Tour de Brexit – Britain says See EU Later as May signs Article 50 letter and triggers Brexit

On the very day that Brexit is finally triggered by Theresa May,  I thought it appropriate to write a little about how Brexit impacted the 2016 Tour de Travoy.  In years to come, 2016 will be remembered across Europe for the Brexit referendum result and it certainly played it’s part during my tour last year. The referendum result was announced the same day I climbed the Grand Saint Bernard and crossed the border from Switzerland into Italy.  The British public too had chosen to cross the border that day as well from being a country in the EU (like Italy) to becoming a nation outside the EU (like Switzerland). Brexit also featured during my last day on the 2016 Tour de Travoy as I crossed the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland twice. This is probably the least visible international border anywhere in the world but all that could change as a result of Brexit. But the one place that Brexit really hit home during the 2016 Tour de Travoy was at of all places an idyllic campsite overlooking Lake Annecy in the Savoy region of France.

Brexit and its aftermath.  The campsite in Annecy was very busy and there was a queue at the reception so I had to wait about 10 minutes before paying for the night. While waiting, I couldn’t help but overhear an Ipad which one of the campsite residents was watching while seated at a desk outside the reception. The Ipad was playing a speech that Boris Johnson had given that morning about pulling out of the Tory leadership contest. Having not heard hardly any English for the last 3 weeks, it was quite a shock to hear not just what Boris was saying but even to hear English being spoken. Boris had been favorite to take over from David Cameron as Prime Minister so to hear him say he wouldn’t even stand in the leadership contest despite leading the Leave campaign was just incredible. Indeed, it was not just me who was shocked as the British couple watching the Ipad looked stunned as well and their reaction reminded me a little bit like the time Princess Diana died many years ago. They probably had been in France all week and were still trying to come to terms with Brexit and its aftermath. The country they would be returning to after their holiday would not be the same country they had left behind just a few days previously.

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English newspapers after Brexit. Obviously, Brexit had caused all sorts of turmoil back in Britain but until, I arrived in Annecy, I had been mostly oblivious to it. It had been exactly a week since the Brexit referendum and in that time, David Cameron had resigned, the pound had slumped 15% and over $2 trillion had been wiped off the world’s stockmarkets. But all week, I hadn’t seen the news or had time to read much about it but listening to Boris Johnson’s speech really hit home just how much turmoil Brexit was causing.

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Regional variation in Brexit result. By waiting a week to research the Brexit referendum, it meant I could take advantage of some excellent analysis that was published in the aftermath of the vote. The issue obviously resonated with a lot of people and there had been a huge turnout of over 72% compared to only 41% in the 2011 referendum on changing the voting system. A lot of the press focused on how older people voted 60:40 to Leave while younger people voted 75:25 to Remain. The vote obviously split mostly along political party lines in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The SNP in Scotland are by far the most pro Europe party in Britain and the vote in Scotland (62% for Remain) reflected that. The same in Northern Ireland as most Republican areas voted Remain while some Unionist areas voted Leave in line with the Democratic Unionist party stance.

Result of Brexit referendum. In large parts of Britain however, the vote did not reflect a party’s position. For example, one third of Labour voters voted for Leave eventhough the party overwhelmingly campaigned for Remain. Indeed, the most startling piece of analysis to explain how England voted I found in a Bloomberg View article by Matt Singh. He compared the turnout in the EU referendum (72%) to that in the UK General Election in 2015 (66%) and worked out this resulted in an extra 2.8 million voters. What is really incredible is that Matt concluded from the data that nearly all of these 2.8 million extra voters voted to Leave.  It was these 2.8 million extra voters, some of whom hadn’t voted in a general election since the Eighties, who decisively swung the referendum towards Leave. The high turnout which most analysts expected to favour Remain actually had the completely opposite effect. Had those 2.8 million people not voted, Remain would have won by 1.5 million votes. There is no doubt that immigration was the biggest factor in the Brexit referendum amongst the 2.8 million extra voters. But immigration doesn’t explain why many parts of Britain with relatively few immigrants also voted for Brexit. Even in some of wealthiest counties in Britain, there was a slight majority in favor of Brexit. Remember half the Tory party was in favor of Brexit and those MP’s represent some of the richest constituencies in the UK. No doubt many of these MP’s believed the UK had not enough sovereignty within the EU but could there also have been an economic reason also for their pro-Brexit stance.

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Chart of US dollar versus Swiss franc since 1970. As to why so many MP’s and some rich British people supported Brexit may be partly explained by the above chart. In 1973, when Britain joined the EU, the US dollar was worth 3.5 Swiss francs. The British pound was worth 2.5 dollars meaning you could buy 9 Swiss francs with 1 British pound. Nowadays, the Swiss franc is more or less equal to 1 US dollar meaning 1 British pound will only buy you 1.25 Swiss francs. Since joining the EU, the British pound has lost 90% of it’s value against the Swiss franc. The reason the Swiss franc has appreciated so much in the last 45 years is because of its safe haven status. For example, huge sums of money due to rising oil prices  has been deposited in Switzerland by Russian oligarchs and Arab sheikhs keen to protect their wealth. Even African dictators of ex-British colonies have been depositing their ill-gotten gains in Switzerland rather than Britain. Perhaps some wealthy British people believe that their country could possibly become the Switzerland of northern Europe if they were to exit the EU and that is why they supported Brexit.

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Customs post on the Swiss side of the border at the Col du Grand Saint Bernard. The Brexit referendum result was announced on Friday June the 24th, the same day that  I climbed the Grand Saint Bernard and crossed the border from Switzerland into Italy.  At almost 2500m above sea-level, it is probably the highest international border crossing point anywhere in Europe. The Swiss customs post on the border was empty when I went past but as it was after 7 o’clock, maybe the customs staff had finished for the day.  I had checked my Twitter in the morning and knew that ‘Leave’ was in the lead in the Brexit vote and tried to check it again now I had made it to the top of the climb but there was no 3G signal.  Of course, I was not to know that by now,  David Cameron had already resigned after losing the Brexit referendum. But I remember thinking as I took this photo, that with Britain due to join Switzerland outside the EU, that there might be similar custom posts along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in a few years time.

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Customs post in Strabane in Northern Ireland during the 1980’s (top) and the same building nowadays (bottom). The old customs post on the Lifford road in Strabane  is now a garage and a cafe called the Traveller’s Rest  Of course,  checkpoints and custom posts could in the future yet return to Northern Ireland as a result of Brexit. In her only comments so far about the border, the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, has stated that the Common Travel Area between Britain and Ireland will continue after Brexit. This dates back to the 19th Century when Ireland was part of the British Empire. However, the Common Travel Area was also in force during the Troubles and it didn’t stop the British setting up numerous checkpoints along the Border.

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Border between Spain and Gibraltar. The only other place where Britain shares a land border with the EU is between Spain and Gibraltar. Anyone crossing the border has to show their passport and in 2013, there were delays of over 3 hours for people trying to drive into Gibraltar. Interestingly, the residents of Gibraltar were allowed to participate in the Brexit referendum and 97% voted against it. Yet despite the overwhelming support to remain in the EU, Gibraltar has had to endure a hard border for many years and the same could also yet happen in the North if the Brexit negotiations between Britain and the EU turn icy cold.

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Ice floes on the lake beside the Saint Bernard hospice at the Col du Grand St. Bernard.  To sum up, I think this photo brilliantly depicts the situation Britain finds itself in as Brexit is triggered. The photo shows the Swiss border on the Grand Saint Bernard pass and illustrates that Britain hopes to be the Switzerland of northern Europe once it leaves the EU. It will try and portray itself as a safe haven for money a bit like the Saint Bernard hospice in the photo above and hope to attract some of the foreign inflows of capital that pour into Switzerland every day. However, Brexit may result in the opposite happening and only result in outflows of capital. In fact so far, instead of making the pound stronger, Brexit has only made sterling weaker. Indeed, many British financial companies are considering re-locating to the EU and for example, the famous insurance company, Lloyds of London may eventually become Lloyds of Brussels. Up until now, the reaction to Brexit by the rest of the EU has been as icy as the floes in the lake in the photo above. No doubt all sort of barriers will be put in Britain’s way a bit like the mountains that surround the Saint Bernard hospice. Eventhough the 2 St. Bernard hospice buildings look similar, the building on the right is actually 200 years older than the hospice building on the left. So close yet at the same time so far apart, a bit like the British and EU negotiating teams as they sit across the table from each other.

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View across the negotiating table as the Brexit talks get underway.  Of course, it is quite possible that the negotiations will go well and the ice between both sides will melt just like the ice floes at the Grand Saint Bernard lake during the summer. However, the chances are the negotiations will only result in a hard Brexit as hard as the mountain rock in the above photo. Theresa May has repeatedly said that Brexit means Brexit and that no deal is better than a bad deal, while at the same time, the EU will want to make an example of Britain. There is no doubt the negotiations will shape the future of the EU and maybe even the future of the UK for many years to come. Shortly after the Brexit result, many predicted the beginning of the end of the EU but 9 months on, it looks more likely the result may mark the beginning of the end of the UK. Political parties in both Scotland and Northern Ireland have called for referendums on remaining in the UK in the wake of the Brexit vote. Both these countries voted to remain in the EU but are being forced to exit along with the rest of the UK. Theresa May will need nerves of steel to secure some sort of deal with the EU and at the same time prevent the dissolution of the UK.

Theresa May signs Article 50 and triggers Brexit. Despite never having won a General Election and campaigning for Britain to remain in the EU, May is now expected to negotiate her country’s divorce from the EU. There are 5 living British Prime Minister’s and while they all believe that Brexit is a bad idea, it has been left to May to deal with the fallout from her predecessor’s decision to hold a referendum. The EU don’t have to agree to anything and are in a much stronger position in the high stakes game of poker that will now commence. Whether May dismisses the outcome of these negotiations like Maggie Thatcher did in 1985 by saying “Out,Out,Out” or whether she returns from Europe with a piece of paper saying “Brexit in our time” like Neville Chamberlain did in 1938 , only time will tell.

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British press coverage of the High Court’s Brexit ruling in November 2016. What is certain is that May will find herself in an almost impossible situation trying to deal with the vitriol in the press and appease the different factions in her own party and the regional assemblies. How long until the pro-Brexit press turn on her the same way they turned on the 3 High Court judges who ruled that Parliament must vote on Brexit. In my opinion, the negotiations between Britain and the EU will be glacial and result in no meaningful agreement allowing each side to score political points by blaming each other. The divorce proceedings will drag on until March 2019, just before the next European elections in May 2019 and the next British general election probably in 2020. But the election that may have the biggest impact in Europe in the next 5 years may be the French presidential election on May 07th this year.

Poster of Marine Le Pen on an underpass in Beauvais in France. If Marine Le Pen wins the French Presidential election, then May will find at least one ally,  who is also opposed to the EU, across the negotiating table from her. Most analysts give Le Pen little chance of winning the 2nd round of voting in the French presidential election but her recent concession to hold a referendum in France on it’s relationship with the EU before replacing the euro with the franc could be a game-changer. Le Pen wants to replace the euro with a new French currency and and has pledged to hold a Brexit style (Frexit) referendum within 6 months of taking office. But crucially, by agreeing to hold a referendum first before replacing the euro, this means that the Frexit referendum will effectively be a vote on continued use of the euro by the French people. No country in the world gets more tourists than France and over 80% of the tourists are from neighbouring countries who also use the euro. As a result, most French people support the euro but they might now be more inclined to vote for Le Pen now she has promised a referendum on France’s future relationship with the EU before replacing the euro. I am hoping to return to France for the 2017 Tour de Travoy a few weeks after the French presidential election and may be returning to a country very different to the one I left behind just a few months ago. The French have a saying “Plus ça change, plus c’est la meme chose” ( The more things change, the more they stay the same ). But when it comes to Brexit and it’s repercussions for both the UK and the EU, things will change and they certainly won’t stay the same.

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