Slowly, through the early-morning fug, the visage of Neil Hamilton came floating into view. It was just past seven on the morning after Britain’s referendum on membership of the European Union, and I had dropped off on a friend’s sofa in front of the television as the results came in. Hamilton, a disgraced former Conservative MP who had forged a comic political afterlife in UKIP, the blokeish anti-EU party fronted by Nigel Farage, was live on air answering questions about the consequences of the momentous vote. The miserable truth started to take shape. Brexit was happening, and people like Mr Hamilton were suddenly to be treated as serious commentators.
I trudged home slowly, as messages poured in from bewildered British friends around the world. Unusually for Brussels, it was a cheerful, sunny morning. But puddles in the streets bore witness to the violent thunderstorm that had erupted the night before, as journalists sat in the pub swapping guesses about the scale of the victory for Remain we all expected. In retrospect, a more potent metaphor would be hard to imagine. The enterprising photographers who had snapped dramatic pictures of lightning bolts over EU flags were set to enjoy a generous payday.
Later, inside the EU’s hulking Berlaymont building, Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, held a press conference to declare unconvincingly that the EU would continue to hold together after Brexit, before walking off the stage to applause from the commission officials who had shamefully packed the room. Juncker, as so often, had shown himself unequal to the moment, but for now that seemed beside the point. Outside the press room, journalists from other countries poured out their sympathy to their British colleagues. Most, as deeply entrenched inside the Brussels bubble as any Eurocrat, had little understanding of the atavistic political forces that had driven a majority of British voters to vote out.
I have reported from Brussels and other European capitals throughout perhaps the most tumultuous period in the EU’s history. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Grexit psychodrama, ISIS attacks in France and Belgium, the march of refugees across the continent’s heart: each had rained blows upon the battered body of the European Union. Brexit was no less disastrous for the EU, but this crisis had a personal edge. Although foreign postings have kept me away from Britain for years, I had always assumed I would return one day.
Now, in the white-hot afterglow of the vote, I began to reassess that thought. A trace of Irish blood, I mused idly, might be enough to secure me a new passport that would maintain my right to live and work throughout the EU. Others had similar thoughts. After the referendum a British friend visited the local commune to renew her Belgian ID card. The sympathetic officials noticed that she was eligible for permanent residence, and she immediately applied. One correspondent for a British Eurosceptic newspaper was said to be wracked with guilt.
Social media sucked up most of the weekend, as the news continued to spew forth. We were experiencing, in Lenin’s words, one of those weeks in which decades happen. On Facebook I marvelled at the spectacle of previously apolitical friends in Britain waking up to the enormity of the event, unfamiliar with the usual mechanisms of protest but insistent that something had to be done. Some appropriated the language of UKIP, demanding the return of “their” country. At a garden party hosted by a Brussels socialite, a regular summer fixture for EU journalists, officials and ambassadors, there was only one topic of conversation. Some compared it to a wake, but there was no hint of celebration for what had been lost. We were more like adolescents dealing with a break-up by discussing it with a directionless frenzy.
But soon professional instincts kicked into gear. Whatever else it was, Brexit was a fantastic story, and The Economist was hungry for copy. There was a European summit in Brussels to cover and Britain’s EU partners were establishing their common position. “No negotiations before notification” was the mantra; no British prime minister could expect informal talks on the terms of departure before triggering Article 50 of the EU treaty, the legal device that begins the withdrawal process. Background briefings revealed the scale of anger and bitterness towards Britain, and in particular Boris Johnson, the Leaver who had peppered his campaign with distortions and half-truths. (Old-timers recalled his tenure as Brussels correspondent of the Telegraph in the 1990s, a period marked by colourful stories that intersected only occasionally with reality.)
But in conversation, friends and officials remained deep in denial. Perhaps Angela Merkel would throw the next prime minister a bone by offering a limit to the EU’s free-movement rules; perhaps Johnson would not go through with Article 50, so plainly opposed to the national interest. “Please tell me you have an insight from Brussels that they are not actually going to let us leave,” wrote a despairing friend from London. A generous syllogism underpinned such thoughts: Brexit would be a calamity; the EU always avoids calamity; therefore Brexit would not happen. But this time the logic was faulty.
One week after the referendum I left Brussels for a conference in Greece, which was settling into life under its third bailout and a surprisingly resilient prime minister. At Athens airport I watched Johnson rule himself out of the coming Conservative leadership contest and Britain’s pundit class melt down for the second time in a matter of days. Within a week Britain had turned from a paragon of political stability into an international laughing-stock. A Greek organiser of the event looked at me wide-eyed in amazement. What absurdity would we deliver next?