Brexit: when French medicine tackles British politics

By Harry Hagopian
August 24, 2017

Almost three weeks ago, I had a quaint conversation in Aix-Marseille with a French wine merchant over Brexit. He was quite firm that we in the UK were committing a fatal error by leaving the EU at a time when Europe needed to reform itself and also stay together in the face of increasingly dangerous challenges.

His criticisms were withering, but somewhere in my head I convinced myself that the true reason why I found them refreshing is that the man truly felt European as much as French. That conviction struck a chord with me since I believe that our place is in Europe and that we were cajoled into voting ‘Yes’ at the referendum because none of the politicians gave us a straight answer about the consequences and after-effects of such a divorce.

But last weekend, I ended up having yet another uncanny discussion with a French medical doctor. I had never met this man before, and the only reason we struck up a conversation is because he is a member of Médecins SOS in France who visit patients in their houses and he had come to my university residence in order to examine me as I was displaying some painful symptoms of wear and tear. So we started with an almost deontological discussion on the merits and demerits of our NHS versus the medical system in France. He told me, for instance, that many Brits come to France for their check-ups and tests rather than wait for months in the UK. He added that Brits prefer the accessibility, efficiency and immediacy of treatment across France.

When I informed him that I owe my life to the skills and dedication of the NHS doctors and nurses, and that the NHS is a second religion – perhaps even an uber-religion – in the UK, he casually asked me whether the NHS would in fact receive the weekly £350 million once the UK stopped paying to the EU after Brexit?  He was of course referring to the bogus claim emblazoned on the side of Mr Boris Johnson's battle bus during the campaign for the EU referendum.

And since he knew the answer to this moot question – and it is a flat 'No' – he added that the pensioners, older generations as well as rural England had effectively betrayed the younger generations and the urban professionals with a yearning for an England of Old. Well, he mused, the England of Old will not come back no matter how hard you try just as the France of Old will not come back too. The global future is not in one of conquest (political, military or economic) alone but one of of human interaction and cooperation. Besides, he asked, do you guys not realise that the whole stealthy programme of the Government is to disaggregate the NHS so much that you end up being another version of the American private medical insurance scheme? Those who are rich enough will be happy because they can afford it, but what about everyone else? Will the UK create another Obamacare policy then?

Out of respect for his seniority in years, but also out of fear that he might give me the wrong injection, I did not broach the subject of the weaknesses of the French health system. But I also tended to agree with him on many of his presumptions. After the result of the EU referendum became known, my first reaction was to tell my colleagues and friends that the younger generations had been snookered out of a future that we were fortunate enough to enjoy during our lives. Besides, many junior doctors and senior registrars have confirmed to me personally that the NHS is being whittled down so a new system would take its place. Indeed, Nye Bevan’s wonderful legacy is under serious threat because we are being hoodwinked by intentions that are questionable, by money that is short and by reforms that are misdirected for party political purposes.

The question is not whether we can survive outside the EU: I believe we can, albeit with great difficulty. The more relevant question for me is why we have to opt out of a system that for forty years has helped make us a richer, more cosmopolitan and outgoing country? Why should the young men and women of tomorrow for instance suffer the perfidious designs of those who have an ideological bent for being the odd ones out?

I thanked the physician for treating me and for what I felt were his earnest thoughts delivered with a typically shrugging French mannerism. I also paid him €60 for the house visit. And after he had gone, Sir Walter Scott’s quotation drifted into my mind. “Oh, what a tangled web we weave. When first we practise to deceive?”

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© Harry Hagopian is an international lawyer, ecumenist and EU political consultant. He also acts as a MENA and inter-faith advisor to the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. He is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/HarryHagopian). Formerly Executive Secretary of the Jerusalem Inter-Church Committee and Executive Director of the Middle East Council of Churches, he is now an international fellow, Sorbonne III University, Paris, and author of The Armenian Church in the Holy Land. Dr Hagopian’s own website is www.epektasis.net -- follow him on Twitter here: @harryhagopian and on Facebook here: https://m.facebook.com/MENA.analysis/

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