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'Bewildering, dire, disastrous.' Queen has a Brexit escape plan, but how bad will it be?

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 12/02/2019 Kim Hjelmgaard
a person holding a sign: An anti-Brexit protester holds a banner as he talks to the media outside the European Commission's headquarters in Brussels on Feb. 7, 2019. © Francisco Seco, AP An anti-Brexit protester holds a banner as he talks to the media outside the European Commission's headquarters in Brussels on Feb. 7, 2019.

ROMFORD, England – Unlike the Queen, whose nuclear-war escape plan has been updated for any Brexit backlash, retiree Ian Day has no get-out-quick strategy if Britain's exit from the European Union causes disturbances, whether economic or civil unrest.

Neither does Richard Willis, the owner of what he advertises as "probably the most famous snooker club in the world" because of its association with a legendary player. 

Newspaper sales executive Zachary Scott? He, too, has no plans to run for the hills if Brexit goes unambiguously sideways – and that's not just because this predominantly working class suburb northeast of London has no nearby hills.

Food shortages, sky-rocketing cheese prices, grounded airplanes, traffic jams, riots and yes, a repurposed Cold War-era emergency exit route for Buckingham Palace's most famous 92-year-old wearer of colorful big hats, are just some of the dire warnings being sounded in Britain if the country leaves the political bloc it joined 46 years ago without securing a withdrawal deal with the EU that's also acceptable to British lawmakers.

With a little over a month to go – the deadline is March 29 – it's proving elusive. 

But for Day, Willis, Scott and some others in Romford – one of only a handful of boroughs in the London area that heavily backed Brexit – reports of possible chaos at the borders, nuclear waste piling up, catastrophic job losses, and sick children and the elderly who won't be able to get life-saving medicines, is scaremongering bordering on hysteria.

In other words, it makes for good conversation at that most British of institutions which is a cross between a coffee shop, a restaurant and a church: the public house, or pub.

"It's nonsense. We'll be fine," said Darren Jones, 28, a construction worker on his day off who was nursing a pint of Guinness beer in The Bull, a long-established Romford pub.

"Fake news," Jones added, raising his eyebrows knowingly to indicate that just as President Donald Trump regularly accuses his critics and media outlets of yellow journalism that deliberately misrepresents his views on everything from immigration to his popularity ratings, so too, in Jones' estimation, do those in Britain who want to stay in the EU grossly misrepresent the potential impact of the nation departing without a deal.

"We were great before we joined the EU, and we will be great after we leave the EU," said Julie Paris, 63, who was tending the bar at the Romford Snooker Club. It's another landmark in this Brexit heartland because of its links to Steve Davis, a six-time snooker World Champion who had a glittering 38-year career in the game and trained at the club. (Snooker is like pool, only it uses 22 balls, not nine, and the table is larger and lower.)

a table with a ball in a room: Ian Day, far left, and Syl Goldberg, far right, play a game of snooker at the Romford Snooker Club, outside of London on Feb. 4, 2019. © Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY Ian Day, far left, and Syl Goldberg, far right, play a game of snooker at the Romford Snooker Club, outside of London on Feb. 4, 2019.

"It's been two years since we voted to leave, and I'll tell you what: I'm sick of talking about it. Even if our farmers took a hit, I'd still rather get out. The only thing the EU cares about is whether our cucumbers are straight and our bananas are curvy," Paris added, referring to a highly ridiculed EU mandate that cucumbers should be "practically straight" and bananas "free of abnormal curvature." It was scrapped more than a decade ago.

a close up of a boy wearing a blue hat © Provided by USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Satellite Information Network, Inc.

Paris said the only thing her customers would worry about if Britain crashed out of the EU without an exit agreement in place is whether the Romford Snooker Club runs out of Jack Daniel's, the Tennessee Whiskey.

"The amount of waste and nonsense that goes on in Brussels, it's crazy," said Willis, 70. The EU is headquartered in Belgium's capital. "And a lot of countries do very well from it: Ireland, Spain, the Greeks. But not Britain," he said. 

"Our country is full-to-bursting," Willis said, in reference to another Brexiteer shibboleth: EU membership has enabled immigration to Britain to run rampant, because of reciprocal residence and employment rights for nationals of EU countries.

About 3.7 million EU citizens, or 6 percent of the population, live in Britain and 1.2 million people born in Britain live in the 27 other EU countries.

The Migration Advisory Committee, an agency advising the British government on immigration, has concluded Britain's EU immigrants tend to have more skills than British workers, pay more in tax to Britain than they take out in the form of welfare benefits and are generally a boon, not a drain, on its national wealth.

But money is only part of the story. 

"I know it's a long time ago but one of the things that makes people bitter about the EU in this country is that people like my nan and grandad fought during World War II to stop the Germans from taking over and in the end the EU started taking over," said Scott, 45, the sales executive who won't be running for the hills after March 29.

Scott said frequent reports published in the British media highlighting Brexit's risks, especially the dangers of a "no-deal" Brexit, reflected persistent contempt by the "Remain" side for the outcome of a democratic vote. "Leave" won Britain's national referendum on EU membership in 2016 by 52 percent to 48 percent. More than two years later, the majority of polls show the country is just as narrowly split on the issue.

a man sitting at a table in front of a store: Richard Willis, owner of the Romford Snooker Club, stands behind the club's bar on Feb. 4, 2019. © Kim Hjelmgaard, USA TODAY Richard Willis, owner of the Romford Snooker Club, stands behind the club's bar on Feb. 4, 2019.

Illustrating that split: retirees Day, 72, and his brother-in-law, Syl Goldberg, 62. 

Monday is supposed to be their golf day, but rain brought them inside to the Romford Snooker Club instead. 

"This country's not going to fall apart just because we don't get a deal," said pro-Brexit Day, a former diamond-cutter. As he spoke, Day glanced over at Goldberg, who spent his career as a watchmaker. Goldberg voted to stay in the EU. 

"For me, it's very simple," said Goldberg. "Leaving the EU is going to cost us big time." 

Still, like Trump supporters in the U.S. who back the president's determination to build a border wall with Mexico, many backers of Brexit-at-any-cost, are quick to dismiss evidence and expert testimony from researchers, lawyers and even the British government itself, as political bias. 

"There are no issues here," said Scott. "I can understand a little bit of fear about leaving, especially from younger people because the EU is all they know, but it's only because they listen to stupid media who say there will be no milk, no bread, that the ferries won't run, that planes will fall from the sky."

A 'special place in hell'

No one knows for sure what will happen to Britain's economy if British Prime Minister Theresa May fails to broker an EU exit deal that she can get through Parliament.

Another debate in the House of Commons is due to take place on Thursday. It could lead to an interim deadline for lawmakers to accept whatever changes May is able to extract from the EU. A second vote on this final deal is then expected by mid-March. 

But Brexit has proven to be nothing if not an exercise in never-ending process. Not only could it all turn around, Brexit could suddenly be called off. May could resign. 

May and the EU have already signed off on critical issues accompanying the country's EU divorce, such as how much Britain will need to pay to leave the bloc (about $50 billion), and what rights EU nationals in Britain will have after the separation (similar to what they have now, but they'll need to prove they are not a burden on the state).

But the deal has fallen afoul of the majority of British lawmakers over the thorny question of the land border between Northern Ireland (part of Britain) and Ireland (part of the EU).

Years of EU-facilitated friction-less trade and travel across this border is viewed as a key cog in ensuring peace between Northern Ireland’s Irish Catholic community and its British Protestant one. It underpins the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 peace deal between the British and Irish governments and political parties in Northern Ireland.

In recent days, May has traveled to meet with Ireland's leader in an attempt to break a deadlock over the issue. May's proposal, known as the "backstop," would temporarily prevent the return of a "hard" border even if Britain leaves the EU without a deal.

However, for British lawmakers, a major existential sticking point remains: How to keep open a border that can, by definition, only be kept open if Britain agrees to abide by many of the laws and regulations which Brexit was engineered for it to escape from.

It was mounting frustration over this impasse that led Donald Tusk, the Polish politician who presides over the European Council, the body that sets the EU's overall political direction and priorities, to say last week there was a "special place in hell" for "those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out safely."

© Reuters Meanwhile, the Brexit clock ticks down. 

"The problem with the 'no-deal' scenario is that it's very hard to model," said Anand Menand, a professor of politics and foreign affairs at King's College London.

"It's all about the uncertainty and shock. There is no doubt that there is a significant potential for pretty widespread disruption. Changing a country's economic model is never going to be easy. The sheer process of adaptation is messy."

However, Menand noted Britain has a relatively flexible job market so whatever happens come the end of March, unemployment will probably remain at low levels.

He said a "no-deal" Brexit does raise concerns about major disruptions.

The airline industry is a good example. 

EU "ownership rules" mean a carrier has to be over 50 percent EU-owned to fly freely in EU airspace. When Britain leaves the EU, British Airways won't be. Without May's negotiated exit deal covering airspace regulation, things could get chaotic.   

Greg Clark, Britain's business minister, has described the possibility of a "no-deal" Brexit as "bewildering," "dire" and something that would be "disastrous" for the country. 

Gallery: Facts to know about Brexit  [Photo Services]

And for some, such as Andy Hickmott, 58, a pro-EU retired businessman who lives in Manchester, it already is. For the past two-and-half years he's been tracking media reports of job losses he believes are connected in some way to Brexit. 

As of Feb. 5, he's counted 208,467.

"The Brexit vote happened and I realized I had done nothing to prevent it. I was strongly in favor of remaining in the EU, but I guess I took it for granted that we would," he said, explaining why he started the online watchdog database, viewable on Facebook.

Britain's car manufacturing industry has repeatedly warned Brexit could lead to large reductions in investment in Britain as well as job losses, and the automotive sector is well-represented on Hickmott's list. A recent line item includes 740 jobs cut this month at a Nissan factory in Sunderland, in northern England.

Nissan said the cuts were not directly related to Brexit and were the result of its decision to build a new SUV model at a plant in Japan, instead of Britain. However, in a statement the company also said "continued uncertainty around the U.K.'s future relationship with the EU is not helping companies like ours to plan for the future."

a couple of people that are standing in the street: A billboard is displayed in north London on Feb. 8, 2019, as part of the "Led By Donkeys" campaign that aims to highlight misleading statements made about Brexit made by politicians. © Matt Dunham, AP A billboard is displayed in north London on Feb. 8, 2019, as part of the "Led By Donkeys" campaign that aims to highlight misleading statements made about Brexit made by politicians.

Back in Romford, Joseph Sultana, 56, a pro-Brexit entrepreneur and documentary maker, laughed off a question about whether he would join the 3 percent of British consumers who, according to IGD, a grocery industry research company, have started stockpiling food, painkillers and even toilet paper in preparation for a "no-deal" Brexit. 

"When I decide to leave a party I get my coat and go. Right? I don't sit there thinking: 'Do I get a bus? A cab? A train? A this or that?,'" he said, referring to the prospect of a "no-deal" Brexit, which he welcomed. "I don't care how we leave, I just want to leave."

Sultana made another comparison. 

"Let me remind you what happened with Y2K," he said, mentioning when companies and organizations around the world repeatedly tested and upgraded their computer systems to address an anticipated problem with computer clocks as they transitioned from Dec. 31, 1999, to Jan. 1, 2000. "Nothing."

In fact, there were some disruptions.

New Zealand reported "congested phone lines" as people rushed to call friends and family to deliver New Year's greetings before the switchover. In Delaware, over 150 slot machines at race tracks failed. They were fixed within 24 hours. 


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