So, the unimaginable has happened. I had a bad feeling about the referendum in the days leading to it; when Bert and I discussed it over lunch on Wednesday, he was fairly optimistic for the Remain campaign, but I was rather disillusioned by the reaction of the general public towards the statements, outright lies, and in particular the hatred spewed by the Brexit supporters. On Thursday night, I stayed awake until 3 am, even taking my laptop to bed with me; when Newcastle’s and Sunderland’s results were published, my heart sank. I woke up shortly before 6 am to a text from Robert which just read, “Oh fuck!!!”. Indeed.
I am a very proud European; I embrace the European idea on a level that goes beyond travel, studies, and work. The idea of different nations and cultures working together, living in peace, sharing ideas, learning from each other: That was and still is my idea of Europe. I agree that some of the bureaucracy of the EU is over the top, and I also believe that the structure of the EU itself is not very fair – not only to smaller states, but also to the big spenders such as Germany, France, the UK. But regardless of all its flaws, the idea of a unified Europe still excites me. I am old enough to remember the times when people were distrustful of anybody looking or behaving “differently”; when they were making derogatory remarks about foreigners; when prejudices were ripe and even led to nasty arguments and threats.
Plus, I can also remember the depressing hassle whenever we wanted to visit relatives in East Germany: We usually drove at night as the traffic flowed easier then, which meant that the floodlights at the border mercilessly highlighted the automatic rifles, the sniffer dogs with muzzles, the set gun area, the fortified guard towers, the barbed wire, the way the border officials looked at my parents and me. I was in primary school back then and absolutely petrified with fear; for me, it always felt like entering a prison (which it effectively was), and I could not comprehend why it was always us visiting them, never the other way round. The free movement policy and “open arms” philosophy behind the EU is something I have always wholeheartedly supported.
One of the biggest mistakes of the remain campaign (in my opinion) was the emphasis on the things people would lose without the EU; Project Fear certainly delivered. There was no focus on the positive opportunities the EU can provide, on the chances that a network of countries can offer, on the community feeling. But maybe it is difficult to evoke a feeling of community in Europe when there is not even a community feeling within the UK. It might say “United”, but the society and the individual countries are anything but. As I see it, most of the problems that the Leave campaign blamed the EU for are actually homemade; these will not change just because Britain is leaving the European Union.
Take immigration, for example: It is a huge issue, probably the decisive one of the referendum, and it makes me wonder why nobody cared to asked the question why immigrants (apparently) take away British jobs. Why would somebody hire a worker who barely speaks the language, does not know the area, and has no connection to the local community? One of the main reasons, at least for Leave campaigners, seems to be that immigrants work for a lower wage. But instead of blaming the immigrants for accepting any job which is offered to them (which they do because unlike UK citizens, they don’t get housing benefits or – at least for the first three months of residency – unemployment benefits), it would make more sense to have a closer look at the system. British employers prefer cheap workers, regardless of the consequences this might have for the community or the local workforce; profit goes before social responsibility. Immigrants take these jobs because they are happy to just have one, while most British workers rightly reject these underpaid offers. But the accusations of the people with lower incomes are directed at the wrong party; maybe workers should take a close look at the trade unions in the UK and maybe ask themselves why these don’t have any power anymore (thanks, Maggie!).
In my opinion, the British governments of the past 50 years have mostly failed their people, in particular the working class. Britain has no manufacturing base to speak of, leaving vast areas of the country with barely any employment options for people with limited education. Instead, Britain has focused on the service industry and especially banking, which was then centralised in London – the city which now has the highest density of millionaires in the world. There is a huge gap in Britain between the so-called elite and the majority of the population. When it comes to their economic and social status, London and Hartlepool could be on different continents; even worse, both sides look at each other with contempt. No wonder most areas in Britain feel left out when it comes to the decision-making process and do not trust government officials anymore.
The Brexit will not solve any of these problems; it will probably rather reinforce the divide between these groups within the UK – however long the United Kingdom is going to last, now that Scotland wants out and Northern Ireland suddenly asks the Irish question again. I think that the EU was basically a scapegoat for most people who voted Leave; they believed that once they would get rid of the EU (with all its admittedly confusing laws and regulations), things would go back to “normal” again. But this is not going to happen. First of all, as history can teach you, you can’t turn back time; Britain will never again be the country it was in 1965. Secondly, the whole world structure has changed: States now need to work closely with each other, not only economically or in terms of security; creating blocs is one way of keeping other blocs in check and creating a balance (whether this balance always works to the benefit of all parties involved is another story altogether).
But mostly, things in Great Britain will not become better because the internal structure has not changed. What would happen if all those immigrants (Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, Arab areas) left? The unemployment rate would not go down significantly, as the problem is not necessarily a surplus of workers, but rather a shortage of well-paid work, especially in Wales and the North East. As the British government has ignored these issues for the past 40 years, what makes people believe it will care now? And how do you generate workplaces if you don’t have the required infrastructure – there is a lack of raw materials as well as education in Britain (which has the lowest adult reading age in the Western world), and the few existing manufacturing plants are mostly operated by non-British companies which could leave if trading with Europe becomes too costly. These structural problems are not down to the EU, however, but to the British governments of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s which unfortunately miscalculated the economic future of the UK.
In addition, a lot of the jobs that immigrants do in Great Britain are the ones British people don’t even want (mostly due to low wage and/or social stigma): Cleaning, food processing (e.g. in meat and fish factories), transport drivers, catering. I can understand why British people, especially the working classes, are upset: They want a chance in life, and they certainly deserve one. But immigration is not the main problem – the divide within the British society is: Instead of finally trying to work together, Remainers are sneering at the “stupid” and “racist” Leave voters, while Brexit supporters celebrate that they have “their country back” – a victory which could turn out to be a Pyrrhic one very soon.
Given that the Leave campaign was all about “taking back control”, it is rather frightening that the leaders of said movement do not seem to know what to do with this control. There is no plan, no structure, no long-term ideas; it seems they have no clue how things will work out in the end. The whole country is in a limbo right now, ranging from the Tories and the Labour party disintegrating before our very eyes, to racist abuses reported all over England, to EU citizens in the UK not knowing whether they will still be allowed to work (or even stay) in a couple of months’ time.
Regardless of what will happen with the Britain/EU relationship in the coming months, the British political class needs to reassure the British public very quickly that it takes their problems and needs seriously. It needs to offer political, social, and especially economic solutions that not only benefit a few, but people all over the British Isles. It must make sure that people do not deflect their rage over the government on scapegoats which can easily become physical targets: The lady in a hijab on the bus, the Pakistani shopkeeper around the corner, the Polish worker who lives next door. But most of all, British politicians will finally need to listen to their people; it is the only way to understand why a majority of British people has decided to reject the status quo and instead preferred an uncertain future, promised by some demagogues who are serving their own selfish agenda.
The majority of the 52% cast their votes based on irrational fears, mainly about a globalised world; the future of Britain’s society will be decided on whether it can actually convert this fear into informed compassion – towards their own people and immigrants alike.