This blog post is an edited version of an essay that appeared in Afterthoughts, my monthly letter to my subscribers. With the EU elections last week it felt like a good time to share this again. My inbox went wild after I originally sent this went out, with so many people telling me they felt the same way, so I thought I’d share it here. If you’d like to sign up to Afterthoughts, you can do so here.
Brexit is confusing me.
It’s happening, it’s not happening; I don’t know.
I simply can’t understand it, or rather, I can’t understand how we got here, to this point of calamity. To this sort of indifference we are verging on, the point at which we begin to stop caring because it’s white noise we’ve learnt to get used to, because we’re glossing over the articles and turning the news channels and carrying on as normal because there’s no resolution in sight anyway.
We all thought this would never happen, but it did, and then Trump happened too. Good lord, 2016. But what does it all mean? Well, I don't know. Perhaps it was meant to happen this way all along; we just didn't see it, or didn't want to. Maybe all Brexit means is that we are incredibly naive.
It's hard to fathom now but at university, as a wide-eyed literature undergrad, I joined the Young European Movement. We were hardly activists but we were inspired. We listened to lectures about Europe being a place of promise. We watched French movies like L'Auberge Espagnole and we lived for our Erasmus years and we wrote that quote - "Je suis français, espagnol, anglais, danois. Je suis pas un mais plusieurs. Je suis comme l'Europe, je suis tout ça. Je suis un vrai bordel" - inside our planners, because we believed it. Because we wanted to. That quote - “I am French, Spanish, English, Danish. I’m not one but many. I’m like Europe, I’m all of that. I’m a complete mess” - was made for the Erasmus intake of 2002.
Back then, we wanted Britain to join the Euro, not because we truly understood what it meant economically but because we thought it symbolic in some generous, gesture of a way. To be a part of something.
Those undergraduate years inspired me to study European politics for my Masters at a place called Sciences-Po, a political science institute of some acclaim in Paris. I studied what I thought was going to be my future, Europe, while sat in the same halls that Macron, Mitterand, Sarkozy et tout and even Proust and Dior once studied in. (Honestly, I have no idea how I got in).
This was a place seeped in history, politics, privilege; the accomplishments of mostly men celebrated, though there were those of some women too. Though the elitism was not lost on me, at the time, I still thought it held promise; even for me, even though my background or my heritage had no reason to bring me there. I remember walking through those security-guarded gates and those grand halls often in a daze. I felt like I was a part of something, which was all I had ever wanted to feel.
But despite all that, despite what I thought I'd learnt and studied and understood about Europe then, it all means nothing now. Because how did we get to this point, this vrai bordel? I read the papers but can make neither head nor tails of who says what this time. It's as if the confusion is purposeful, designed to make us feel like it is out of our hands anyway.
But there is one thing that I have read lately that sort of does make sense to me, and I'll share it here, with no other remarks other than to say: I read this, I underlined it, I understand what she means. For in her essay, Fences: A Brexit Diary, found in her collection Feel Free, Zadie Smith writes:
Such utter recklessness.
We thought it would never happen, and yet it did. So, tell me, what does that say about us, that we never saw this coming?