In The Battle Over 'Brexit,' Opinion Is Divided In Southern England

Mar 14, 2016
Originally published on March 15, 2016 9:07 am

Britons will vote in June on whether to stay or leave the European Union. Both sides are campaigning fiercely in what is known as the Brexit, or British exit, referendum.

The town of Hastings on England's south coast is one of the closest points to the European continent. But local opinion polls show about half the people here want Britain to leave the European Union.

Paul Joy makes his way to his fishing boat at the end of a pebble beach. He and his brother, Douglas, come from a family that has fished these waters for generations. But the Joy brothers say they face an uncertain future and they blame EU fishing quotas.

"We're very restricted in what we're allowed to keep, so we have to dump the fish over the side that we're not allowed to keep anymore," says Paul.

"The quota is a joke," says Douglas. "It's impossible to make a living."

On Hastings' main street, there's a Romanian sweet shop and a Polish deli. Eastern European migrants came here in 2005, when the EU enlarged its borders. That wave of immigration, and other changes brought on by the EU, made a lot of the older residents of Hastings uneasy, says local council member Andrew Batson.

"There's a big sort of swell of the older generation feeling quite disenfranchised from the European model," says Batson. "All those sort of issues really sort of feed into that gut feeling that maybe Britain will be better off outside of the European Union."

Batson says the latest wave of migrants from Africa and the Middle East has only increased their concern.

Sebastian Norton, 20, is running one of the campaigns to persuade people to vote to leave the EU. He says people should worry less about trade and more about freedom.

"Sometimes you need to think with your hearts instead of worrying about all the economical issues all the time," he says. "Do you really care about your democracy? And for a lot of people, that definitely clicks with them."

This town was once a thriving holiday resort. Today, unemployment is high and seedy gaming arcades line the waterfront.

But Hastings also has a magnificent history. This is where William the Conqueror landed in 1066 to seize the English throne. The ruins of his castle still dominate Hastings from high on a bluff.

Down by the pier is another part of the town's history — the White Rock Hotel, built in the 1860s. Its owner, Laurence Bell, says he can't believe Britain is even thinking about leaving the European Union.

"It's going against the grain of everything that happens in the world," he says. "It's a global economy; it's a global society."

Bell says the proposed referendum seems ridiculous when the town is about to celebrate the 950thanniversary of the Battle of Hastings.

"We are European and we're proud of being European as well as British and English," he says. "A lot of our guests come from Europe, and we like them and we are welcoming to them. And we like to be part of them."

Bell says if Britain votes to leave the EU in the June referendum, it will be sending a message of rejection and not welcome to the rest of Europe.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In June, British voters will choose whether to stay or leave the European Union. Both sides are campaigning fiercely in what's known as the Brexit referendum. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley went to a small English town with strong links to Europe to learn what people there are saying about their choice.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The town of Hastings on England's south coast is one of the closest points to the continent, but local opinion polls show about half the people here want Britain to leave the European Union.

PAUL JOY: Nice early start (laughter).

BEARDSLEY: Paul Joy makes his way to his fishing boat at the end of a pebble beach. He and his brother Douglas come from a family that has fished these waters for generations. But the Joy brothers say they face an uncertain future, and they blame EU fishing quotas.

P. JOY: We're very restricted in what we're allowed to keep, so we have to dump the fish over the side that we're not allowed to keep anymore.

DOUGLAS JOY: The quota is a joke. It's impossible to make a living.

BEARDSLEY: On Hastings' main street, there's a Romanian sweet shop and a Polish deli. Eastern European migrants came here in 2005 when the EU enlarged its borders. That wave of immigration and other changes brought on by the EU upset a lot of older residents of Hastings, says local counselor Andrew Batson.

ANDREW BATSON: There's a big sort of swell of the older generation feeling quite disenfranchised from the European model. And all those sort of issues really sort of feed into that gut feeling that maybe Britain would be better off outside of the European Union.

BEARDSLEY: Batson says the latest wave of migrants from Africa and the Middle East have only increased their concern.

SEBASTIAN NORTON: I am Sebastian Norton. We are currently pretty much in the hub of Hastings.

BEARDSLEY: Twenty-year-old Sebastian Norton is running one of the campaigns to convince people to vote to leave the EU. He says people should worry less about trade and more about freedom.

NORTON: Sometimes you need to think with your hearts instead of worrying about all the economical issues all the time. Do you really care about your democracy? And for a lot of people, that definitely clicks with them.

BEARDSLEY: This town was once a thriving holiday resort. Today, unemployment is high. Many shops are closed, and seedy gaming arcades line the waterfront. But Hastings also has a magnificent history. This is where William the Conqueror from Normandy landed in 1066 to seize the English throne. The ruins of his castle still dominate Hastings from high on a bluff.

Down by the pier is another part of the town's history - the White Rock Hotel built in the 1860s. Its owner, Laurence Bell, says he can't believe Britain is even thinking about leaving the European Union.

LAURENCE BELL: It's going against the grain of everything that happens in the world. It's a global economy. It's a global society.

BEARDSLEY: Bell says the referendum seems ridiculous when the town is about to celebrate the 950th anniversary of the invasion and the Battle of Hastings.

BELL: We are European, and we're proud being European as well as British and English and whatever. And most - a lot of our guests - I'd say a good 40 percent come from Europe and whatever, and we like them. And we're welcoming to them, and we like to be part of them.

BEARDSLEY: Bells says if Britain votes to leave the EU in the June referendum, it will be sending a message of rejection not welcome to the rest of Europe. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Hastings, England. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.