Boris says Brexit will be a breeze. Really?: Terry Milewski

Shakespeare's "sceptered isle" is facing a long, wrenching negotiation over trade and the movement of people across Europe. That includes two million British expats living in the EU, and many more around the world — notably Canada. A British passport gave them free access to 28 countries — but now, it's just one.

Boris Johnson tries to suggest not much will change when the U.K. leaves the EU

Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London, wants to reassure Britons 'there will continue to be free trade, and access to the single market' after Brexit, but that would be news to the rest of the European Union. (REUTERS)

That England that was wont to conquer others
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

William Shakespeare - Richard II

The gloomy part of that speech isn't so familiar, is it?

If we remember anything at all, it's the happy part. On his deathbed, good old John of Gaunt burbles on about his beloved England: "This royal throne of kings, this sceptered isle ... This precious stone set in a silver sea."

Great stuff — but that's just Shakespearean clickbait, meant to lure you into a tale that quickly turns grim. 

Then we see that the old boy is predicting ruin under the wicked King Richard. It's a self-inflicted disaster, he croaks. England has "made a shameful conquest of itself."

Everybody take a Valium

Fast forward four centuries, and John of Gaunt is at it again. In fact, he's everywhere, warning us that the "sceptered isle" is doomed to penury after the self-inflicted Brexit vote.

But soft! What light through yonder window breaks? It's Boris Johnson, here to reassure us. Everybody take a Valium, he seems to say. Brexit will be a breeze!
Vote Leave campaign leader Boris Johnson has downplayed the possible consequences of the U.K.'s referendum decision to leave the EU. (REUTERS)

Writing in The Telegraph, the merry former mayor of London insists that "there will continue to be free trade, and access to the single market." Oh? That would be news to the rest of the European Union, which just saw Johnson lead the campaign to storm out of that single market.

But never mind. "Britain is part of Europe, and always will be," Johnson croons. Again, not exactly what he campaigned on. Then this: "EU citizens living in this country will have their rights fully protected, and the same goes for British citizens living in the EU."

Really? Yes, really. "British people will still be able to go and work in the EU; to live; to travel; to study; to buy homes and to settle down."

Well, John of Gaunt may not be convinced. Especially if he currently resides in Canada, like a lot of other Brits.

The British Canadians

They've lost their vast empire, but the Brits haven't stopped wandering away from Shakespeare's "precious stone set in a silver sea." Not a few have ended up in Canada — and they keep coming.

According to the 2011 census, more than eleven million Canadians — about one in every three of us — are of British origin. About 6.5 million said they had English ancestry, and 4.7 million said Scottish. Nearly half a million had their roots in Wales.
Hundreds of thousands of Canadians have British passports. (Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)

Of course, only some of these Canadians have British passports. It's estimated that about half a million do, although many more are eligible if they or their parents were born in the U.K. And they hang on to that right for a very good reason: they or their kids are entitled to live, play and work in any of the 28 countries of the European Union.

Now, that's down to just one — and a rather damp country at that. A British passport has been massively devalued. 

That's no trifle for younger Brits, who voted strongly to remain in the EU. And, for hundreds of thousands of Canadians with British citizenship, the world has suddenly shrunk.

Their Lordships beg to differ

The problem with Boris Johnson's sunny forecast is that membership in the European Union is predicated on a fundamental bargain: if you want access to the single market, then you have to accept a single labour market, too — meaning the free movement of people. And the British House of Lords does not share Boris Johnson's view of what happens if Britain quits.

In a report published in May while the referendum loomed, their Lordships' committee concluded that untangling the rights that expats have acquired would be "one of the most complex aspects of the negotiations" on Britain's exit. 

What, the report asks, about elderly Britons who have retired to Spain and are entitled to health care there? What about a newcomer from the EU who's lived in Britain for years and has children in school?
An estimated 700,000 Britons live in Spain, many of them in the southern coastal region known as Costa del Sol. (Richard Devey/CBC)

"One of the most important aspects of the withdrawal negotiations," the Lords concluded, "would be determining the acquired rights of the two million or so U.K. citizens living in other member states, and equally of EU citizens living in the U.K. This would be a complex and daunting task."

Politely put. More bluntly, a constitutional expert told the committee: "The long-term ghastliness of the legal complications is almost unimaginable."

On the streets, though, it's anything but polite. In the anti-immigrant rage that erupted after the vote, a Polish father and son were severely beaten on a British street. A Muslim girl was cornered by thugs shouting, "Get out! We voted leave!" A man wore a T-shirt saying, "Yes! We won! Now send them back."

Perhaps this won't go as smoothly as Boris Johnson supposes.

Perhaps John of Gaunt was on to something.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.


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