The flipside of Brextremism

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This chapter was published as part of "Do they mean us?" in January 2019.


Tessa Szyszkowitz believes journalists should get politically active sometimes. Here she explains why and what it meant for her to co-found #hugabrit.

The idea that Britain might leave the European Union had upset me since the idea of a referendum was floated by Eurosceptics in the Tory party. To me it is a sign of civilization if European leaders spend their time negotiating over the degree of how much a cucumber should be bent, rather than sending their armies against each other on the battlefields. As an Austrian I was always convinced of the need for the EU. I know Britons do not necessarily feel that way. Unlike the countries on the European continent the United Kingdom has not been invaded for centuries. The prospect of peace and security on the European continent is not as ostensibly important to people here.

As I watched Euroscepticism rise and Brexit becoming a real option, I decided to forgo my usual journalistic impartiality and to become politically engaged. After the British general election in May 2015 my friend and colleague Birgit Maass, the UK correspondent of Deutsche Welle said to me: “I think we should do something to prevent Britain from leaving the EU”. I instantly agreed with her. Although it somewhat clashed with our belief in journalistic neutrality, we came to the conclusion that in matters of principle journalists should be allowed to take a stance, too.

No vote, so we spoke in public

As EU citizens in the UK we were not allowed to cast our vote in the referendum. Our only chance to raise our voices was to speak out in public. Throughout the winter of 2015-16 we developed a grass roots movement from scratch. The making of #hugabrit @pleasedontgouk became a fascinating case study for the creation of a social media campaign for us. And it changed our lives. 

The tone needed to be strictly positive and the message so friendly that nobody could accuse us of being patronising. But we also needed to find something cheeky and controversial enough to get attention.

We wanted to use two of the characteristics Britons are famous for: their sense of humour and their reputation of being reserved, even averse, to personal contact with strangers. We also wanted to use the fact that all teenagers and socially conscious people take selfies all the time. We created a website www.pleasedontgouk.com, where we uploaded pictures of EU citizens hugging their favourite Brit, along with a few sentences about their story. Using the hashtag #hugabrit these images were linked to social media via Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts. The idea was so simple that everyone could participate.

For a while I hoped to call our campaign – which should be a love bomb to Britain – #LoveBlitz, referring to the name Britons gave the bombing campaign of Nazi Germany against British cities in 1940. I asked Timothy Garton Ash what he thought of it. I will never forget the bewildered look in his eyes. We dropped the idea. And opted for #hugabrit.

Most of our group members were of that opinion anyway. Marianna Rosenfeld, an Italian art restorer; Katie Lock, a German photographer; and Rosa McNamara, an Irish doctor were involved early on. The Swedish marketeer Amanda Ullman and the German social media expert Christine Ullmann came later. They brought Verena Enderle with them, a genius designer, who invented our logo. Paul Varga, an Austrian inventor, was the only man who enthusiastically threw himself into our pro-bono operation.

How the campaign took shape

In the winter months #hugabrit started to take shape. At the same time the official campaigns ‘Vote Leave’ and ‘Stronger In’ took off. Well-funded and oiled. David Cameron’s In camp paid £9m for a booklet which was put in every letter slot in the country and bored people deeply. #hugabrit by contrast did not have a budget at all. When approached by pro-European groups, who offered to sponsor us, we declined. We wanted to stay strictly independent.

Instead, the launch party of #hugabrit received contributions from likeminded European wine shops and restaurants in London. Austrian Cafè Kipferl, Italian restaurant Sardo, Scandinavian Kitchen and La Fromagerie donated their specialities. We were by then overwhelmed by the support #hugabrit got from all over Europe and the UK. Many more people than expected came to the party. Two weeks before #hugabrit had gone viral on social media after Tim Dowling had written about us in The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/apr/07/prepare-love-bombed-britain-hugabrit-jarvis-cocker?CMP=oth_b-aplnews_d-2 After this my phone never stopped vibrating.

From the middle of April onwards we had a flood of interview requests. I organised smaller Hug-ins for TV teams, radio reporters and daily papers. We counted 140 articles and broadcasts at the beginning of June in El Pais, Le Monde, Wall Street Journal, Die Welt and on the BBC, CNN and ARD. Sometimes we had to put an article through Google Translate to figure out what language it was written in.

Eurosceptical British papers like The Sun or the Daily Mail accused #hugabrit to be ‘un-British’. One columnist discussed how he would explain to his wife why he let a ‘long-legged Italian beauty’ hug him. #hugabrit could not help him with this dilemma. But for us every mentioning of @pleasedontgouk in the media was good. It led to more images being sent to social media with hugs from Cambridge, Thessaloniki or Brussels.

At a hug-in on Parliament Square, in front of Big Ben, a reporter from Barcelona TV asked me if our concept is not a little ‘naïve’ given the complexity of the matter. “The best things come out of an embrace”, I answered.

A hug for Nigel Farage

By the way: I will dispute from now on that Britons don’t like to get hugged. My first #hugabrit was with the English artist Jeremy Deller. The Turner Prize winner was bewildered but not against a hug. After all, he was absolutely for staying in the European Union. #hugabrit co-founder Birgit Maass even hugged Nigel Farage, the EU-phobic Ukip boss, live on BBC Daily Politics TV. He turned pink in her embrace in the most beautiful way - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gEZEgxCgn_ 

And then Farage and his companions won. On 23 June 2016 Britain voted to leave. Since then the debate has turned even more bitter and hate filled.

The longer the negotiations with Brussels have gone on, the more it became apparent how difficult it is to get out of a rather fruitful und constructive 45-year relationship. The lies of the Brexiteers have become apparent to many people who voted to leave. Even if Brexit will happen on March 29, it will not be a triumphant independence day. Rather an inglorious exit of a member state with Britain still following most of the EU rules for years without having a say in it. Or jumping with no deal from a pretty high cliff into the unknown.

Brexit has created a deeply divided country. The forces of English nationalism are being let loose, archconservative backbenchers of the Tory party suddenly have huge influence in parliament. It will be hard to put these destructive ghosts of the past back into the box.

I know of many stories of EU citizens in the UK feeling unwelcome here today, though I must say that my own experience is very different.

First of all, I lived seven years in Putin’s Russia before I came to the United Kingdom. I am used to – let’s say – ‘not belonging’. I make my home wherever I go, but I always stay a ‘Luftwurzler’. My roots are in the air. I am not ‘a citizen of nowhere’, to quote the silly expression Theresa May coined two years ago in her poor attempt to become a populist. My Austrian passport protects me well from being stateless. But my European state of mind lets me live and think freely and believe that nationalism is not everybody’s answer to the 21st century.

I have never had bad experiences myself and even arch-Europhobes like Bill Cash assured me: “This is not personal, this is not against you.” But more than that. Our pro-European campaign #hugabrit meant not only that we EU citizens put our arms around British women and men. They also hugged us back. Our movement was only a drop in the ocean of Euroscepticism in this country, but it kept me emotionally afloat.

My English friends are deeply ashamed of their country turning its back to the European Union. Most of them are still fighting hard to prevent this from happening 

Brexit has not only set English nationalists free. There has never been so much pro-European energy in this country than now. As the political establishment is struggling to find a satisfying solution to the Brexit vote of 2016, civic engagement seems to be called for. Some 700.000 people came out on the streets of London from all over Britain to call for a second referendum on October 20t in 2018. Even if Brexit is still coming, the pro-European energy will fuel new political movements. This is the good news in this winter of Brextremism.

About the contributor

Journalist and historian Tessa Szyszkowitz is the UK correspondent of the Austrian news magazine profil. Formerly a Russia, Middle East and EU correspondent, she has lived in London since 2010. Her bilingual website: www.tessaszy.com. In September 2018 she published the book Real Englishmen – Britain and Brexit at Picus Verlag (in German).

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© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz