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An unexpected European friendship is the only upside of Brexit

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By Simon Davies

I’ll declare from the outset that I always opposed Brexit. To me it was a dangerous idea that would set Britain back fifty years and that would imperil the rights and freedoms in its national DNA.

Nor did I ever approve of the idea that an arbitrary referendum should determine such things. If a majority vote was to decide our evolution we would never have enjoyed universal suffrage, equality of rights, the end of the death penalty or public sanitation. Maybe, for once, Margaret Thatcher was right.

Having said that, I recently discovered an upside to Brexit. It’s something I never could have imagined.

Last week I was staying in Marseille, on the south coast of France. After the recent massacre in neighbouring Nice, the mood was sombre. The old magic of the French Riviera had vanished, leaving in its wake confusion and fear.

Out of tradition, I visited a bar to connect with the locals and get my mental gyroscope in alignment. It turned out to be a deeply emotional experience.

Frenchmen who until two months ago would not have cared two figs for Britain, they hugged me. Something good has happened between our nations.

The bar manager, a rustic looking gent in his 60s, picked my English accent from the beginning and talked fondly of his brief time in Camden twenty years ago. Then we spoke of the horrors in Nice and how his nephew had narrowly escaped slaughter. Terrible times.

Then he asked about Brexit. “Pourquoi?”

I tried to explain about the lies and the deception, the political cowardice, the racial hatred and the media stitch-up that had created all this. It wasn’t my fault.

Maybe it was the events in Nice, or maybe not, but other people quickly got involved in the conversation. A local doctor, contemplating his Duvel, remarked on how sad it was that after 800 years of war between our countries, this is how things ended up. Another patron shook his head and said he just didn’t understand. It felt, to him, like a betrayal. “We worked so hard, you British and us, to make a friendship”.

I burst into tears. To this day, I cannot explain why, but I did. As my tears splashed on the teak bar, four Frenchmen hugged me. Frenchmen who until two months ago would not have cared two figs for Britain, they hugged me. Something good has happened between our nations.

The writing was on the wall. Even before the referendum, only sixteen percent of Europeans felt that Britain leaving the EU was a good thing.

That wasn’t my only tearful experience over Brexit. On the day following the referendum I sat with my friend at a piano bar in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz. Noticing our British accents, the pianist – in a sort of requiem – burst into a series of quintessentially English tunes, culminating in our godawful anthem, God save the queen.

“Why did you do it?” he later asked. “We were in this together”. The theme of betrayal again emerged.  Others at the bar also expressed dismay, and to find solace we took refuge in the predictable Billy Joel.

In the days that followed, throughout Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and Holland, the same conversations took place. “Why did you do it?” “Is there no way back?”  “Don’t do this!” I witnessed an outpouring of grief from so many countries – from ordinary people who truly believe their existence is somehow less because UK has left.

As Joni Mitchell so astutely observed in Big Yellow Taxi, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

July 26, 2016