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Parliament Square in London on January 31. Photo/Getty Images

The morning after Brexit

Post-Brexit, Germans are backing a hard negotiating line and poor Colin is stuck in a passport queue.

So, it finally happened. At the end of last month, the UK left the European Union. Jubilant Brexiteers, wearing T-shirts saying “Fcuk the EU”, celebrated by getting drunk and trampling blue-and-gold EU flags into a muddy London lawn. Remainer relatives in England sent us mournful emails. And European MPs in Brussels brought a tear to everyone’s eye, with a rousing version of Auld Lang Syne. It was all so emotional.

Until the day after in Berlin, when it wasn’t. Despite the drunks and drama in London, and the overwrought farewells, it was surprising how much of a non-event it felt like here. Sure, Brexit was front-page news, but other than the headline, it was hard to discern that anything had changed.

Most Germans still don’t understand. The Brexit level of self-sabotage is hard to comprehend unless you’re personally acquainted with misplaced nostalgia for the British empire and decades of ugly EU coverage by doom-dealing British tabloids. So, now, with a collective, multinational sigh of both resignation and relief, Europeans seemed glad to quietly acknowledge January 31 as the last in a series of annoying political cliff-hangers and, most likely, also to see the back of Nigel Farage and his merry band of flag-waving morons in Brussels.

Britain and the EU will now thrash out new deals on everything from trade to transport. Talks begin in March and must be finished by the end of 2020. EU politicians recently met in Strasbourg to decide their negotiating strategy: tough, with no new concessions. Ordinary EU citizens appear to agree. In a recent online poll of more than 15,000 German readers by Der Spiegel magazine, 91% said the EU should be harder on Britain.

They may be right. Analysts have suggested that Boris Johnson’s recent Cabinet reshuffle means he now has ministers who won’t oppose him when he starts breaking last year’s promises. “We’re talking to the same [British] representatives, but they’re acting very differently now,” Katarina Barley, German vice-president of the European Parliament, recently told journalists.

Mostly, though, Britain’s “liberation” from the evil EU seems to have come and gone here with surprisingly little fanfare. Maybe it’s because the Germans currently have less to lose. There’s the sensitive question of who will make up the almost €7 billion hole left in the EU budget by Britain’s departure. More than 460,000 German jobs are tied to about €100 billion worth of annual exports to the UK. But that still feels abstract. Today, the average German is more likely to be asking whether they need a visa to visit Buckingham Palace.

It’s more complicated for the average Briton in Europe. They’re wondering whether they didn’t get the job they applied for with the (insert name of European country here) firm because of uncertain residence status. They’re confused about health insurance, pensions, spousal rights, voting rights, the rights of their cats, dogs and pet ferrets and whether EU rules on cheap mobile phone calls still apply. Most will get to stay where they have settled in Europe – but nobody knows what will happen to them when they go on holiday in 2021.

Ah, and then there’s Colin, who started a social-media storm this month, standing in an immigration queue in Amsterdam. “Absolutely disgusting service at Schiphol Airport,” he fumed on Twitter. “55 minutes we have been stood in the immigration queue. This isn’t the Brexit I voted for.”

Well, not quite, Colin, more than 37,400 social-media users swiftly responded. But, hey, maybe next year.

Cathrin Schaer is editor-in-chief of Iraqi news website Niqash.org, based in Berlin.

This column was first published in the February 29, 2020 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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