Dr. Khairil Ahmad
I begin with my personal stake on the issue. In a way, without wishing to be overly sentimental, the European Union (EU) has had a hand in the creation of my family. I met my wife, a Swedish citizen, in Britain while studying for a Master’s and later a PhD degree. She, along with many friends who I met there, are part of a generation of Europeans who have benefited from the ease in cross border mobility that came with the EU. Far from diminishing the national identities of its citizens, the EU has managed to allow national belongings to be expressed through its presence. My wife, for one, is a proud Swede who also identifies as a European citizen.
In Britain, through a congregation of people from all over the EU and beyond, my horizons were broadened, my cultural outlook was enriched, and my lifelong resolve to defend and celebrate diversity, pluralism and difference was strengthened. Like me and my wife, many of our friends have gone on to establish cross border families, embracing all the challenges that come with it, challenges that the EU has helped to greatly mitigate.
However, a few days ago, on 23 June 2016, in an in/out referendum on Britain’s membership, the British people voted to leave the EU. Unprecedented and historic, the result, a ‘Brexit’, sent shockwaves throughout the world. David Cameron announced his resignation as Prime Minister, and negotiations for Britain’s exit are expected to begin soon. As I awaited the results that were slowly coming in from across the country, I was overcome by sadness once it became clear that the ‘Leave’ camp would defeat the ‘Remain’ camp. Fifty two percent of those who voted in the referendum had decided to “take back control” of their country, to echo the flagship slogan of the Vote Leave campaign, whatever it means. Colchester, the town which had been my home for five years, and which had benefitted economically from the presence of the University of Essex and its multinational and diverse student and staff population, also voted to leave.
Are there justifiable reasons to want to leave the EU? For sure, the EU is not without its problems and flaws. In the wake of the result of the referendum, Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos party in Spain, rightly mentioned that while Britain’s decision represented a “sad day for Europe”, “(n)o one would want to leave a fair and supportive Europe.” For some time now, the EU has been seen as driving a neoliberal ideological agenda through its economic institutions, the effect of which has been felt across its member countries. There is certainly a democratic deficit in the EU’s decision making arrangement and process, as has been highlighted by Yanis Varoufakis who, briefly as Greece’s finance minister, was dealing with unelected officials representing the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Commission (together with the International Monetary Fund, they are simply called the ‘Troika’), who held considerable power to determine Greece’s future as a country. We could also add the recently at times appalling response by some member states towards refugees fleeing conflicts in the Middle East to the list. But rather than becoming the reasons to abandon the EU project, we can argue that these would exactly be the reason to stay and exert demands for reforms. Iglesias and Varoufakis, two of the most radical critics of the project, as well as Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British Labour Party, themselves see the EU as a project to be saved and democratised rather than abandoned.
In the case of Turkey, within a context of democratic deliberation between member states on the merits of its future membership, it could be justifiably argued that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ongoing assault on free speech and academic freedom runs counter to the liberal and democratic values which the EU would demand to see from its members. But instead of focusing on this issue, the Vote Leave camp preferred to use the entire of the Turkish population as a scapegoat of their campaign, by drumming up the potential threat that Turkey would pose to the EU with its 76 million citizens if it were to be accepted as a member. As incredulous as such argument may sound, it was indeed the message about immigration which played a leading role in helping voters make up their minds. It served as the basis for a right-wing, populist campaign by its leading figures, culminating in the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage’s now infamous campaign poster. It featured a picture of a queue of refugees with the caption “Breaking point. The EU has failed us all. We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders.”
In addition, economic scaremongering tactics were deployed. For example, voters were told that the EU has been systematically undermining the British manufacturing industry, which, ironically, has been continuously undermined from within, since the time of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. The EU was also said to undermine British workers’ labour rights. And, even as and after the UK Statistics Authority had denied that the country sends £350 million weekly to the EU, the Vote Leave campaign continued to drum up this figure. This was to justify their claim that if they were to take back control of Britain, most of the money could be channelled to the National Health Service (NHS). The British people are very proud of the NHS, so the prospect of increased funding would always appeal to their sentiments.
On the other side, to a significant extent, the Remain campaign fared not much better. Apart from Corbyn’s and the approach of a number of Remain supporters which rested on the need for a calm and rational evaluation of the pros and cons of Britain’s relationship with the EU, the message of the Remain side was largely seen as scaremongering by many voters. Numbers and statistics were thrown around to demonstrate what Britain would lose if it left the EU, as though these were the punishment that awaited those who would be foolish enough to want to leave. The resentment against such a line of campaigning also has an underlying cause. For some time now, there has been a growing feeling of disenfranchisement among the poorer and working class segments of the British society, which is both physically and financially removed from the riches that are available in London (London itself, as a matter of fact, is a place with great inequality, poverty and ghettoised communities). While the Scottish people have found a voice in the Scottish National Party (SNP), for example, the northern parts of England remain excluded. Scotland as well as Northern Ireland had overwhelmingly elected to remain in the EU, prompting Nicola Sturgeon, the former’s First Minister, to seek lobby member states to allow Scotland to remain in the EU.
Cameron himself, who had put his political career on the line by promising the referendum as part of his general election manifesto in 2015, is not particularly a popular leader among the working class. Not only is he seen as part of the elite Westminster political class which is disconnected from the realities of everyday life, his premiership has been marked by an assault on public and welfare services through budget cuts and austerity measures, and shall be remembered as such now that he is resigning. Therefore, in analysing this issue, the journalist John Harris correctly reminds us that the referendum, for millions in Britain, is about class, inequality and exclusion. This trend of disconnection between people and the political processes of their societies, it has to be remembered, is one which is prevalent the world over. The political philosopher Michael Sandel reminds us that there is now a “widespread frustration with politics, with politicians and with established political parties”, with people feeling left out from making meaningful contributions in shaping the political processes of their communities. “A large constituency of working class voters”, says Sandel, “feel that not only has the economy left them behind, but so has the culture, that the sources of their dignity, the dignity of labour, have been eroded and mocked by developments with globalisation, the rise of finance, the attention that is lavished by parties across the political spectrum on economic and financial elites, the technocratic emphasis of the established political parties.”
Why, then, should people not be cynical of the EU? At our mundane level of interaction, beyond helping the lucky and educated few like me and my friends establish multinational families, what has and could the EU do to secure a dignified life for people? Perhaps it is the fundamental aims of such project of cross-border integration and cooperation that are worth fighting for. Fundamentally, since its creation in its preceding forms in the aftermath of World War II until it became the European Union in 1992, the aim has been to secure peaceful economic and cultural exchanges between member states. As a result, European communities became less closed and insular, which we can argue as being two of the reasons which contributed to the two world wars that we have had. Beyond peaceful economic exchanges, the EU’s role in providing common frameworks for national governance and legislation, ideally, could become a bulwark against the recurrence of events such as the Holocaust. The EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights legally secures the basic rights of all residents of the EU against unjust treatments by its institutions. The European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), with articles and protocols that affirm fundamental rights and freedoms, is a piece of document that must be respected by all EU member states, including the rights of minority communities. As imperfect as these may be, things may be worse without them. They would still provide protection against, for example, Islamophobia. This is part of the reason why British Muslims overwhelmingly voted to remain in the referendum. Smaller communities could depend on the EU’s fundamental and human rights proclamations to protect their rights and interests. For example, indigenous communities, such as the Sami people in the Nordic countries, could use the European Court of Human Rights to seek legal redress against the possession of their lands by the state. The ECHR also provides safeguards against national legislations which are discriminatory against, for example, members of sexual minority groups. From a non-European perspective, the EU is still a model for cross border integration and cooperation which many could still only dream of.
As the shock of Britain’s decision begins to settle, more and more questions have emerged. What would happen to the thousands who have established cross border families because they thought that they would be able to depend on the EU and its institutions? What about the many British citizens who are currently serving in the EU bureaucracy? What about those from EU member states who are now working and raising their families in Britain, many of whom are indispensable members of the British labour force, such as the NHS doctors and nurses? What about the thousands of British citizens who have expatriated themselves to other EU countries such as Spain and France? Perhaps, for the remaining member states, there would soon be a renewed effort to engage and debate in a constructive manner about making the union stronger and more democratic. Back in Britain, what is worrying is that the result of the referendum could mean that the British people have placed the future of their children in the hands of some unsavoury characters in British politics, such as Farage. Already we are hearing unashamed backpedalling on some of the most fundamental promises of the leave campaign by its own leaders, including on the pledge to channel more money to the NHS. It must also be remembered that the run up to the referendum itself witnessed the murder of Jo Cox, the Member of Parliament for Batley and Spen, a principled Labour politician who devoted her life to fighting for humanitarian causes and for the rights of migrants and refugees.
*The writer is faculty member, Department of Political Science, International Islamic University Malaysia.