United in Diversity No Longer

Posted on 6. July 2016

by Lotta Schneidemesser

lotta-schneidemesser-modifiedWhen I turned on the radio on the morning of Friday 24 June, it took a few minutes for me to realise that I was listening to David Cameron’s resignation speech – and then another minute or so for the message to sink in: The United Kingdom had voted to leave the European Union (EU). As I am writing this, my feelings are mixed – there is anger, disbelief and sadness. I am upset, worried and disheartened in a way that I have never felt after any election so far in my life; above all there is an overwhelming sense of disappointment.

Not only does the result leave a bitter taste in the mouth, I am also disappointed with the manner in which the whole debate preceding the referendum seemed to centre entirely on the argument about economic “facts”, criticism of the EU as a “bureaucratic and elitist construction” and how discourse was fuelled on xenophobic stereotypes.

What about the ideals on which the EU was founded?

What about the fact that a continent which was for centuries riddled with conflict, is now experiencing its longest period of peace? Peace was one of the founding objectives of the EU, why wasn’t this given more prominence?

What about the pledge that we, as a community of countries, are “united in diversity” and should stand in solidarity with each other?

What about all the tangible things the EU has done for us?

Why weren’t all these questions at the heart of the debate in the run up to the referendum?

I am disappointed because I belong to a generation who grew up in a Europe where we saw border controls disappear and the majority of member states become united under a single currency. In the news we witnessed the jubilant celebrations of countries like Croatia when they were admitted as a member of the EU. Through the participation in international summer schools and youth projects, I grew up with a sense of a Europe that was very much “united in diversity”, I had a feeling that the things that united me and my fellow young Europeans outnumbered the differences and that we were part of a community:  a Union that welcomed diversity and gave us many opportunities and in which we could find a future. On that post referendum-Friday morning, this feeling of being part of a larger community, of being “united in diversity”, of being welcomed in a culture and country that is not my own has been utterly dissipated.

As statistics show, it was not my generation that voted to leave. In the age group of 18-24 year olds, 75 % voted to remain. Even in the next age group, 25 – 49 year olds, the majority still voted remain with 56 %.  Our generation will be burdened with the consequences of a decision that we did not even make, and as of yet, there is no way of predicting what Friday’s referendum result will actually lead to. Will other countries now want to hold their own referenda? Will this outcome give rise to far-right political parties? Will it split our society and cause it to fragment even more? These are the questions we should be worried about at the moment.

Sinn Fein is already calling for a referendum to unite Ireland; Scotland voted to remain by a large majority, so chances of a second referendum on Scotland leaving the UK are highly likely as Nicola Sturgeon confirms; and Spain is demanding re-negotiations over Gibraltar, who voted to remain with 96%. Only time will tell the full impact of all the implications – but I am worried that the decision of the British electorate will increase the support for populist right-wing movements all across Europe.

One of the sad things about this referendum and the debate leading up to it is the fact that it divided British society, and led to an increased “us” vs. “them” rhetoric – however you define the two groups; “remain” vs. “leave”;  young vs. old; Labour vs. Tory; British vs. Immigrants. I am afraid that this will lead to an increasingly hostile tone in conversations and political discussions, and that it has created a division that will be very difficult to overcome. There seems to be a prevailing attitude with politicians and people from other EU member states, who feel upset by the referendum result and interpret it as a rejection of European ideals, that the people of the United Kingdom had their chance and that “out is out”. I am not sure I completely share this opinion.

A statistic published by the Financial Times shortly after the referendum illustrates that the “leave” vote was strongest in areas most economically dependent on the EU. Of course there are many different reasons why people might have voted “leave”, but this paradox suggests to me that a number of the people who voted in favour of leave were convinced to vote against their own interests by a government and a campaign that was based on misinformation – and not necessarily because they wholeheartedly reject the ideals of the EU.

Voices for a second referendum are becoming increasingly louder, and an online petition calling for this gathered almost three million signatures within less than 48 hours after the announcement of the election results. Whether a second referendum is actually possible or not will have to be discussed by parliament. Personally I am not sure it is viable; the politicians who campaigned for “leave”, and also the majority of the people who voted  “leave” would most certainly contest the result of a second referendum, should the result be in favour of “remain” this time. What it does show is that many people are not happy with the outcome of the referendum, and – as a good friend of mine pointed out – if it becomes a sign of broad concern and discontent and plays a role in the parliamentary debates that follow, then it will have served a strong purpose. Let us not forget that 48% voted to remain. That means the country is very much divided in two, and the outcome of the referendum is anything but clear. In May, Nigel Farage said in an interview in The Mirror, that “a 52-48 referendum would be unfinished business by a long way”. This is the percentage we are seeing now, and his statement underlines my point that he would continue to fight because such a small margin would not mean a clear result. However, Mr Farage meant it in the reverse: 52% remain and 48% leave, but since his side won he of course would not contest the result.

I definitely agree that there are things about the EU that urgently need improvement and reform. But for now, the EU is the best we have, we shouldn’t break up this unique project, and I think that leaving it is not an option. Let us remember the core values of the EU and our pledge that we are united in diversity, and let us try to communicate what the EU has done for all of us. The EU has done a lot, even though people are not necessarily aware of it in their everyday lives. This is the main criticism of the “Remain campaign” – I would have liked to see a much stronger focus on all the positive things the EU has done for the United Kingdom and British citizens, and how it improves our everyday lives.

The outcome of this referendum will trigger many things, it might change Europe in ways that no one can yet anticipate, and the impact of this referendum on our lives and the future of this country, and the EU as a whole are anything but clear. No one knows what will happen in the weeks and months to come. But one thing is for sure: standing by and watching other people – who do not have my generation’s best interests at heart – make decisions that will have an incredible influence on my life and my generation is simply not an option for me anymore.

The question remains of what we can do now, and in a time of uncertainty this question needs to be addressed urgently. One course of action is to write a letter to your local MP, and urge them to consider what is stake here – as my partner Alexander Hardie-Forsyth has done. This is his letter. If you live in the UK, and want the UK to remain part of Europe, please consider doing the same – or if you have other ideas of how we can take political action, please post them in the comment section of this blog post. Let us not passively stand by – but take action. Half of the country did not vote for this – and it is not yet too late.

Dear Mr. ____ MP,

Subject: Referendum Fallout

I have never felt the need to write to my member of parliament before; however it strikes me that the current times now demand our active political engagement. We now face drastic action and a dire future: a trajectory of isolation from Europe based on a lie. We must not equivocate about this. The Leave campaign was a campaign not of half-truths, but of untruths. The £350 million per week investment in the NHS promised by the Leave campaign now lies thoroughly debunked by its former proponents. Iain Duncan Smith now describes the Leave campaign’s key pledges as merely ‘a series of possibilities’, whilst Faisal Islam and others report that the Leave campaign have, in fact, ‘no plan’ for a post-Brexit Britain.

‘No plan’ is no foundation on which to base intricate financial and foreign policy. The Daily Mail’s Sarah Vine recently appealed to the nation’s ‘expertise’ to help us in our time of need, a bitterly ironic clarion call given her husband’s assertion that Britain is a country that has ‘had enough of experts’.

The Remain campaign understandably failed to inspire voters, based as it was on the ‘value of the pound in your pocket’ on June 24 and on the irrelevant opinion of penny-saving gurus such as Martin Lewis. We were not asked to vote for a vision and ideal of peace and prosperity, but for our next account balance. Now we can clearly see all that we stand to lose. Roger Cohen, writer for the New York Times, outlines his passionate defence of the EU thus:

‘No miracle was ever so dull. Britain tended to see the E.U. in prosaic terms: It had not been delivered from ignominy or tyranny by European integration […] The union, for all its failings, did not deserve to be betrayed by a huckster.’

That is what we now face: an existential threat to Europe’s greatest peace project, our European community, and a prosperous and inclusive future. It is a threat to a modern miracle – as a history graduate, I am all too aware that the last seventy years of co-operation on this continent is an extraordinary aberration – based on the whims of charlatans. As I watched Nigel Farage, buoyed by his success, burn bridges and trade insults in today’s meeting of the European parliament, my heart truly sank for how far we have fallen. These are diplomatic relationships that jobs and livelihoods rely on, but they also keep our country progressive, outward-looking, and, yes, “Great”!

Aside from our larger aspirations, there are myriad smaller ways in which the past three days have deeply affected many like me and those we hold dearest:

  • Friends I have known who resettled in this country from Iraqi Kurdistan and elsewhere are now being subjected to jingoistic, even racial, abuse for their political beliefs – or even just for living here! The referendum result has been held up as a beacon for far-right and racist organisations, and I am now fearful for the safety of my friends from outside of the UK. Many of my friends and loved ones settled here in a spirit of generosity because they loved what Britain used to represent before this referendum campaign.
  • Should I wish to attend international conferences and fora, as my ambition and work-ethic as an aspiring academic demands, the currency that I would exchange abroad is now already worth much less than it was on June 23.
  • Our visa-less and work permit-free future in trade with the EU is now in serious jeopardy.
  • The educational institutions in York, Oxford, and London that I have been part of and whose values I embrace are now at risk. A decline in their intake of EU students promises less income, decreased rankings, a lower standard of research, and, most worryingly, a less open and vibrant community. One hundred and three UK vice-chancellors authored an open letter prior to the referendum to this effect.

I ask you to consider doing all that you can in the House of Commons to prevent Britain from leaving the EU. My generation has not asked for this threat to our national future, but it is we who will suffer if it plays out.

I also write because I believe that our parliamentary democracy can still aspire to much good and, despite the turmoil threatening to engulf both major parties and the recent terrible murder of Jo Cox MP (someone whose beliefs and actions represented the very best in our political life), I believe strongly in the role that our MPs play as part of a balanced, informed, representative democracy. That democracy, however, has been eroded – not strengthened – by Leave’s referendum victory, based as it was on a core plank of mistruth and, whether intended or not, an appeal to the lowest common denominators of bigotry and racism in our otherwise still fair and decent society.

Many thanks for your time.

Yours sincerely,