“You English, you always think you know everything”: on Brussels and Brexit

Drooping flags at the European Commission. Image: James Cooray Smith.

I didn’t visit Brussels the week after the Prime Minister sent her Article 50 notification to Donald Tusk in order to write, or even think, about Brexit. Which seems stupid, now I see it written down.

I was just going to take a few days off. My wife wanted to visit chocolate shops, and indulge in a little nostalgia (we were in a hotel she had fond memories of visiting as a child). Both of us wanted to see at least some of Brussels’ many excellent museums.

The Musée de la Bandes Dessinée (comics to you and me), housed in a former factory designed by Victor Horta, is gorgeous; while the Musée Magritte,  astounding and worth a trip on its own, is merely one part of the complex of galleries that constitute the Royal Museums of Fine Arts that would take weeks to explore properly.  Whoever coined the truism about there being nothing to do in Brussels was, like the wag who commented on the inevitable shortness of any list of famous Belgians, inadvertently confessing to an astounding, profound ignorance of art. And presumably doesn’t like chocolate.

So: exhibitions and lunches (Belga Queen’s €20 set menu is your best option for the latter). That was the plan.

But in the legislative capital of the European Union, as citizens of both that union and a country that has decided to leave it, contemplating the latter fact becomes unavoidable. No matter how much you just want to find a museum devoted to Francophone comics or order yet another cone of chips, it always comes up.

This is not just my imagination, a “sadness in their eyes” thing. Brief comments emerge constantly. On the Metro. In the lift. Ordering coffee. Sometimes there are scowls. Sometimes there are sympathetic looks. There is – and it will irritate so called liberal leavers to read this, but it’s there more often than not – an assumption that not being white means we’re not in favour of Brexit.

Even when you’re not being directly confronted with your newly minted foreigner status, it’s hard not to be reminded of it. Most things you see set off a Brexit related train of thought. You spend a lot of time wondering what the EU will do about the vast number of things in the city that are named after Winston Churchill; Brussels, like Churchill’s own family, recognises him as one of the founding fathers of the European union in exactly the way British culture generally doesn’t.

Every hunt for a postcard or a stamp prompts renewed realisation that there is an astonishing amount of tourist tat, from bedsheets to bow-ties, that will have to be sold at knockdown prices (or binned) and then redesigned to remove the Union flag.

The flags. 

Yes, that flag. Even now it’s hard not to be taken aback by the sight of the Union Jack flying – or rather drooping, given the lack of wind this week – next to the flags of other European nations. It already looks like it doesn’t belong there: a spectre at this feast of european unity. You find yourself wondering if they’ll have to take down the twenty-eighth flag pole in all these locations when we go. Or whether they’ll just keep it there, ready to run the Saltire up it before the end of the next decade.

And that’s the other curious thing: while Brexit constantly comes up, no one wants to talk about it, except briefly, on the surface. It’s the topic you cannot avoid, but with which no one wants to engage.

The congregation of the English speaking Catholic church, Eglise St-Nicolas, gathered outside after Palm Sunday Mass, offer shrugs and condolences. I want to know whether attitudes to the British, to English speakers even, have changed in the last few months. I get the word “wariness”, but little else. I’m not sure if they’re expressing their own, or saying that that of others has increased.

And all I can get out of the woman in Sterling, the lovely pun-festooned, English language bookshop on Rue du Fossé aux Loups, is, “It’s very sad.” She declines to talk further or to give her name. There is a feeling that journalists, especially British journalists, are actors in the Brexit psychodrama, not mere observers. It’s a shame. I wanted to know how this business, above all others, would be impacted by Brexit, and if it already has been. 

Inside Churchill's.

So I try Churchill’s, which advertises itself as the famous English Pub in Brussels, and possibly the only Churchill related landmark in the city that won’t find itself renamed by 2019.  With its postcards of The Small Faces, little flags behind the bar and repeated use of that photograph of Sir Winston Spencer Churchill (1874-1965) holding a machine gun, it demonstrates both a bullishly, even clichéd, idea of British identity, combined with a strident insistence that this is naturally integrated into some kind pan-europeanism. Which is quite a thing to achieve through pub decor alone.

Sam, a Belgian football journalist killing time before the Anderlecht game, is the only patron willing to be quoted and named. His brother lives and works in Winchester, which he likes, but describes, curiously, as being “not really England, in the way that New York is not really America”.

He says that the circles he moves in consist of people aghast at the UK’s decision, but that he is “50/50 on it” now that it’s happening. The UK can send a strong message to the EU Commission about the need to tackle its “democratic deficit, which nobody talks about”. I tell him it’s a phrase we hear a lot in the UK; he seems surprised.

“The UK will probably survive Brexit,” he says – and if it doesn’t, then that is a lesson for the union as well. He adds that “it shouldn’t be impossible to leave the EU”; but he acknowledges that the practical difficulties are immense, whatever one’s view of the desirability of any country’s exit. It surprises him that Greece has not already gone. “Whatever happens, it will be the middle class” – in the American, not British, sense – “that have to pay. The top earners will always be fine.”

And again.

I’m still looking for a Brussels-based British citizen to talk to. I try the barman, but he’s Irish. (The pub has a sizeable Irish contingent.) When I ask, there is understandable schadenfreude at the fact Britain has committed what is perceived to be an astounding act of irreparable self-harm. I decide not to bring up the many implications for the Republic’s relationship with the north.

As we return to St Pancras that evening, a man from immigration collars some teenagers who have already shown their passports, politely, three times during the journey from Brussels Midi. He enquires, with unnecessary scepticism, about their nationality and how long they intend to stay in the UK. I can see by their passports that they have, for the moment at least, absolute freedom of movement within the UK – and that he has no practical reason, or right, to ask that question.

It feels ugly, mean-spirited, pointlessly exclusionary.  And it spoils these young people’s fun: this is not what they thought they were getting from a trip to London. One of the teenagers becomes irritated with the border guard and says, in English far better than my French, that there is nothing he is able to tell him that he doesn’t already know.

I remember the woman in Brussels City Tours a few days before, as I tried to explain that I already knew what she was trying to tell me. “Yes,” she said, firmly but not unkindly. “You English, you always think you know everything already, of course. You can never be wrong.”

James Cooray Smith tweets as @thejimsmith.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook

Images: author provided.


Can you have capitalism without capital? Brighton, Ankara, Ghent and the intangible economy

The Fusebox, Brighton. Image: WiredSussex.

As you head north out of Brighton on the A23 things take a distinctly granular turn. The cool bars and trendy eateries give way to second-hand shops and nail bars.

Looming over the area, New England House, an eight-storey brutalist office block, is home to Wired Sussex, a collection of digital and media companies, as well as its offshoot The Fusebox. Here, a collection of entrepreneurs, tech visionaries and creative technologists are seeking to transform their ideas into successful businesses. This island of cutting-edge thinking, surrounded by the evidence of the glaring consequences of austerity, could stand as a synecdoche for the suddenly vogueish concept of the “intangible economy”.

Towards the end of last year, on Radio 4’s Start The Week, Jonathan Haskel, author of Capitalism Without Capital, laid out the features of this brave new economy. The ideas are scalable, have sunk costs, their benefits spill over, and they have synergies with other intangible assets. All of these things are, to a greater or lesser extent, attributes featured in the virtual reality games, apps for care home workers, and e-commerce ideas mapped out by the bright sparks in the Fusebox.

Its manager, Rosalie Hoskins, explains that it exists to support the work of small companies doing creative work. Within these clean white walls they can bounce their ideas off each other and reap the fruits of collaboration. “We’ll provide the doors,” she says. But “it’s up to them to open them.”

One innovative thinker hoping to make her entrance is Maf’j Alvarez. She tells me she studied for a masters in digital media arts at the University of Brighton, and describes herself as an ‘interactive artist’. “Right now I am playing with virtual reality,” she tells me. “There’s a lot of physics involved in the project which explores weight and light. It definitely has a practical application and commercial potential. VR can be used to help people with dementia and also as a learning tool for young people.”

The Fusebox, she says, is “about collaboration. The residents of the Fusebox are in all a similar situation.”

The willingness to work together, identified by Haskell as a key element of the intangible economy, is evident in the Fusebox’s partnership with like minded innovators in Ankara. Direnç Erşahin from İstasyon, a centre for “social incubation” based in the Turkish capital, visited the Fusebox toward the end of last year.

“It was a good opportunity to exchange knowledge about the practice of running a creative hub – managing the place, building a community and so on,” he says.

Erşahin and his colleagues have launched a fact-checking platform – teyit.org – which he believes will provide “access to true information”. The co-operation between the Fusebox in Brighton and İstasyon in Ankara  is “a good opportunity to reinforce a data-oriented approach and university and society interaction,” he argues.

But the interaction between wider society and the denizens of the intangible world is often marked by friction and, ironically, a failure of communication.

This point is underlined by Aral Balkan, who runs a company called indie.ie which aims to develop ethical technologies. “There’s a good reason we have a trust problem,” he says. “It’s because people in mainstream technology companies have acted in ways that have violated our trust. They have developed systems that prey upon individuals rather than empowering them.”

A former Brighton resident, Balkan is almost a walking definition of Theresa May’s “citizen of nowhere”. He is a regular speaker on the TED and digital circuits, and I crossed paths frequently with him when I covered the industry for Brighton’s local newspaper. He left the city last year, chiefly, he tells me, in protest over the UK government’s overweening “snooper’s charter” laws.

He has Turkish and French citizenship and is now based in Malmö, Sweden, while working with the city of Ghent on a radical redevelopment of the internet. “Ghent is a beautiful example of how location affects the work,” he tells me. “They don’t want to be a smart city, they want to encourage smart citizens. We are exploring alternatives.”

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer at the City of Ghent, is another believer in the synergies made possible by the intangible economy. “The historic perspective has impacted on the psychology and DNA of the city,” he says. “The medieval castle built to protect the nobility from the citizens not the other way around. People in Ghent want to have their say.”

Left out of this perspective, of course, are those who cannot make their voice heard or who feel they are being ignored. The fissures are easy to find if you look. The future of Belgium’s coalition government, for example, is threatened by Flemish nationalists in the wake of a scandal over the forced repatriation of 100 Sudanese migrants. In Ankara, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has purged local government and continues to stamp on any dissent.

In the UK, the gig economy makes headlines for all the wrong reasons. Back in the area around the Fusebox, the sharp observer will notice, alongside the homeless people curled up in sleeping bags in charity shop doorways, a stream of gig-worker bikers zooming from one order to another.

The intangible economy throws up all-too tangible downsides, according to Maggie Dewhurst, vice chair at the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. She gives short shrift to the idea of ‘capitalism without capital’.

“It does get a bit irritating when they muddy the waters and use pseudo academic definitions. They pretend tangible assets don’t exist or are free.”

In fact, she adds, “The workers are a human resource.”