I am writing this open letter as someone who has spent a good part of their higher education and formative years in Britain (England and Wales), who grew up reading and studying English literature and contemporary history, and delved into the debates of the Scottish Enlightenment and their echoes that run to our days. I am also a citizen of an Eastern European country who benefited and continues to benefit greatly from EU accession, and a resident of Geneva, in Switzerland, who sometimes likes to play the “Miss Goody Two Shoes” part with respect to the EU. All this to say I am not an “objective” observer (I doubt anyone is) of what has been going on around in the Brexit debate. I am writing this blog post, however, because, as many other people, I was very touched by the murder of MP Jo Cox. Reading about it has made me think of what Anne Dufourmantelle had to say in her book about women and sacrifice, specifically regarding sacrifice: “(sacrifice) is not only synonymous of oppression, it is also the sign of a revolt, and an opening towards the new, which provokes a breach in the unfolding of fatality”.
As many commentators in Britain have pointed out, Cox’s murder intervened in a poisonous atmosphere of incitement to hatred and rejection of foreigners (embodied chiefly in the image of the refugee, but not only) underpinned by a discourse focusing on decline and doom and a negative relation to the EU. This context gives the horrific act its aura of sacrifice, as a decent, outspoken, committed and open individual was pitted against a darkness that is nigh to impossible to understand. However, as Cox’s closest family members and entourage have emphasized, this is something to be used towards change, towards breaking the chain of verbal violence and fatalistic thinking about what can and cannot be done for our societies to become more open, more inclusive and truly respectful of diversity.
With this in mind, here are a couple of things I have to say on the eve of the historic referendum of June 23:
If a majority of your citizens chooses to remain in Europe…
Congratulations on making the sane choice of not blaming something else for the ills and hardships currently assailing Britain and many other countries in Europe and throughout the world!
Yet, although the bigger part of the British public has chosen to exercise the famous “British commonsense” and stay in the EU, it is more than necessary to examine and take issue with the fact that things could actually reach a point of murderous madness in a debate which should have been political, about the polis, about how best people can govern themselves given the current challenges they face. Moreover, the relationship with the rest of the EU has suffered a serious blow, which will take years to fully mend.
Aside from a deep division within the country (which is symptomatic throughout Europe these days), this very tight result shows how easy it can be, in a so-called advanced and civilised state, to sway people who feel disempowered by ruling elites, towards ideas that, as individuals, they might find unfounded, but, as a group reciting pre-cooked slogans, they find true and motivating.
Don’t give a sigh of relief yet: the work has just begun. It is up to the British public (as is up to each other nation in Europe) to become active in telling the EU establishment that things cannot go on like this – deep institutional, political and reform is needed if the European project and ideals that we all aspire to are to ever become a reality. However, this requires an engagement with what the British are willing to contribute intellectually and morally first to a European project, and refraining from stubbornly making the EU simply the sum of its parts.
If a majority of your citizens chooses Brexit…
Frankly, my mind oscillates between a very subjective and quite angry “good riddance” and “condolences”.
Whichever it is, I truly believe this is a self-destructive and short-sighted choice. Not because the EU is the answer to all Britain’s problems – George Monbiot’s article last week explains quite well why remaining in the EU is the least bad of options (much along Churchill’s logic of “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others”) – but because “Brexit” is the name of the dismantling of all that is left good of “Great Britain” – its pragmatic spirit, aspiration to social justice, innovation coming from all spheres and classes of society, openness towards intelligent debate, and, of course, the NHS (this is only half ironic, given the clear and present danger that current leaders have exposed the service to via their austerity policies and cuts).
Far from representing a recovery of sovereignty, Brexit opens the door to internal rule by corporations, via treaties, such as TTIP and CETA and the further spread of City of London work and social ethics (or lack thereof). (Few know or keep present in their minds the exceptional status of the City of London, which has very real consequences and influences on Great Britain’s service-based and dis-industrialised economy). People would exchange Brussels regulations and anti-trust policies for the arbitration of Investor State Dispute Settlement mechanisms characteristic of these treaties, populated by corporate lawyers and staffed by lobby groups with direct access to law projects before Parliaments even have! In what world does the disenfranchised working class of Great Britain think these characters would care even one bit about their fate? At least, the EU grants a very real and, as of now tested, possibility of opting out and potential reform. Do you think these other arrangements really do?
Yet, the game of which of these entities is worse is endless and for each argument a counterargument will be found. This brings me to an even sadder point in the whole process: it seems to me that with the Brexit position what emerges victorious is a certain – very British indeed – elitist culture of debate and argument, in which what matters is not the value or the correctness of the argument, but the wit and eloquence which dresses it up. It is the uglier side of pragmatism, the one that requires victory over the other at all costs and consequences. It may work in the context of Oxford and Cambridge debate societies, but, as we have seen of late, in this case, people’s lives are literally at stake.
In short, Brexit, if anything, is a negative and nihilist choice, giving in to the deterministic idea that the way to freedom is by rejecting others; far from a recovery of sovereignty, it represents the uncritical adoption of bankrupt ideas such as nationalism and libertarianism, the consequences of which will be paid in full by the coming generations.
By way of conclusion…
I can only revert to John Stewart Mill, whom the British consider and admire (for how long still?) as a precursor of many ideas that have taken hold in Europe and beyond. The irony in relation to the current situation is telling…
In this and most other civilized countries, for example, an engagement by which a person should sell himself, or allow himself to be sold, as a slave, would be null and void; neither enforced by law nor by opinion. The ground for thus limiting his power of voluntarily disposing of his own lot in life, is apparent, and is very clearly seen in this extreme case. The reason for not interfering, unless for the sake of others, with a person’s voluntary acts, is consideration for his liberty. His voluntary choice is evidence that what he so chooses is desirable, or at the least endurable, to him, and his good is on the whole best provided for by allowing him to take his own means of pursuing it. But by selling himself for a slave, he abdicates his liberty; he foregoes any future use of it beyond that single act. He therefore defeats, in his own case, the very purpose which is the justification of allowing him to dispose of himself. He is no longer free; but is thenceforth in a position which has no longer the presumption in its favour, that would be afforded by his voluntarily remaining in it. The principle of freedom cannot require that he should be free not to be free. It is not freedom, to be allowed to alienate his freedom. (On Liberty, chapter 5, para. 11)