The two cabdrivers I approached in front of Charing Cross Station appeared warm and friendly. But as soon as I raised the question of Brexit, they suddenly became quite excited.
“The sooner, the better,” one of them said. The other chimed in when I asked how their lives would improve with Britain leaving the European Union: “Things can’t get any worse, can they?”
His friend didn’t wait for me to follow up on my questions: “We didn’t vote to allow those guys in Brussels to make laws to govern us here, after all. Besides, we have to contribute lots of money to the EU, without the benefits returning to us.”
But if you think there is broad agreement on Brexit, then think again. The second taxi-driver admitted that there was certainly no unanimity over the issue in his country.
“In my family, I am the only person in support of Brexit. My wife and children are all against. So, we have heated arguments all the time,” he said, laughing.
The following day, I met an elderly woman from Portugal who had migrated to England 48 years ago and is married to an Egyptian. She told me they have a son who is the husband of an Indian woman with two “gorgeous children”.
I asked how Brexit would affect her life and job as a hotel waitress. “Nobody knows,” she declared with a shrug. When I asked how long it would be before anybody knew for sure what Brexit would mean for all the foreign workers in the country, she gave an even louder response:
“That’s the question everybody is asking. It’s unfair to keep everybody guessing. After all, we foreigners have contributed so much to British society. We love it here. We work hard, we are honest and we are law-abiding,” she said.
Hers isn’t the only voice of concern regarding the future of EU workers in the UK. The heads of 35 Oxford University colleges are asking MPs to allow EU citizens the right to stay after Brexit, claiming that an exodus of academics had already started. And things could get worse.
The leaders of Britain’s oldest university are asking MPs from all parties to support legislation guaranteeing that EU citizens living in Britain can remain after Brexit, warning that the university and its research work would “suffer enormous damage if its European lecturers, researchers and support staff lost their right to work in Britain,” according to their letter to the Times of London.
On the same morning I chatted with the cabdrivers and hotel waitress, it was clear that British Prime Minister Theresa May was on the brink of formally launching Britain’s official divorce from the EU. By triggering Article 50 she will kick-start two years of negotiations with a letter to Brussels spelling out her demands, including the UK’s intention to take back control of monetary, immigration and legal issues after the referendum last June.
The negotiations will centre on the mechanics of departure including the potential “divorce bill” Britain may have to pay. But things aren’t as simple as they may seem. There is a strong likelihood that the talks will break down resulting in a “no-deal” scenario.
Is there a contingency plan to avoid possible chaos in the face of such a drawn-out deadlock? People around the British prime minister have suggested that a “no-deal” situation would be preferable to a “bad-deal” conclusion. But that doesn’t really satisfy those who have demanded a Plan B from the UK government.
Article 50 must be automatically invoked by any member country that wishes to depart the EU.
Ian Dunt, writing in his book “Brexit: What the Hell Happens Now?”, warns: “The important fact is that Article 50 is brutal. Insofar as it was ever expected to be used, it was as a punishment mechanism.”
He quotes former Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato, speaking shortly after the Brexit vote: “I wrote Article 50, so I know it well. My intention was that it should be a classic safety valve that was there, but never used.”
Dunt’s position on the issue is clear: Article 50 is functionally impossible, insanely restrictive and lacking in any detail. Amato put it into the Lisbon treaty specifically to counter British complaints that there was no way to escape the EU.
In other words, Article 50 will make any country that is “mad enough” to try to leave the EU suffer. Amato warned: “They should know that when it comes to the economy, they have to lose.”
Dunt points out that the key provision of Article 50 is Clause 3: that a departing state must leave the EU within two years of invoking this article.
That deadline, he concludes, is awkward since leaving the EU requires three “hellishly complicated process”, which entails the UK making an administrative Brexit, a legal Brexit and an economic Brexit.
“In an ideal world, or even a desirable one, all three would be completed before a country left the EU,” Dunt writes.
But whoever said this was an ideal world?
How I wish I could get the British cabdrivers and the Portuguese hotel worker I met in London earlier this week to sit down together for a real debate, to see whether they are ready to revise their positions in the face of new details about this highly sensitive and complicated issue.