Personal reflections on Brexit II on the day President Obama gave his farewell in Berlin

Barack Obama, Angela Merkel

Photo: Stefan Boness

About a week after the second major political shock of the year 2016, first the Brexit vote in June that triggered my first personal reflection on the theme, followed by the election of Donald Trump as next US President, President Obama is on his farewell-tour to Europe. As I write this, he is in Berlin and holds a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. I hardly ever listen to press conferences, but somehow today felt the need to do so.

A key theme that runs through President Obama’s statements is a theme, it turns out, that is core to some of my own teaching on Development as Historical Change: Political progress is never a given but always contentious, and can easily turn into political decay. In concrete, President Obama speaks about not taking the achievements of the EU as a force for peace and prosperity for granted. Those need to be nurtured and fought for, and progress is not inevitable, but the result of continuous hard work. Thinking back about the Brexit campaign, what always left a sour taste in my mouth was the fact that almost nobody (in particular on the remain side) did actually fight for those achievements, or even mentioned them – the campaign was either fought as an economic doomsday scenario or as a claim for ‘sovereignty’ (as if sovereignty would be compromised by alliances based on key core values), in addition to promises that even those who made them never believed in.

At the moment, sovereignty seems to be expressed mainly through the right to erect borders and boundaries, on both sides of the Atlantic. I got a small taste of this when I entered the UK after Brexit for the first time, a couple of months after the actual vote. I arrived by plane at Stanstead airport in London. I travelled with my German ID card, as I usually do, and faced a kind of interrogation that I never experienced when entering the UK ever before. I was asked rather suspiciously if I had no passport, followed by questions on what I was doing here, how long I would stay – well, the usual stuff as some of my friends who undergo such procedures routinely as they have the ‘wrong’ passport would say. Trying to be polite enough but also firm in proclaiming my right to enter as a EU citizen, I still felt distinctly uncomfortable. It subsequently turned out that during a number of subsequent travels between the UK and the European continent, I could not check in for flights using my ID card, and was always stopped at the boarding gate. Airline staff were usually apologetic and I always made it onto the plane, but was never exactly told what the problem was, but got some vague answers about ‘irregularities’. I could of course have travelled using my passport instead, but that felt deeply wrong, a sort of obedience or giving in – even in small matters, I said to myself, one needs to fight for what one believes is right! And today it seems President Obama sided with me – even if he surely had more important issues in mind when he stressed repeatedly that one needed to ascertain the values that one holds dear.

More generally, my daily life as a ‘EU migrant’ has not changed much thus far, not least because, as an academic, I seem surrounded by people who feel similarly about Brexit. Or at least most of them do – I have meanwhile become aware of academic colleagues who did in fact vote Brexit – and then wondered why their European colleagues feel somehow rejected by that vote – how do they think we would feel? In many ways I am like the UK government, I do not have a Brexit strategy (yet) – even though I do not see myself staying in a country that might insist on work permits and other bureaucratic nonsense in the future, and make me pay for those demands.

Turning back to President Obama’s words in Berlin, he cautioned listeners not to take for granted the system of government and the prosperous lives we have, but invoked the need to fight for those – by all of us. This makes me think of a recent extended family gathering. One person present was an aunt in her 80s, who vividly remembers her childhood in Berlin during WW II. She and her parents and siblings lived in a house near the little Tiergarten, a green space near the location (until recently) of the LaGeSo, the present-day refugee reception centre. When their block of flats stood in flames caused by an allied bombing raid, the family gathered on that green space, in a similar way as Syrian and other refugees gathered there in the summer of 2015, waiting their turn to be processed as asylum seekers. The aunt in question waited to be evacuated to what is now Poland, where she, her mother and the siblings stayed until the end of the war. Then they were given the choice to stay and become Polish, or walk back to Berlin, a journey of a number of weeks on foot. They decided on the latter option and arrived exhausted back into a bombed out city. The same city that has become the focal point of hope for a better life among today’s refugees and migrants, as well as for many children or grandchildren of former Jewish refugees who came to the UK during WWII – and who now, post-Brexit, perhaps rather ironically, apply for German citizenship to stay ‘European’.

President Obama is right in many ways when he says that Germany in general and Berlin in particular tell a story of achievement, a story of what is possible when one follows one’s convictions and does the right thing for humanity as a whole, even if not politically convenient. History does mostly not travel in a straight line, President Obama adds, but it does move into the direction of social justice if we fight for it. The last part of that sentence seems crucial to me: if we fight for it, and engage in acts of citizenship continuously in our daily lives.

One of the main issues to engage in progressive politics in the contemporary world is in relation to welcoming those who flee their homes and uproot their lives for multiple reasons. The University of Manchester is hoping to become a focal point in engagement with those issues. It is in the process of establishing a migration lab (jointly led by HCRI and GDI) that will hold a first exploratory workshop on 5 December.

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