A Portrait of Brexit Britain
As the United Kingdom's future hangs in the balance amid the uncertainty surrounding its withdrawal from the European Union, epa photojournalists traveled the length of the country in a bid to build a picture of the ordinary citizens going about their lives almost three years after the electorate narrowly voted to leave. The UK is scheduled to leave the bloc on Mar. 29, 2019, two years after Prime Minister Theresa May invoked Article 50, the mechanism to notify the EU of her country's intention to abandon the member's club after the tightly-contested 2016 referendum. The results of that referendum exposed a divided nation. Leave won, claiming 52 percent of the overall vote. Voters in England and Wales came out in favor of leave, while Scotland and Northern Ireland plumped for remain.
Sunderland in northeastern England was the first city to announce its referendum results; 61.3 percent voted to cut ties. The city is home to a manufacturing plant belonging to Japanese carmaker Nissan that employs some 8,000 people. There was concern among the workers about its future. ‘Sick of hearing about it (Brexit) mate,’ factory worker Sean Pocklington, 31, told epa. ‘Just hope the place doesn't shut down.’ The port city traded in coal and salt in the past, and its Wearmouth Colliery was once the world's deepest coal mine. The pit closed in Dec. 1993. Sunderland's Stadium of Light, home to the local soccer team, Sunderland A.F.C, now stands on the site of the former mine. ‘I voted out. Out, to leave,’ patron Ethel Dodds, 60, told epa in the Colliery Tavern across from the stadium, where miners used to go for beers after a long day's graft. The money paid into the EU could instead be spent on hospitals and schools in the UK, according to Dodds. Karld Serveld runs Pete's Fish Factory, a fish and chip shop in the southern English seaside town of Ramsgate. Despite being a staunch ‘leave’ supporter, he is concerned about his supply chain as most of his fish comes from Scandinavia. Tony McClure, 52, a fisherman who works out of the southwestern port town of Newlyn in Cornwall, said the EU has provided important economic help that his trade and region needs. He has received three EU grants to maintain and get a new engine for his boat. ‘It's quite rural (in the southwest), there isn't a lot of big heavy industries so we rely heavily on tourism and local investment. The grants we get from Europe are vital.’ McClure said he only knows of one fisherman other than himself who voted remain, and the main reason most voted leave was because of fishing quotas. He said he is only allowed to catch 7 percent of the haddock and 15 percent of the cod in British waters: ‘There's a lot I can't catch and the French and Belgians can fish right up to the six-mile limit.’ Newlyn harbormaster Robert Parsons, who voted leave ‘for immigration and the EU council is unelected,’ also lamented the fishing quotas. He said being able to catch more fish meant more money for the harbor and local community. ‘The crux of this whole situation is the quota, how much you're allowed to catch.’ Truck driver Stuart Hatch voted remain so his children could enjoy the benefits of Europe. If Brexit brings an end to the freedom of movement, his industry will be in a difficult position. His clients need fast delivery and rely on just-in-time production. Fruit and vegetables, just like fish, will spoil if border checks provoke delays, he said. But for Hatch it was also about the workforce: the UK needed overseas workers because skilled drivers were in short supply. After Brexit, the two countries comprising the island of Ireland will likely adhere to different customs rules and there could, therefore, be a need for border checks. But neither the UK nor the EU wants a hard border, and the Irish backstop is the mechanism that negotiators agreed upon to prevent that from happening. The backstop, a sort of insurance policy to maintain a soft border between Northern Ireland, part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, part of the EU, in the event that the UK crashes out of the bloc with no deal, has proved unpopular among some, including within May's own Conservative Party. Mervyn Johnston, who works in a garage in Pettigo, a small border village straddling the Republic of Ireland and Northern Island, said the creation of a hard border would be ‘very inconvenient.’ Johnston, who voted remain but has since changed his mind, said: ‘People will use it to stir up trouble – it won't go back to what it was but there will be a rise of smugglers – people want to trade freely they don’t want the extra cost.’ Tara Kinaton works at Mister Cs fast-food restaurant in Londonderry, near the border with the Republic of Ireland. She said she gets a lot of customers coming over the border and that people ‘don’t want the hassle’ of having to produce documents. ‘We serve fast food, why would anyone come to us in they have to go to border checks?’ Speaking to epa in Londonderry, which is also known as Derry, Northern Ireland, Danny Caldwell qualified Brexit as a ‘disaster for everyone in Ireland,’ adding that nobody who voted leave considered the real implications for life in Ireland.
The open border, a now-invisible, 499-kilometer (310-mile) line running through countryside, farmland and bisecting main roads, is enshrined in an international peace deal that in 1998 helped to extinguish decades of sectarian and political violence in Northern Ireland; a period known as the Troubles. Over 3,000 people died during the Troubles, which saw unionist paramilitaries from largely Protestant areas, who identify as British, and republican militias from largely Catholic areas, who sought a re-unified Ireland, trade terror. Caldwell said he did not know how the Irish border issue would be resolved. ‘You can drive over it 19 times a day without knowing. When I was younger the British stopped to question me every single time. Now you can't see the border, you don't know it's there.’ Up in Scotland, the future of an important export was also up in the air. The UK's northernmost country exports about 90 percent of its whiskey to over 180 international markets, according to the Scotch Whisky Association. ‘Brexit represents a seismic shift for our industry,’ the SWA said on its site, assuring that its members were working to plan and adjust for it. The SWA considers that a no-deal Brexit ‘would damage our industry’ and ‘must be avoided,’ as such a scenario would add ‘cost and complexity into the production and export of Scotch Whisky.’ John Harris, who owns a post office in Fiskerton, the Midlands, as well as some cows, said: ‘I think it's the uncertainty that's worrying, nobody knows what will happen.’ Magdalena Piszczek lives in Wembley, northwest London, having moved to the UK from Poland nine years ago. She said her daughter gets a better education in the UK and it would be hard to move home because there are better opportunities in the UK. ‘She can still live in Poland if she chooses,’ she said of her daughter’s future. But she feared Brexit could make it difficult to travel home to Poland for holidays with her Jack Russell, Tiny.
It was still unclear on what terms the UK would leave the EU, with lawmakers having rejected Prime Minister Theresa May's initial deal hammered out with the EU, the fruit of years of negotiations. There was also talk of extending the Mar. 29 deadline, which would delay Brexit, as well as the floating of a second referendum, with the opposition Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn appearing to now throw its weight behind that. Citizens and industries across the UK, including the banking, tourism and farming sectors, and many of whom rely on exporting products or bringing in goods from Europe, will have to adapt in a post-Brexit Britain, whether there is a deal with the EU or not.