When you get an email from the vice chancellor of the academic institution where you work not to panic (not the exact words but the tenor) something seems to be seriously wrong. When you get the same email from another vice chancellor – from the institution where you obtained your PhD more than a decade ago and with which you actually have had no links since then, something seems to be even more seriously wrong. And when you hear from colleagues at other academic institutions in little England and across the wider UK that they got similar emails, you really start thinking if you have time to jump on the next boat before the déluge.
Lucky for me, I was on that boat a while ago, as I am currently on sabbatical that I spend partly on the European continent – bound to return in September to a country whose majority apparently does not want me to return. Having been away on referendum day also saves me of a direct reminder of the fact that I was not even allowed to vote on my own future. The EU might be remote from its citizens in many ways and driven by narrow elite agendas, but in my case it are the British elites who welcome my tax payments and other contributions, but feel I have no right to decide on my own future among them. So much for ‘the people’ taking back decisions over their lives, one of the battle cries of the Brexit campaign that exposes its narrowly conceived nationalist and xenophobic underbelly.
Still, as a perennial optimist, I have always felt certain things will not happen in my lifetime: the possible collapse of the EU, or a demagogue like Trump becoming president of one of the major democracies in the Western world are among those. The first might just have started, the second does not seem too far off – maybe it is actually time to panic!
As with many of my colleagues and friends in the UK, my first reaction when it became clear that Brexit would happen was a sense of shock followed by a debilitating inability to do anything useful on the day. I was joined in that state by a number colleagues from within the UK via social media, and we exchanged views on what to do on such a day, ranging from cleaning windows or doing one’s tax returns, to simply going to the pub and have a drink. The latter was what apparently the staff of the German diplomatic corps in Brussels did, according to a twitter feed that went viral: ‘We are off now to an Irish pub to get decently drunk. And from tomorrow on we will again work for a better #Europe! Promised!’.
On the day after the day of the Brexit-shock, as the state of disbelief slowly subsides and the many messages from friends in the UK who speak of how aghast and ashamed they feel makes me feel partly reassured, I also wonder why I did not see it coming, why did I always feel in the end it would be OK?
After all, Britain now had a majority government run by a party that had a long history of cheap anti-EU propaganda, not least to put the blame for its own failings firmly unto distant ‘foreign’ institutions in Brussels, as if Britain was actually not a vital partner in shaping these institutions. In his reaction to the Brexit vote, in a speech that also became his resignation speech, PM Cameron said that he has ‘always believed that we have to confront big decisions, not duck them’. This alone showed how removed from reality he is: He was for many years one of those in the Tory elite who put the blame for unpopular decisions on ‘Europe’, so how could he now convincingly campaign in favour of remain? To hold a referendum in the first place was in fact his way to get rid of inner-party rivals and the destructive force of the hard-core anti-European contingent. His bet was, in holding a referendum and winning it, he would lay those ghosts to rest for good. That this bet would not necessarily come off became clear when he made the perhaps most stupid mistake of his premiership: to allow even ministers in his own government, a government that he declared as pro-EU, not only a free vote but free campaign rights. If you are unable to unite your own government behind its own policy, how can you expect to unite the electorate or even encourage a grown-up, nuanced debate?
I was briefly back in the UK during the weeks before the referendum date, and I was taken aback by the almost hatred with which the campaign was fought – certainly not a good omen, but also by its personalised character. A campaign where one of the main arguments in a TV panel by leading people in the remain camp deteriorates to personal attacks on Boris Johnson, accusing him of occupying the leave position out of personal power calculations, is in a sad state. Don’t get me wrong, Johnson might have been driven by those exact motivations and I would regard it as a complete disaster were he to become the next PM, but surely a campaign that seeks to motivate people needs a different strategy. The biggest flop here was the Labour Party, or at least its current leadership, for whom going back in history should have provided important lessons.
The last EU referendum in 1975 was called by a dis-united labour government whose members were, equally as was the case now, free to campaign on either side. Then, it was a highly efficient pro-EU campaign by the then Tory opposition under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher that carried much of the vote, campaigning then under the slogan ‘support your local continent’ among others, and making famous a Thatcher pro-EU jumper (that has actually been reproduced again during the current referendum). Lesson to be learned: if the governing party is too disunited it depends on the opposition to carry through the vote that it says it supports. Most of the labour campaign was lukewarm rather than engaged, and what was largely absent was the defence of the EU as a post-war project based on important values.
Of course there is much to critique about how the EU has developed in practice, its bureaucracy, its almost exclusive focus on neoliberal doctrine, corporate entities and the free exchange of goods and services – and the neglect of its vision as a community of values, as a promise for the future, as an entity who managed to overcome nationalist rivalries and in spite of everything united the people of Europe as citizens of more than small nationalist enclaves. Also the feeling by too many, that Europe has turned from a promise for a better future for all to a threat for some could have provided much room for constructive engagement and debate. But that debate remained largely absent and a labour party, some of whose members were inept enough to say that Brexit was wrong now, as it would lead to an even more right-wing alternative project, but would be fine if only the Left had a majority, can not wash its hands off a result that many now lament. And that among the few who did actually raise issues about the EU as a community of values, one the most prominent was past PM Tony Blair, highly controversial within his own party and righty so, together with John Major, should be a source of great embarrassment for the current Labour party leadership. Instead, what we hear are continued accusations against the Tories for dividing Britain, and statements that imply it was rally the task of the government to win the referendum for remain.
Looking back, 23 June was thus a sad day for Europe in many ways, and only the next few weeks and months will show whether it translates into the rise of more nationalist xenophobic agendas elsewhere, or whether solidarity in a real sense gains ground (again). The EU certainly is at a turning point, and if the Brexit vote is the start of a process that makes the EU as a whole remember its core values and become a place focused primarily on its citizens – instead of predominately on markets and companies, it might actually have done all of us a favour – well, almost all of us, excluding the citizens of England and Wales (unless a petition to re-think the referendum result is successful) – and about Scotland and Northern Ireland we will see.
I will end with these words from an English friend who grew up in an area that voted Leave, but for decades has lived in Manchester that voted Remain (and I am proud to be a resident, even if not a citizen in the full sense of the word, of Manchester for that reason). In her response to Brexit she wrote to me: You are lucky, you are still a citizen of Europe, whereas I’m now a citizen of a crappy little island of small-minded fools.
Yes, I am lucky indeed – for now. And hope to remain so for the rest of my lifetime and for future generations beyond.