Well folks, this could be it. Our last couple of days as Europeans might be approaching. Personally I’m overcome with melancholy and despair. How are you feeling?
I thought that I should write something about Brexit. I’m not going to spend my time talking about the potentially disastrous effects for higher education, schools, the labour market or careers. Others have done that already. This is a more personal reflection, so forgive me.
Readers of this blog outside of the UK might find this post difficult to follow. Feel free to tune out. It doesn’t concern you. Except of course it does. That is the irony. My country’s attempt to withdraw from the world is likely to result in some major political and social changes for all of us. If Britain isn’t in Europe where is it? What is it doing? How does it change the global balance of power?
If you’ve been sleeping you might have missed out on all of the trailers for Brexit. Brexit is a horrible contraction of Britain’s Exit (from Europe). Our country is currently considering whether we want to leave the European structures that have been central to our politics, economy and culture since the 1970s. The hope is that a better world will suddenly appear if we walk away from the European Union.
The enthusiasts for Brexit make a number of reasonable but unsexy points. Cutting the links with Brussels will offer the UK government more control over political and economic policy. The problem is that this generally boils down to concern about a number of humorous bits of misinformation about the EU banning insufficiently bendy bananas or determining that British chocolate isn’t real chocolate (because it isn’t) and so on. In other words, political and economic autonomy might well be desirable but they only really have any persuasive power if you can point to anything meaningful that the British government has wanted to do that the European Union have stopped.
In fact the politics of Brexit have little to do with gaining access to the policy levers. Rather Brexit seem to be firstly a revolt against immigration (which it will not necessarily have any impact on) and secondly a cry of defiance in the face of modernity. The classic, if possibly apocryphal, headline of the 1950s ‘Fog in the channel – Continent cut off’ still rings depressingly true.
The utopia that Brexiteers dream of is a sort of combination of Last of the Summer Wine and The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club. It is at once a more gentle slower paced version of Britain, but also one in which patriarchal white privilege is allowed to roam free and where ‘political correctness hasn’t gone mad’.
I’m not immune to criticisms of the democracy of the European Union. I think that there is a need to further democratise its institutions. However, the same is also true of the institutions of the UK. Remember we are the country that maintains a monarchy and House of Lords at the heart of our democracy and which has sanctioned a bewildering range of different electoral systems for the different layers of our government. We are also a country that segregates schooling by class and maintains a high level of income inequality. If we are worried about democracy, fairness and equality of opportunity there is rather a lot that we have to do to set our house in order.
I’ve always had a hope that the social Europe that Jacque Delors used to speak about would eventually emerge. In such a vision Europe is defined by international co-operation and its ability to manage and regulate capitalism in the interests of its citizens. The size of the European market and the political power of Europe could open up the possibility for us to demand different ways of doing things. The EU is not just a trade deal working in the interests of big business like NAFTA, it is a political, social, economic and cultural structure which preserves power for the citizen. This opens up radical democratic possibilities for the organisation of our society. Being part of the EU allows us to dream bigger about the kind of society we want to live in and the kind of influence we want to have on the world.
One thing that has been interesting about Brexit has been the way in which the press have sought to whip up excitement over the vote. There has been a lot of flag waving, xenophobia and revelling in the political theatre. There has not been a lot of sober consideration, investigation of the facts or listening to any kind of expertise. Unusually Brexit is one issue that economists seem pretty much united on. Bexit is bad for business, it is bad for individuals, it is bad for our careers and so on.
Despite all of the political arguments and the economic evidence I suppose that my biggest reaction is a visceral, emotional one. I’ve travelled and worked in a lot of countries. Where I feel most at home is in Europe. I find it easier to get on in the English speaking new world because everyone speaks my language, but those guys are different from me. When I’m in Europe I feel that I am part of a shared culture.
My involvement in various European networks (ELGPN, NICE and Euroguidance) has taught me so much that the idea that all of this is going to be taken away is horrifying. Of course European projects also show off the bad side of the EU. I have experienced, on occasion, the ponderous decision making, bureaucracy and wasted funding that the Brexiteers celebrate. But, the lived experience of a common European culture, the fact that I have friends and colleagues in numerous European countries and the fact that we manage to work together despite our differences and despite the problems of imperfect processes is often humbling and inspiring.
What is more it is also a fantastic way to learn. The idea that policy and practice can be transferred around countries is sometimes misused. Just because something worked in Spain doesn’t mean it will work in Belgium. But, just because we can’t copy and paste doesn’t mean we can’t learn from others’ successes and failures. Europe is at its best when it is a club for sharing and co-operating rather than an incipient super-state.
In Britain we’ve never been as good at learning from others as other countries. Perhaps this is why we’ve found European Union so difficult. We all thought that once we went into Europe everyone else would start speaking English, drinking tea and eating fish and chips. But, they just carried on being French, German, Dutch and so on. It seems that rather than feeling we have something to learn we’ve decided now that it is time to retreat back. Throw your baguettes and brie back into the channel, we’re retrenching into little England.
I hope that this isn’t the future. I hope that Britain rejects Brexit. I also hope that if we stay part of Europe we will start to participate in the European Union more creatively. Yes there are things to change, but let’s not make our participation all about the negatives. There is lots to be gained from participating in Europe. We’ve never thrown our hearts and souls into being European. If we manage to fight off Brexit, I hope that we can view this as an opportunity to re-engage.