Britain’s vote to leave the European Union was a disaster. It was evident to most of us on the day the result was announced. Now, with over four months between us and that fateful referendum, the evidence of this disaster has become both insurmountable and overwhelming. Academics thrown off research projects. Doctors and vets told to go away so they can be replaced with “home-grown” talent. The pound plummeting day after day. Hate-filled crimes against people who dare to talk polish in the street. Food products disappearing off our supermarket shelves. Newspapers screaming for people who voted the other way in the referendum to be silenced. Campaigns to spend stupid amounts of public money on yachts and blue passports and who knows what else. The possibility of the break-up of the United Kingdom and a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Councillors declaring that people who disagree with the referendum result should be locked up. Warnings that the people who will be worse affected when the cord between the UK and EU is finally severed (besides, we imagine, the immigrants and universities and patients and pets and “remoaners”) will be the poor, downtrodden souls who voted to leave in the first place. The growing realisation that leaving the European Union will become our national project, not just for two years but for ten, twenty, thirty years. And person after person after person (politicians and random people on social media alike) saying things like “end free movement”; “we’re following the people’s will”; “stop talking about the problems – you lost”; and “hardest brexit possible” as if we should not merely roll tentatively towards the precipice but take a running jump and leap, head first, shouting about how great we are.
Apologies — we got slightly carried away there. But the EU referendum was a big gamble, and all of us who believe in a better future lost, and lost big. To see that bright future receding into the distance and then to look around and see people either shrugging their shoulders or rubbing their hands in glee seriously rankles.
Whenever we tell people that the EU is a great institution that is helping to build a better future, the main response we get is surprise. For too long, the EU has been the scapegoat for just about every political disposition in the UK. For free market liberals and libertarians, the EU has been a socialist experiment obsessed with putting up red tape here, there and everywhere to stifle businesses at every corner. For socialists, the EU has been a capitalist club, hell bent on shady trade deals and propping up large corporations. For conservatives, the EU has been a danger to national borders that has allowed thousands of people to wander willy-nilly with complete disregard for what natives want.
And even we have concerns. The EU is undeniably bureaucratic, in parts undemocratic and certainly very difficult to engage with as far as the average European is concerned. Whatever you believe, there’s almost certainly something you don’t like about the EU, us included.
But then, the problems that the world faces today are so great that if a multinational, supranational organisation like the EU didn’t exist by now, we would probably create one. After all, when European economies are losing out to others elsewhere in the world, it makes sense to pool resources to allow their companies to grow. When large corporations are hiding their taxes away from the country they are actually doing business in, it makes sense for an organisation with a larger jurisdiction than national governments to chase the lost tax. When refugees are fleeing to Europe in unprecedented numbers, it makes sense for countries to work together to ensure every refugee has a safe place to stay. When the world seems more threatening than it has in a long time, it makes sense for countries to share information about potential terrorists, or to talk with other powers with one diplomatic voice. When the world could be radically altered forever by climate change, it makes sense to have a multinational organisation that sets targets and makes sure they are met. The demands these problems pose require a response above the national level. And that’s why, in Europe, we have the EU.
And, despite all of the issues we all have with the EU (and the many more invented by certain newspapers) the EU is actually a pretty good supranational organisation. In an age of austerity and cuts, it has been the EU that has ensured employees still have rights and aren’t at the whims of some dictatorial employer. When every device we use could be watching us, it has been the EU that has ensured our private information remains secret and secure. When national governments have been happy to offer any sweetheart tax deal to global corporations, it has been the EU that has stepped in to ensure the correct amount of tax is paid. When protectionists are popping up all over the world, it is the EU that has ensured the borders of Europe’s countries have remained open to trade. On areas such as refugees and terrorism, the EU has fallen short of its ideals. But from Hungary’s government’s resistance to taking refugees, to EU nations’ reluctance to share sensitive information with each other, it could be that the answer to Europe’s problems is more EU cooperation, not less. And the EU has been lax about integration of immigrants and youth unemployment, but that could also be said of almost every national government in Europe.
And that only scratches the surface of what the EU could provide for its citizens. Much more is possible. For example, a true freedom of movement policy, where every person feels they are able and comfortable to migrate to any other country in the Union. A functioning EU border force, that would ensure refugees come in while making EU member states feel confident to embrace the Schengen open border system. And a European citizen’s income: a regular payment that all Europeans — no matter their age, nationality, gender, marital status, occupation status or anything else — are entitled to.
Instead of taking part in this potentially exciting future, Britain has dived headfirst into the past. Anybody who thinks Brexit isn’t a backwards step is kidding themselves. Brexit will make Britain poorer economically, socially, culturally, environmentally and politically. With so many problems facing humanity right now, it is heartbreaking to know that, rather than taking part in the European effort to find solutions, we have decided to contribute merely another disaster.
Jon commentates on the ways culture and politics interact.