain. If asked if they felt British and/or European most in England at least would look politely confused. An identity crisis? Surely that was something reserved for, well, „Europeans“. After the referendum the „Remainers“ proudly waved the blue flag with its yellow stars on high outside the Houses of Parliament. They held vigil there during all those febrile debates, amendments and late night votes desperately hoping that Brexit could be averted.

It has been a long painful path to exit day. We have broadened our vocabulary to include words such as „backstop“ and prorogue (the suspension of parliament) became a household name. The Supreme Court which had lived in relative obscurity was catapulted into the international headlines. After days of complex, technical hearings the Court proclaimed that the suspension of parliament had in fact never occurred. It was a phantom in this opera, condemned to the rubbish bin of history.


. . . the UK Is Leaving

There were so-called meaningful votes never passed by a paralysed parliament; it was so meaningless everyone gave up. Boris Johnson ditched them and introduced a normal Bill instead. Even the Queen was dragged into the strudel in this bumpy year to open parliament again and again. There were larger than life figures such as the chief advisor to Johnson, compared in the media alternately to a Svengali and Rasputin. There were cheerful whistles from David Cameron as he left Downing Street and tearful regrets from Theresa May as she departed. There was the Speaker of the House of Commons who contrary to tradition actually spoke, delving into centuries of parliamentary notes. Parliament even convened on a Saturday something normally done in times of war.

Almost 50 years after joining „Europe“ the UK is leaving. Big Ben remains silent due to renovations much to the dismay of excited Brexiteers keen to pompously celebrate. These years of high drama will be sorely missed.

The paralysis which seized the country though, the venom and bitterness and chaos will not. The scars will remain and lessons must be drawn from years of turmoil. It will take time, a long time to heal. The UK should leave as it joined, without the champagne, chocolates or fireworks. Don't bong for me Angleterra. The road ahead is just as bumpy. A new sober era opens.

Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully (*1949) is a political scientist born in Bristol UK. She has lived and worked in Austria for over 30 years.

("Die Presse", Print-Ausgabe, 31.01.2020)