Not the best day I have ever had

IssueAugust - September 2016
Feature by Benjamin


Pride in London 2016: a man with an anti-Brexit sign on 25 June. PHOTO: Katy Blackwood (CC BY-SA 4.0) via Wikimedia Commons

I woke in time for the 7am news and switched on the radio in nervous anticipation, knowing that – while I slept – others had been busily reckoning Britain’s choice. I heard the pips then the familiar voice of John Humphrys: ‘After 40 years of membership, the people of Britain have voted to leave the European Union.’ My heart sank, but my heart rate rose, adrenaline flooded my system. I could barely believe my ears. I did not know which way to turn. These primeval responses do not serve us well against such adversaries as unwelcome headlines.

I believe that these words will remain etched in my mind alongside other iconic news events of my lifetime: a man with his shopping bags, facing a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square; comrades of the DDR taking sledge hammers to the Berlin wall; Nelson Mandela walking free from his long incarceration; Yugoslav refugees fleeing ethnic violence; or the initial euphoric scenes of the so-called Arab Spring.

Each of these world events – and many others – doubtless merit greater attention among historical scholars than the choice of a small, damp island to belong (or not) to a glorified customs union. Nevertheless, I feel certain that this particular moment will have a greater direct impact on my own life than any of the others I have listed.

“What if you spent as many hours each week learning a language as you do in meetings?”

I have been fortunate enough to have lived my life insulated from the worst of the world’s pain and chaos. There have been huge political disappointments, from repeated failures to oust Margaret Thatcher, when I was a child, to widespread disillusionment during the New Labour years. There have been seismic economic shocks, from the 1980s when interest rates reached 20 percent – and some of my best friends lost their homes as a result – to the 2008 banking crash, and the austerity and unemployment which has followed. Even so, I have rarely been homeless or without work for long. I have always found ways to dig myself out of whatever hole I have found myself in.

An era of exploration

I recognise the role of my own privilege in lubricating this process. The colour of my skin, the genitalia I was born with, and the language I grew up speaking have all given me huge advantages. I believe that holding an EU passport has also been one of these privileges.

I worry that I may look back upon the opportunities to travel, to study, to work throughout Europe as an all-too-brief Arcadia. I worry that children growing up today may never know such freedom or sense of opportunity, that their horizons may shrink to match only national borders.

I am one of those fortunate enough to have begun exploring our continent at a time when a bloc which had been isolated for almost 45 years was suddenly open, and only a bus ride away. Despite the enticing exoticism which these destinations offered, born of their long isolation, they were and are unarguably European.

As a result, I believe my generation grew happy to think of ourselves as Europeans. I remember the signing of the Maastricht treaty as almost as defining an event as the headline-grabbers I listed at the beginning. My favourite computer magazine even included the entire text of the treaty on a give-away floppy disk.

“I worry that I may look back upon the opportunities to travel, to study, to work throughout Europe as an all-too brief Arcadia.”

I am no great evangelist for the institutions of the European Union. I see a deficit of democracy and a neoliberalism which disturbs me. The EU is far too much about providing a launch pad for European companies to compete with rivals from the USA or the far east. Yet, the EU has also given us limits on absurd working hours, stronger levers to challenge discrimination and harassment, funding for less prosperous regions – including here in the UK, stronger animal welfare standards, cleaner beaches and more effective wildlife protection. I shall stop there for fear of boring you, dear reader.

No to outsiders

If the Leave campaigners or voters had offered any great critique of the European commission or the European parliament, I might be less upset about yesterday’s outcome. I fear however, that most of those who voted leave did so – largely – because they do not like foreigners. If that is the case, which politicians are likely to rise ascendant from the wreckage of the referendum campaign?

This ascendancy will not be limited to Britain. Buoyed by victory in these islands, xenophobic politicians across Europe are already – today – using the opportunity to offer their congratulations, bask in reflected glory and show everyone what a big member they have. If the British wound is not treated, the disease could easily spread and that might be terminal for the European Union as a whole.

What has gone wrong in the years since that floppy disk, to leave so many voters – not only here in Britain – so hostile to the European ideals which seemed so mainstream in 1992? What could have been done differently? What lessons can we learn?

European leaders need to stop using Brussels Eurocrats as a scapegoat. Prime ministers and presidents attend summits of the Council of Europe. Inevitably, among 28 members, different leaders argue for conflicting things, and ultimately some sort of compromise is reached. When they return to their own parliaments and peoples, these leaders need to have the courage to defend the deal they have reached – together with other elected leaders. Instead, they tell everyone that it is a bad deal, but that it is not their fault, because it is the fault of ‘Brussels’.

All of us need to call foul when anyone demonises immigration. National borders are only where they are thanks to thousands of years of history, any of us is only born on one side of one of those lines or another due to chance. Anyone should have the right to move house across those lines.

“Inevitably, once Brexit is complete, many of the same problems will persist. Who will the Brexiteers blame then?”

Immigration is not a problem, what creates problems is when large numbers of people move to an area and the public services in that area cannot cope with this rising population. The problem is the same whether the new arrivals come from the next village or the other side of the world. Yet unaddressed, this fuels xenophobia, which can only be tackled effectively if national governments or the EU make a fund available to provide houses, schools, health centres and other facilities in areas of rising population.

Broadcasters, newspapers and other media need to be more careful about who they give a voice to. The BBC has given vastly more air time to the UK Independence party (UKIP) in recent years, than is justified by its share of the vote. It seems to have offered the heretic Labour MP Gisela Stuart [chair of the official Vote Leave campaign] more interviews than her own party leader. BBC radio even ran an interview with Dutch far-right leader Geert Wilders as part of one of its pre-referendum news and analysis shows.

I do believe that if you give these people long enough to undermine their own arguments, they will do so quite effectively, but extremist politicians are nonetheless served very well by our pervasive sound-bite politics. Do not forget that, in the 1930s, the National Socialists were masterful at repeating the same line over and over again. Eventually such an approach can have a hypnotic effect, even when the line itself is so evidently untrue.

Mend Electoral Politics

Electoral politics must serve Europe better. Electorates must demand greater accountability from their MEPs. It would be a start to find out who their MEPs are! MEPs themselves must cooperate better, the loose groupings and alliances which have formed in the European parliament do not serve anyone well. At European elections, candidates in different countries must stand on shared platforms and thereafter must work together for genuine reform and increased accountability.

Massive corporate lobbying of the European commission needs to be highlighted, challenged and countered. If European institutions spend even a tenth as much time listening to the concerns of trade unions and civil society as they do to corporate lobbyists, the EU might better reflect its people and its people might in turn be more inclined to feel themselves European.

The media – and the voters – must not ignore the European parliament. Part of the reason national politicians can blame so many of their own failings on a group of institutions which no one understands is precisely because so few people have taken the time to understand, or critique what really goes on in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Admittedly, in most countries, few people take a detailed interest in the proceedings of their national parliament, yet, at least in Britain, we do have a specialist television channel for parliament watchers, and highlights on BBC radio, late at night and again early each morning. How often do these programmes visit the European parliament? Only when MPs at Westminster are on holiday.

Trespass politics

Radical politics must be transnational. Those of us who distrust all political parties need to work together to support marches, strikes, occupations, autonomous spaces and direct action across borders. We need to build lasting alliances – rather than summit-hopping. We need to provide translation and interpretation services.

What if you spent as many hours each week learning a language as you do in meetings? Think of the plethora of campaigns you could support – and who could support you! We need to raise funds to help people to travel to support campaigns outside their home region and we must provide legal support for anyone arrested or risking arrest in unfamiliar surroundings.

Our internationalism must not stop at Europe’s frontiers. Having worked to dismantle Europe’s internal borders, we must not cut ourselves off from the rest of the world – with razor wire. We must provide safe, legal routes for desperate people to join us in the European Union. The fact that the EU is the destination of choice for so many migrants, demonstrates not the failure of our border police but the success of our economies, our cultures and our ways of life.

European nations must work together to resettle refugees and – again – make a fund available to provide appropriate facilities for these new arrivals. Equally our transnational solidarity must not be limited to our nearby cousins. We must support current struggles in Palestine, Rojava, Mexico, Nigeria and West Papua (to name only those I have read about in the last week). There are peasant and indigenous uprisings across Africa, Asia and the Americas, from which campaigners in Europe could learn volumes.

As I write this I am – honestly – in shock. I am sorry that I have not yet called you, or any of the people whom I care about, in order to share some of my tears with you. I shall do so, but I decided that first, I should try to record my thoughts on this momentous day – in writing. Perhaps in a day, or a month, or a year, I shall nuance my views on this catastrophe? If so, this only underlines the importance of writing now, while – I hope – there is an energy in my words which may dissipate.

Doubtless, there are some who voted Leave who – now that the reality has begun to hit home – have begun to regret or at least question their choice. There are many on both sides of the argument who are today deeply worried about exactly how and when this divorce will be enacted.

I worry too about what will happen in British politics, once the departure is complete. It has been a lazy shorthand of too many British politicians for too long to blame all manner of ills on ‘Brussels’. Inevitably, once Brexit is complete, many of the same problems will persist. Who will the Brexiteers blame then?

I appeal to my European friends, remember that only 70-something percent of Brits voted and that of those, only 52 percent backed Brexit. There are many of us who continue to think of ourselves as both British and European. Political turmoil always drives population movement, there may be more than a few Britons seeking sanctuary in other EU countries in the coming months and years. Please be nice to us and do not feel too surprised if we seem somewhat downhearted for a while.

In solidarity

Topics: Europe