Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR's local journalism that brings clarity, context, and community!

Britons In Hastings Caught Up In Debate On Whether To Leave The E.U.


The British people have a huge decision to make in June. In a national referendum, they will decide whether the U.K. should continue as a member of the European Union or not. With Britain being an island of the coast of Europe, hasn't ever seemed totally at home in the EU, a sense that's fueling a fierce debate ahead of the vote.


GREENE: Well, that is the sound of seagulls, and that tells me we are ready now to turn to NPR correspondent Eleanor Beardsley, who we reached in a southern British coastal town. Eleanor where exactly are you? Describe to me what you're seeing. It sounds like seagulls behind you along the shore there.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Absolutely. David, I am in the English seaside town of Hastings, which is right on the English Channel. I'm on the high street, which is the central shopping street. We're right across the channel from France. I'm looking up at a castle in ruin, a stone castle. That's the castle built by William the Conqueror, who sailed from France to England in 1066, conquered the king's armies and became king of England. So this town is known for that. The last successful invasion of this country was in 1066 by William the Conqueror.

GREENE: There is something sort of symbolic here - is there not? - that, I mean, a thousand years ago, England was sort of running away or resisting an invasion from Europe, and now today, I mean, they're voting on whether or not to stay part of this continent.

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, it's true. But, you know, as one man pointed out, we're not in 1066. This is a globalized world. This goes against everything in modernity to pull out of a union and try to go it alone.

GREENE: OK, so you've been roaming and strolling this seaside town with this castle and the ruins up above you. What are people telling you when you talk to them about this?

BEARDSLEY: Well, older people, they remember a better time. They probably remember when this was a booming seaside resort. But now, David, where people take package holidays to Spain and the south of France, they don't really come to Hastings anymore. They also talk about World War II. We resisted the Nazis. We can go it alone.

They just think that Britain doesn't have enough control over its own - you know, its own affairs. They think that there's these unelected officials in Brussels who are telling them how to do things, and they think they can do it better on their own. Many people are against, but some people are picking just individual problems, such as the fishermen. They say, our quotas are limited. We have to throw fish back into the sea. This is why we can't make it. And they blame that on Europe.

Later on, we spoke with a councilman here who says that's actually the British fish quotas and not the EU quotas. So it's hard to know exactly what's fact and what's hearsay. But everyone has an opinion, and the town is still divided. And I think it's a good bellwether on what this country's facing right now. People really don't know whether Britain, in June, is going to vote to stay in the EU or not.

GREENE: So interesting that you bring up the fishermen and blaming Europe, even though, as you say, it might actually be British quotas that are causing them harm. It makes me wonder, I mean, are people voting with their heads here? Is there something kind of emotional, and people are voting with their hearts?

BEARDSLEY: Yes, they say, yes, maybe our heads tell us we have to be, for trade reasons, in Europe, but we think we can do better alone. So, yeah, it's a visceral feeling.

GREENE: So it sound like, though, it tells us something about British culture - I mean, this sort of go-it-alone feeling that's driving a lot of people here.

BEARDSLEY: Yes, David. This is an island nation, and though they are off the coast of France and they are in Europe, they still have a certain insular go-it-alone quality. They believe that they are the best guarantor of their democracy and their future, and they don't want to farm that out to someone else, to other countries. People here think that they can do best. Britain can do it best for Britains.

GREENE: NPR's Eleanor Beardsley, who is speaking to us from Hastings, a seaside town in Britain. Thanks, Eleanor.

BEARDSLEY: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.

You make NHPR possible.

NHPR is nonprofit and independent. We rely on readers like you to support the local, national, and international coverage on this website. Your support makes this news available to everyone.

Give today. A monthly donation of $5 makes a real difference.