Brexit Has Normalised What Is Not Normal – And EU Citizens Are The First Victims

That the government of a European country is not only contemplating no deal, but actively choosing to make it a real possibility is one of the greatest derelictions of duty we have ever seen.

Déjà vu. Two weeks after the week that was meant to have been the UK’s last as a member of the EU, we’re there again. Outcome unknown. No deal remains the automatic conclusion unless something else happens. It still strikes me how many do not seem to understand that. But we are where we are now. There are many reasons for that, from a failure to grasp the complexity of disentangling four decades of integration, to red lines.

One factor that has played a key role in getting us to this point is the normalisation of all that really is not normal. From the abandonment of what we might describe as established political norms to an increasingly shrill language. This began soon after the EU referendum. I will never forget the now notorious ‘enemies of the people’ Daily Mail front page from November 2016. Since then the use of this language, casting pro-EU voices as traitors betraying ‘the will of the people’ has become commonplace.

I think it is partly because I am German that this kind of language still makes me shudder. I wonder often what the British press and commentators would make of it if German politicians started talking in such terms. What would they think if Germany forced 3.6 million people already at home in the country to apply for a new status that will result, at best, in a loss of rights and a special ID number on a special register, only for this group.

I frequently look at developments aghast not only as a German, however, but also as a historian. Consider, for instance, the normalisation of no deal. This comes, in a sense as an almost natural, conclusion of a pattern we have been seeing since the summer of 2016: the constant shift in what Brexit supposedly means. Clearly, it means many different things to different people; there was no specific option on the ballot. But in the rhetoric of many, no deal has been established as the expected, perfectly normal, outcome. What was a hard Brexit in 2016 is now seen as the softest of soft Brexits, with no deal now frequently cast as the only outcome actually delivering that ‘will of the people’.

Supporters of no deal keep arguing that it will be just fine, ‘not be nearly as bad as many like to think it would be’ as Andrea Leadsom noted over the weekend. Of course we know that that is not true. Some businesses would be destroyed immediately if there is no deal. After last week’s Newsnight programme, we can now also be certain that some life-saving drugs cannot be stockpiled, for instance some epilepsy drugs. Documents sent to senior clinicians in the NHS advised that, if there is no deal, it would be necessary to change the treatment regime of patients, and “clinical outcomes would be compromised as a result”. Let that sink in for a minute: the treatment of patients compromised—quite possibly something that could lead to deaths.

That the government of a western European country is not only contemplating this, but actively chose to make it a real possibility is one of the greatest derelictions of duty we have ever seen. That many people accept even this as normal now tells us a lot about the rise of populism and how populists manage to change narratives. They are able to do so best when there is a void — a space that nobody else is seeking to occupy. No deal has been normalised partly because all the Prime Minister had to offer was her meaningless ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mantra; because Jeremy Corbyn too simply confirmed the need to ‘respect’ the will of the people, also failing to define a clear plan at the outset.

Simon Dawson / Reuters

What makes these developments especially worrying is that the outcome of the EU referendum itself is the result of exactly the same populism, one that successfully occupied a void and could, consequently, develop unchallenged. Stronger In’s failure to progressively address and debate freedom of movement meant that it, and the wider topic of immigration, was left almost entirely to the two Leave campaigns. They could do what they wanted with it. And they did. As various analyses of newspaper and campaign coverage show, this is why coverage of the topic ended up being mostly negative: there simply was no alternative vision on offer.

It is a tragedy that that has not been overcome since then and we again find ourselves in a situation where all arguments lead us back to freedom of movement, its ending now also normalised. On this issue, the populists have already won, and five million EU citizens in the UK and British citizens in the EU have had to bear the fallout from that for over 1,000 days.

Regrettably, EU leaders are failing to understand this and that is the second tragedy. This failure — and the failure to take action to mitigate against this populist victory by at least ring-fencing the citizens’ rights agreement — will have even more dire consequences. Given how populists throughout the EU are seeking to undermine what the EU stands for, it is incomprehensible why EU leaders are so willing too to normalise what really is not normal. They tweet about the values of EU citizenship yet are choosing to keep five million people who built their lives on it by exercising freedom of movement in limbo. That limbo certainly is not normal. There is still time to change this, and as the Council gathers today I again implore EU leaders to do so.


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