Sat, 25 May 2024

Mad Brexit Disease

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David Haworth, senior correspondent in Brussels and one of the founders of the British section of AEJ, about the long and winding road of UK to Europe and back.

I was all of six when I first went abroad, to Switzerland, & the following year was able to accompany my parents again, this time to Norway. France inevitably next and, year by year, came holidays in Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands – always by surface transport, of course – so as a teenager I had a boastful variety of passport stamps — including one from Sweden acquired by winning a travel scholarship to that country.
Drab detail of warfare was still plentifully clear across the Continent, as were the weed-covered bomb sites of London and Manchester. They all shouted “Never Again” with the power of simplification which helped inspire a young, would-be reporter who was — much later — to join the Olivetti generation of journalism.
Maybe there was something to be said for the Rome Treaty signing or, then again, maybe not. I wasn’t attentive enough in 1957. Certainly the UK Government was superlatively sniffy about it rather as the still-insular British have patronised “Europe” in Brexit times and will continue to do so as the Channel gets wider and wider.
The novelist Ian McEwan wrote in a recent Guardian essay: “Brexit, the most pointless masochistic ambition in the country’s history” adding “damage and diminishment lie ahead.”
Well, yes. A thunderous approval from all Remainers.
Like such-minded folks, however, and perhaps as an expatriate, I didn’t see it coming. The Brussels press corps, especially the British & Irish, tut-tutted about any flare-up of “Mad Brexit Disease” but confidence and complacency was the order of the day in our lunchtime exchanges.
This view was boosted by the hacks’ conviction Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson was a jolly good bloke, etc, though buffoonish and untrustworthy. High office hasn’t changed his character, we daily observe.

Earlier, to make a bit of pocket money one of the more senior corps members recalled babysitting Boris during his parents’ frequent absences. What a hoot, colleagues laughed: that more or less proved Johnson should never be taken seriously, it was claimed.
In my 80thyear, memories are like trying to scrape ice from a rear view mirror: some reflections are clear, some parts will remain smudged.
Funny to be reminded by recent events the British AEJ is older than the nation’s EU membership.
Fleet Street was far-sighted.
Joining the AEJ was, I suppose, a bit like being accepted by a freemasonry. It was convivial yet serious, replete with common interests and references, the Reform and the Travellers were the clubs of choice while the AEJ members represented a wide spectrum of the media.
Money was helpfully accessible: not brown envelope sponsorship – rather an urbane Whitehall equivalent, offered with a nod and a bureaucratic wink.
My Goodness, the worthies didn’t overlook the AGMs. EEC President Jean Rey was delighted to cruise/booze down the Rhine with us; the French foreign minister enchanted to stop off in Bordeaux for our benefit; the Greek President made a Palace available. The then Prince Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands didn’t quite do that (pre-marriage and the Throne), but enjoyed a beery night n Scheveningen with the AEJ fraternity while Jacques Chirac gave a graceful demonstration of “le long lunch” to all AGM attendees when he was Mayor of Paris.
After Prime Minister Edward Heath had signed the EEC membership treaty – and changed his suit! – he was the exclusive guest of the UK Section for a champagne reception in the Metropole Hotel’s basement flanked by The Times, The Daily Telegraph, the BBC and The Observer (myself.)
Such events were news. Local hacks interviewed visiting scribes — like neighbours bringing in each other’s laundry. We ate for Europe, alright, believing food was always the best diplomacy when mere language faltered or failed.

That is still the case, we can assume – if we can afford it or, perhaps, find that elusive sponsorship. Would-be donors discovered during the 2008 financial crisis it didn’t matter a damn whether they entertained the media or not, business would be much the same.
There were AEJ shouting matches too: nothing “doctrinal” or emotional like Brexit, no nationalism. I won’t detail the long-standing German AEJ President who threatened assault in the lobby of Helsinki’s Grand Marina; must have been something I’d said.
Across all sections members are earnest professionals who have smoothly surfed European issues year by year in a spirit of optimism, curiosity and, mostly, good humour, convinced we were the future — and still are – while accepting debate henceforward will be spiked by a Pre-Brexit, Post Brexit, continuum.
As a former President of the UK Section, it’s both ironic and, Brexit-ly speaking, a surprise to see it has never been in better shape. Look at the new programme – a template and example for other sections – which will surely boost British members’ morale though the ache of disappointment will linger.
A long goodbye then, that’s for certain, followed by a new phenomenon: a permanent political autumn.

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