An Expat’s View of Brexit

What went wrong?

7 JULY 2016,
David Cameron
David Cameron

One of the drawbacks of democracy is that ill-informed and irrational people have the same right to vote as thoughtful folks who are in the habit of weighing pros and cons, and remembering things that happened earlier than a year or two ago. But since, to paraphrase Winston Churchill, there doesn’t seem to be a better system around, we have to make do with it— and, in the case of Brexit, to look for the best ways to reduce the damage done.

I’m a British national who has lived in Italy for just over half a century. I have never sought Italian citizenship because I feel, or want to feel, more European than Italian or English. This has cost me my vote, since I can’t vote in referendums or parliamentary elections, whether in the (soon to be ex-?) United Kingdom or in Italy. I can and do vote in local elections and for the European parliament. In neither case have I ever been given a sense that the person I voted for felt in any way responsible to me: no further consultations, no weekly “surgery” where I could voice my complaints or desires. Just silence till the next round of election pamphlets. Many of those elected seem to forget that they have an ongoing obligation to their electors, perhaps a little more often in Italy than in the UK—I say this most reluctantly about my much-loved adoptive country.

Like many people, I feel this is a radical betrayal on the part of our representatives at any level. It is one of the things that has most effectively undermined the trust of electors in their representatives, opening the doors to crude and belligerent populisms and nationalisms all over Europe, not to mention America and other parts of the world. We are told “our representatives have failed to represent us, so let’s throw them out and replace them with people who do represent us”. Who cares if these people happen to embody our worst selves—our egoisms, our (often articifially-induced) fears, our greed, our vanity, our xenophobia. Simply voting against becomes a value, since voting for has been so disappointing. This I think is part of the logic behind Italian political disenchantment (hence the rise of the Northern League and the Five Star Movement) as well as the UK Brexit vote, despite the tradition in Britain of MPs actually going regularly to their constituency “surgeries” and conversing with their electors, as the recent murder of Jo Cox by an English right-wing extremist bitterly reminds us.

But one thing in particular seems to me to have fundamentally damaged the European dream, or vision as it once was: the constant, implicit identification of Europe, by national MPs and politicians, as OTHER, as somewhere ELSE—Brussels, Strasbourg—as if we had no part in the appointment of the people who work in these supposedly remote cities. How many times a day in the UK, and all over Europe, do we hear the catch-phrase “the EU’s unelected parliament/commission/council” as if invaders from Mars had put them there, rather than various kinds of electoral procedures all of which are ultimately in the hands of us citizens, though no doubt a little too indirectly for our convenience. It has suited stressed governments and rowdy oppositions alike to be able to blame someone “up there” or “out there” for our problems without being held accountable for what they say. Indeed, they earn a degree of credibility by attacking others for disasters that much of the time are locally engineered. Once the EU becomes “them” rather than “us” the damage is practically irreversible. There is someone else to blame other than ourselves, we have found a perfect scapegoat about whom we can tell lies and still feel politically correct; we don’t need to gang up on the Jews any more.

I spent a little time on facebook with my English niece before the vote and learnt that most of her friends, probably Labour supporters, were voting OUT. The endless spiky TV campaigning by both sides based on complicated figures and uncertain predictions (scare-mongering vs. blithe hoping-for-the-best) had led to exasperation, verging in some people on hysteria. You don’t vote for the status quo (Remain) out of exasperation: you either defile your ballot paper or vote against it (Leave). Of course millions of UK citizens voted OUT for what they considered substantive reasons, but I would like to suggest that in thousands of cases, probably more than enough to tip the balance, it was as a result of this perverse logic. Can we blame these erratic voters for such political blindness—given the opacity of Brussels/Strasbourg (do we really need two?) and its/their failure to impress on us the ideal and rational reasons for a united Europe? Well, yes, to a certain extent I think we can, since nowadays everyone has access to a hitherto unimaginable, if not always reliable, treasure-house of information at the click of a mouse or the tap of a smartphone. Ignorance isn’t quite the alibi it used to be. Nevertheless, the voice of Europe has rarely been heard as friendly. It imposes economic sanctions, forces often unpopular laws on member populations, prevents local communities from deciding how many “foreigners” they want to accommodate or how much fish they catch, etc. The inhabitants of richer nations (Germany, France, the UK) who hand over a modest chunk of their incomes to the EU tend to begrudge the aid that pulls poorer nations like the Irish Republic out of poverty and into prosperity, and to feel that impoverished populations like the Greeks should pay heavily for the financial disasters caused by their corrupt politicians. Conversely, few people are aware of benefitting from the funding that the EU provides for innumerable social, environmental, scientific and cultural projects, partly because the funds are sometimes siphoned off by accomplished crooks posing as administrators.

Equally worrying, there was rarely a mention in the Remain campaign of why the EU, originally the European Common Market, first came into being, namely to put an end to centuries of bloody wars among wrangling nations by stitching them together economically as a first step to creating a sense of an embracing European identity based on fundamental human values and rights. Why weren’t the Remain campaigners out there reminding citizens daily of the priceless achievement of 70 utterly-exceptional years of peace in Europe (Balkans apart… another tragic story for which we must take our share of blame)? And why weren’t they warning voters that Brexit would inevitably be seized on as a “respectable” precedent for abandoning (and ultimately dismantling) the EU by cynical populist politicians busy exploiting the refugee crisis to stir up xenophobic nationalism? As it turns out, both leavers and remainers have provided an alibi for the worst of national egoisms precisely by making egoism the cornerstone of their arguments. It is hardly surprising, perhaps, that the OUT campaigners should want to argue that Brexit will make the British more prosperous and independent (read: free to repel unwanted immigrants). But the IN campaigners played on complementary egoisms, namely that it is in the economic self-interest of the UK to stay inside the EU, where sooner or later it might also negotiate a way of curbing immigration. The history of two immensely tragic world wars which lay behind the dream of European unity was almost totally obscured. As if the death of tens of millions of Europeans and other peoples formerly colonized by Britain and Europe has taught us nothing.

Brexit, then, is shocking to someone like me, born shortly before World War II, young enough to escape conscription, but old enough to see what it cost in terms of lives and misery: no-one in my age-group was without a friend, a relative, or an acquaintance who failed to survive the catastrophe. All we can do now is try to pick up the pieces, take this as a challenge rather than a fatal blow to the European project. Europe must convince my island that it can’t unmoor itself in any real way from the continental shelf. It must ensure that Britain places its democratic tradition, imperfect though it may be, at the service of the continent. And last, but not least, it should remind the UK that its colonial past (more perhaps than that of France, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Germany) has created (how can I put it mildly?) a deficit in the balance of moral payments compared with which a few hundred-thousand economic immigrants and post-colonial-war refugees are barely a drop in the ocean. If these desperate displaced persons (together with marginally less desperate eastern Europeans) are the main lever with which the Leave campaign has persuaded a majority of my ex-countrymen to pull out of Europe, then I confess, at no small cost to my insular pride, that I am ashamed today to be English.

Sadly but predictably, since I wrote the above, in the UK there has been an upsurge of xenophobic and racist slander against recent immigrants (especially Polish) and persons of immigrant descent. The Brexit campaign’s demonization of immigration, unwittingly by some, wittingly by others, has ended up by giving thugs a license to hate—publicly.