Sunday, 4 September 2016

"The UK is over?" - America's view of Brexit

The UK's vote to secede form the EU is still an object of fascination in the US, where views range from pity to bemusement.

Last week, standing at a bar in Savannah, Georgia and drinking a 40-ounce of Miller Light, I found myself engaged in a most unlikely conversation.

I had just been introduced to the roommate of an old friend. He was telling the story of a recent unsuccessful date, aborted because of a lack of intellectual heft. "I mean, he didn't even know what Brexit was," he said incredulously.

I had to check my surroundings to remind myself of where I was. I've been working as a journalist covering EU politics in Europe for a decade now, and it's been rare indeed that I've encountered much interest in the topics I cover during my twice-yearly visits home.

But Brexit has continually come up during this visit, both when I was visiting Savannah and neighboring Charleston, South Carolina and at home in New York and Connecticut. I've gone on about Brexit just a bit on social media (look at me using British understatement) so perhaps it's not surprising that people I know were bringing it up. But Brexit was also on the lips of people I just met, who didn't know I had any interest in the subject.

One element of the vote that seemed particularly interesting to the Americans I spoke with was the lack of knowledge from British voters about what they were voting on. Several people brought up the reports of "What is the EU?" being among the top Google searches in the UK the day after the referendum vote.

England's preview of a dystopian future

The interest was probably due to the timing. While I was home, Brexit champion Nigel Farage gave a speech with Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton responded to that appearance with severe criticism.

“Just yesterday one of Britain’s most prominent right-wing leaders, a man named Nigel Farage, who stoked anti-immigrant sentiments to win the referendum to have Britain leave the European Union, campaigned with Donald Trump in Mississippi,” she said. She linked Farage to "a rising tide of hardline, right-wing nationalism" sweeping the Western world.

(I like how she didn't give him the dignity of pronouncing his name correctly).

For people in the UK, Clinton's description of Farage was shocking. Nobody in the British political class or media has dared to call Farage the 'n-word' - nationalist. Perhaps the most absurd example came in May when the BBC published a piece about nationalist parties in Europe and failed to include Farage's UK Independence Party. Just one month before the Brexit vote, the British media was still convinced that nationalism is something that only happens in continental Europe.

But this is an insular view. People outside the UK, in continental Europe and in the United States, do not see Farage as anything other than a nationalist.

Similarly, people in the US see the Brexit referendum result as a victory for nationalism. Whether or not you see that as a good or bad thing depends on who you support. Trump's supporters have followed his example, cheering Brexit as an expression of national sovereignty and a victory for native residents preserving their traditions and expelling the immigrant threat. 

For Clinton supporters, Brexit represents the triumph of xenophobic populism. It offers a vision of a dystopian future - the isolationist nativism that could be in store for the United States if Trump were to win in November. Brexit is a warning.

"Sorry your country failed"

So, the 'victims' of Brexit, the British people, are viewed with some sympathy. Arwa Mahdawi, a Brit living in the US, wrote a column for The Guardian in July detailing the pity expressed to her by Americans after the June vote. "In the US, Brexit has become a shorthand for 'sorry your country failed'" she wrote.

"Brexit has broken Brand Britain. Being British used to have a cachet in America, which the vote to leave the EU has destroyed. In the Jane Austen novel of international life, we are now Fanny Price – the throwback no one respects."

It was interesting, during my visit home, to see her description born out by the comments of family, friends and even strangers. 

I was frankly shocked by the deep level of knowledge Americans now have about Brexit. Such knowledge is extremely unusual when it comes to EU issues. What has given this particular issue such resonance with Americans? 

Perhaps it is because, in Brexit, they see a once-great nation reduced to a global joke. They fear that, with a President Trump, this could be the future awaiting America.

"So, the UK is basically over now?" one acquaintance in New York asked me last night. I answered the question with some nuance, also going into the likelihood that Brexit will never actually happen. 

But it was interesting to see that the overwhelming impression of Brexit I encountered in America was one of pity. "Such a shame about Brexit," I heard time and time again, as if people were talking about a funeral. 

And this from the very people that the Brexiteers claimed were clamouring for a new trans-Atlantic trade alliance. 


An Cigire said...

Interesting that there is such an awareness of Brexit in the USA but maybe its the circles you move in rather than a more widespread phenomenon although Donald Trump does seem to talk about it quite a bit. Does anyone know what Brexit means though because I don't think that Theresa May's government knows! ("Brexit means Brexit") :-)

Anonymous said...

I live in the US and I have to say I had no idea what Brexit was until after it happened, but since then I feel like I hear about it all the time. I've never heard it mentioned in a positive context, either from other people or in the media. People talk about it like a hurricane or an earthquake that happened over in another country. I don't know how accurate this impression is, but I've never heard it talked about in a good way here.

Geoff said...

Better late than never...but the new leader of the Green Party has called UKIP Fascists. About time too!

fynesider said...

"British media.... Nationalism only happens in Europe..." Sounds as though for all your living in Brussels you've never heard of a)Alyn Smith and b) the SNP.....

Anonymous said...

Makes sense that the media would make no mention of the Scottish National Party leading a successful outward looking campaign. Doesn't fit their 'all nationalism is bad/the same' rhetoric