After recently attending a day-long workshop on the role of democracy in Europe with a group of young people from across and beyond the EU at the King Baudouin Foundation in Brussels, I had two hours to spare before the departure of my train to Amsterdam. Almost everybody who has ever taken a train from the Brussels South Station (Gare du Midi/Zuidstation) will have noticed the Eurostar Terminal, a checkpoint for travellers to the UK, a non-Schengen member state of the EU. Keeping all discussions of the day about the future of Europe in mind and having nothing to do for the coming two hours, I decided to hear British travellers’ perspectives on UK membership of the EU and share them in this blog.
The first two travellers whom I approached were a British couple. Unfortunately, the couple in question had “no opinion about” and no interest in politics. Despite an initial feeling of disappointment, this was still a good result for an outside observer; seems like for the given couple the EU is not a personal issue but “high politics” in which they have no interest, nor concern.
Following the couple disengaged with the question of UK membership to the EU, I spoke to a young British man in his twenties, who was returning to the UK after visiting a friend in Belgium from university.
Q: “A question about the EU…?”
A: “Politics? – Not interested!”
Then I explained to him that I did not expect to hear an expert opinion but just wanted him to share his personal feelings about the EU. I further asked if he felt happy about the checkpoint installed in Brussels South Station that requires travellers to go through passport control in order to reach the UK. He was convinced that “it is a good thing” because “it [passport control] has always been in place.” In regards to the possible British exit, he was also in support. I asked if the benefits of EU membership had ever been communicated to him by an official body such as a university or a think tank and it transpired that the answer was no. He further added that “this euro thing was no good with Greece, the economic crisis and immigration.”
My next interlocutors were two extremely friendly ladies from Nottingham who had just visited Bruges, a beautiful medieval Belgian town. Shortly after praising the architectural beauties of the town, a question concerning the UK’s EU membership seemed a little confusing and unexpected. The two ladies were sceptical about the idea of putting EU membership to a referendum: “People will vote how their heart tells them and not necessarily for what is good for the country.” They further stated that the Parliament is the place to deal with such “political issues” and to figure out what is the proper solution for the UK. I also asked them how they felt about the upcoming passport checks during their return journey to the UK and they agreed with the opinion of the previous respondent: “Well, it used to be like that always and is good for security reasons.”
I had almost lost any hope that I would find a pro-EU attitude among the British travellers, and this was especially frustrating considering that before I had only known Euro-optimist Brits (some of them among our blog contributors). But luckily, the diversity of the few people with whom I talked, also resulted in a diversity of their ideas. The next two respondents were middle-aged British-German ladies just returning from visiting their relatives in Germany. They strongly supported EU membership and stated that it is profitable for the UK to be an EU member state. They were also proud to speak both German and English, and to have travelled extensively in Europe.
My last interviewee appeared to be returning from a business trip. Nevertheless, I still decided to approach him with the same questions. The respondent was very knowledgeable about current political affairs and the issues related to David Cameron’s initiative on Europe. “As a British farmer, I am against” was his opening statement. “The British government does not think about its farmers… [Without the EU support] the industry will collapse” were some of his comments. The major arguments raised by the gentleman concerned the importance of the Common Market. I asked him if he remembered what it was like before the UK became an EU (then EEC/EC) member. He said that for the last 40 years his industry has been profiting out of British EU membership. Furthermore, he stated that the times before were significantly different than now because “now the EU is larger”. According to him, a British exit would bring negative economic consequences. Further in our conversation he revealed that he was actively involved in European farmers’ associations, as well as being in professional contact with the Commission and individual EU officials.
This respondent was also highly critical about the border controls and the checkpoint in Brussels South Station. He said that it was ridiculous to be checked twice and to lose an additional half an hour every time: when departing from Belgium and also on arrival to the UK. As most travellers in and out of the UK, he also experienced similar delays when visiting France and hoped that the UK would abolish border controls with the EU. “Anyway, the UK policy against illegal migration is ineffective; there are no effective registration systems.” At the end of our conversation, we again returned to the topic of the British exit. He predicted that discussions about the EU would only surface close to the referendum (as he said, “if one will be held”) and he expects both pro and anti-EU groups to start actively campaigning about this topic close to the parliamentary elections in May 2015.
With this final insight, passengers began to board the London trains. I was grateful to have found such interesting respondents representing diverse professions and opinions. Moreover, I am thankful for the time they spent with me and for being frank in the expression of their opinions. The future of the UK in the EU is yet to be decided but with recent YouGov opinion polls illustrating that the UK population remains as split as the people I spoke to, the debate is sure to continue.