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

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.

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