via Macropolis | “So, you are here?” said the check-in attendant at Berlin’s Tegel Airport. The man, who appeared to have a Somali background, had a charming smile. His comment was in reference to my British passport and the fact the UK was holding its Leave/Remain referendum on the same day. “For now,” I replied. We laughed.
Regardless of what the opinion polls or bookmakers said, there were many signs pointing to Brexit after David Cameron took his fateful decision to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union. I was consistently struck, for instance, by how those campaigning for Leave received a much more rapturous response from TV audiences during political debates over the last few months.
It is not a scientific method but it emphasised that the Leave camp was much more successful in appealing to people’s emotions than Remain, which struggled between highlighting the potential damaging effects of Brexit (Project Fear, as critics labelled it) and making a somewhat half-hearted attempt to accentuate the positives of EU membership. How could Boris Johnson’s bluster about independence be rivalled by the mousiness of Jeremy Corbyn, who appeared on a TV comedy show two weeks before the vote in an apparent attempt to engage with the average voter but then only gave a lukewarm endorsement of the EU. Corbyn spent the referendum campaign moping around like a teenager forced to go on holiday with his parents and is now paying the price for it.
The biggest responsibility, though, lies with Cameron who took the reckless decision to enter into this process with wilful ignorance about what consequences it could have. He put his attempt to establish control over his party ahead of the wellbeing of his country and a continent that the UK has contributed so much to over the decades. It was, as Jeremy Cliffe put it in his Bagehot column in The Economist, “easily one of the most ill-conceived and profoundly damaging political events of Britain’s post-war history”.
Cameron will go down as perhaps the most fateful political figure in Britain’s modern history as a result of his blinkered decisions but the true cost of the damage will only be clear when the dust settles and Europe and the UK reassess their relationship.
The campaign in the UK, which veered from the nationalist shoutiness of the right-wing tabloids to Remainers invoking the pro-European spirit of Winston Churchill, has done little to help us understand what it is that we Europeans truly derive from this Union.
The campaign was dominated by negatives. Speaking in Berlin last week, Marcus Roberts, the director of international projects at pollster YouGov, described it as a campaign of “competing fears”. British voters were being asked to decide what they were afraid of most, the economic cost of leaving the EU or the immigration burden that would come with continued membership of the Union, Roberts told the audience at the Europe Calling forum organised by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation.
The inability to raise the discussion above this level is a reflection of two things. Firstly, that dissatisfaction among working-class Europeans has become inextricably linked to the EU. The Union is synonymous with the challenges of immigration, with job difficulties, low pay and declining social standards. It is a scapegoat for the failed or struggling economic systems throughout the continent and their inability to adopt or to offer any kind of security in a globalised world. Research by labour market economists in the UK, for instance, indicated that the anti-EU sentiment tended to be bigger in areas where wage growth had been weakest since 1997. There also seemed to be a close correlation between the number of degrees and passports held by people in areas that backed Leave in last week’s vote.
Politicians who believe in the EU as a vehicle for peace, prosperity and lasting integration have failed to address this problem and have been unable to connect with these voters. This has allowed populists and nationalists to step in, holding the EU up as a convenient target for this festering anger. This pattern has been especially true of Europe’s social democrats. For instance, the Labour Party has seen voters cross to UKIP, while the SPD in Germany has lost support to the AfD.
In the eras of financial crisis and fiscal consolidation, mainstream EU politicians have been unable to find a way to convince workers that they are making decisions in their interest. In Berlin, European Economic and Monetary Affairs Commissioner Pierre Moscovici noted that voters had come to associate the idea of reform with pain. “I want to reconcile reforms with progress,” he said. One might argue that as welcome as this idea is, it appears to have come too late in the game.
The other major failing in the Brexit campaign but also within the EU over a number of years is to provide a positive vision of the Union that is relevant to people’s daily lives but also give a sense of the grandness of what has been achieved. It was noticeable that many of the politicians campaigning for Remain, including Cameron, often started their answers with a variation of “the EU drives me crazy but…” It’s hardly an inspiring endorsement, is it?
There were attempts to do this through the emphasis placed on Europe’s murderous past and the peace that the EU has helped preserve over the last decades, culminating in the Union being awarded the Nobel Prize in 2012. It is indeed a notable, historic achievement. For example, standing on the roof of the Reichstag in Berlin, a building that has witnessed so much bloody turmoil and division, one can read the surname of a Soviet soldier who scratched it into the wall at the end of the Second World War, a living testament to our painful past.
However, one wonders whether this means anything to the teenagers who tour this old building, who have only seen war on TV, usually in faraway places. Also, why should the possibility of war between liberal democracies still be an overriding theme within the EU? It seems such an outdated concept.
If you want to convince people, especially the younger generations, about the beauty of the EU, then surely its most spectacularly positive feature is not that it prevents us fighting but that it breaks down the barriers between us. Not just economic barriers (not everyone shares the British obsession about trade) but political, cultural and ethnic barriers. The principle of freedom of movement has allowed our lives to become intertwined in a way that creates the conditions for better understanding and appreciation for each other’s cultures and history, while not forcing anyone to give up their way of life.
Perhaps the EU’s greatest achievement at an existential level is that it has provided a space in which people’s nationalities and backgrounds are mostly irrelevant. A Greek can live in Manchester, an Italian in Madrid, a Spaniard in Frankfurt and a German in Athens under the same set of rules and rights, but also in most cases with equal levels of acceptance. In this environment, we have been able to learn about each others cultures and history, fostering a better understanding and less antagonism.
As the resurfacing of stereotypes during the debt crisis, which created a north-south divide, highlighted there is still a long way to go. Sharing this common space, though, is the only way to break down these prejudices. The vote for Brexit has already triggered a series of racist attacks in the UK, with extremists clearly feeling they have the political space and the tacit backing of 52 percent of the population in which to behave like this.
Extending the idea of receiving outsiders into the community to those from beyond the contours of the EU means that it is a principle that has become very much ingrained in our societies. The warmth with which many Germans, Greeks and others have received refugees and migrants since last year – regardless of the stance taken by governments – is testament to the humanism and solidarity that exists within the EU.
In Berlin, car horns hooted last Sunday night and then again on Tuesday evening after Euro 2016 games. But Germany had not been playing on either occasion. The honking came from Albanians and Turks celebrating their teams’ victories in the tournament. These simple acts of people feeling at home in a country they may not have been born in were a reminder that the EU can provide great freedoms and an environment in which people can flourish and coexist harmoniously.
It is a crying shame that these elements might only be truly appreciated when they no longer exist in the same form. “We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied,” wrote a Financial Times reader in an online comment on Friday.
Maybe the referendum result and its likely damaging economic and political consequences will make more of us realise that we have something we should cherish and seek to improve by offering more than just scorn. In other words, that what we have might be just “for now”.