Full steam ahead for Brexit – A personal elegy for a cosmopolitanism that perhaps never was

Now it is almost official, after 461 to 89 MPs backed the government’s Article 50 Bill yesterday: Brexit will happen probably sooner than many expected, and more authoritarian and undemocratic than ever thought possible by those who believe in due democratic process.

Photo: Stefan Boness, www.iponphoto.com

Photo: Stefan Boness, http://www.iponphoto.com

Brexit will in essence be negotiated by a Prime Minister not even elected by ‘the people’ in a real sense, ‘the people’ we hear so much about these days, and whose will the PM now proclaims to carry out. One can have different views on what democracy is, and how democratic a referendum, fought on a single issue and based on false facts (or ‘post-truth’), as later frankly admitted by those who propagated them, really is – and I am among those critical of such versions of democracy.

A remain-politician, before the first vote on Article 50 in parliament, explained why he would vote with the bill in the following terms: If for example a vote would be held after a popular referendum that called for re-instating the death penalty, he would vote no – and contradict the ‘will of the people’ – because this was a moral issue. Brexit, however, was a political issue, and thus the ‘will of the people’ needed to be respected, whatever his own views – and he still believed Brexit in its current forms was a big mistake. I am sceptical about this distinction between a political and a moral issue – and strongly disagree with the notion that Brexit is only or even mainly a political issue that has no moral repercussions – not least because I (as an EU academic) am directly affected by the ethical and moral beliefs that are behind the Brexit momentum.

As pointed out in the parliamentary debate during the first vote on Brexit last week– the government clearly decided to forge a deal around anti-immigration policies, and give scant regard to economic or other consequences (like those for example for the higher education sector, one of Britain’s most successful and valuable national assets, the latter due to its openness to talent from all over the world). This focus on anti-immigration has clearly a profound ethical and moral dimension, but there is surprisingly little debate about that, and even less debate on the emotional side of it. From an ethical point of view, one may question how democratic it is not to have given those ultimately deeply affected by it a vote in the referendum in the first place – those of us who have lived and worked in the UK for decades and helped it become what it is today. But there is another emotional dimension that is highly overlooked: how does Brexit and the way it is being debated and implemented make us feel? Will the term ‘Brexit-depression’ enter the vocabulary of counselling services all over the UK? Or will most of us continue to keep our heads down, get on with it, or apply for residency that might not be granted, as regardless of existing laws there appears to be a tendency to make anybody going down that route feel as unwelcome as possible. My colleague Colin Talbot has written in a much publicised blog on these personal dimensions, mainly in relation to those who applied for permanent residency and were unlawfully rejected. His blog is largely based on responses gathered from EU academics most of whom, a telling sign, wanted to remain anonymous – for fear of otherwise jeopardizing their future after Brexit. But among most of us, whether we decide to leave (or actually have already left), apply for permanent residency or citizenship, or just wait and see, the Brexit debate, the vote and its aftermath triggered deep emotional responses that many of us feel nobody wants to hear.

Shorty after the referendum, an academic colleague (from a different university) told me he actually voted Brexit. He then continued to say that he would stand by his decision (and yes, there are good reasons to critique and possibly leave the EU) – but what really took him aback was how rejected and hurt many of his European colleagues felt in the aftermath. My immediate reaction was something like ‘I am sorry, but as an intelligent person – how did you think we would feel?’ Subsequently and with each throw of the dice, this feeling of hurt combined with feeling increasingly depressed has increased, and more often than not I have asked myself what I am still doing here (as have others I debated this with). I am lucky in many ways, not only working at in institution that tries its best to reassure us and make tangible effort to secure our right to be here. I also have a number of  (British) colleagues who not only share my feelings of depression but do have an understanding of how it might feel to be put in this situation of limbo. But more generally, also among academic colleagues, talk is mostly about highly skilled visas that will make it alright for us, and advise usually centres on the technicalities of how to secure status and ways to stay. Few actually ask questions like ‘how do you feel about Brexit’, ‘how does it affect your work, your morale’? ‘how does it affect your well-being, your daily life’?

If you would ask me, I would give an answer along the following lines: After the first shock, I assumed some common sense would prevail, that there was scope for a solution that upheld key achievements of project Europe, whatever its flaws (achievements that were so astonishingly absent in the Brexit campaign). But as dynamics went one, at each turn the hope for such an outcome was dented. Some sort of climax in this feeling of rejection came yesterday, when Harriet Harman’s Amendment to the government’s Article 50 Bill (thank you, Harriet) that would have guaranteed the rights of EU nationals already resident in Britain was rejected by 332 to 290 votes. It is official now, we have become a commodity to be used as a bargaining chip in future EU negotiations – and the hurt many of us feel is of no concern to anybody. I suppose I am lucky in many ways, as for me it is easier to simply turn my back and leave than for many of my colleagues and friends whose personal and professional arrangements are much more complex and leave them with less choice.

Quite a few commentaries of late have discussed similarities between our recent times and the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s. This might be overblown but then it might not, as every large upheaval starts with small steps, steps that in themselves seem of minor relevance. In a conversation with an Italian colleague yesterday, before the parliamentary vote, he told me he was reminded of part of his family history. In Italy in the 1920s one of his relatives was politely asked to join the National Fascist Party and politely refused. He was asked again on various subsequent occasions and continued to refuse, and eventually had to flee the country, to return only many years later when Italy’s fascist dictatorship had ended.

I have asked myself many times since the Brexit debate and referendum why so many of us, including myself, did not see this coming – this growing rise of populism, denunciation of the unfamiliar, often demagogic-based politics. Frankly and perhaps naively, I never thought political developments would determine one day where I could live and how I could lead my life – these times seemed to be over for those lucky enough to be European citizens at least. I should have known better – not only because coming from West-Berlin, I saw a whole country implode and collapse in now time at my doorstep, literally.

But I am also part of a global elite – not the 1% in a strict sense, but those who based on their nationality and skin colour had (thus far) the chance to live a life of unprecedented freedom, that many can only dream of. This was brought home to me in another conversation yesterday with a black colleague from an African country, who, ironically, has obtained British citizenship (thus formally has many more rights than myself in the UK). He told me that one of his children now does some sports in a wealthy suburb of Manchester, a suburb he never really visited before, thus he usually spends time there while waiting for the sports-class to finish. It is a suburb where one does not see many people of colour on the streets (as I can attest to as I live there). Sometimes he browses through the charity shops, and is well aware that as soon as he enters, one of the people working there keeps close taps on him, suspiciously watching his every movement. Not too obvious, trying to disguise it through some re-arranging activity in the shop. ‘They probably think I am some refugee trying to steal something’ he says with good humour. And some of ‘the older women in there, you can see them clutching their handbags closely to their chest’. I am horrified by this story. ‘I am used to it’, my colleague says, ‘and it has stopped bothering me’. But it should not stop bothering us, I think. And I realise, the cosmopolitan city I imagined myself to live in was always a chimera to some extent, underpinned by an underbelly of nationalist and racist everyday practices. This puts my post-Brexit depression into wider perspective, but it does not make me feel any better.

Possibility of future research: In response to his blog on Brexit and EU academics, Colin Talbot has been getting quite a lot of emails – often long, detailed, explanations of their experiences – from our EU27 academic colleagues in the UK affected by Brexit. He has asked if there is someone who specialises in migration issues at the qualitative, individual experience, level who would be interested in following this up as a research project? If intersted please either contact Cathy Wilock at cathy.wilcock@manchester.ac.uk at the Manchester Migration Lab,  or contact Colin at colin.talbot@manchester.ac.uk

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One Response to Full steam ahead for Brexit – A personal elegy for a cosmopolitanism that perhaps never was

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