When it comes to the possibility for the U.K. to exit the European Union, the Financial Times is practical. On the 18th of April, the newspaper announces how “full EU market access after leaving is a fantasy” (Osborne); “Brexit to cost households £4,300 a year” (Treasury report) and “Brexit not going to happen” (Jeffrey Gundlach). Alternatively, The Guardian published a letter by a group of politicians, artists and executive directors supporting the exit as a form of insurance to protect Britain against “the regressive and undemocratic nature” (17 February 2016) of the EU. The judgement is corroborated by EU commitment to privatization, low wages, the cut of trade union rights and welfare. And this is why the dominant political forces in Britain are in favour of staying in the EU state both Joginder Bains (National General Secretary of the Indian Workers Association GB) and John Hilary (Executive Director of War on Want), as also Alex Gordon (Former President of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Worker) among others. But, is this all about the money?
To get closer to the real core of the problem one has to listen to Michael Gove’s campaign. He released a list of murders and rapes committed by EU citizens to support his claim that by disassociating Britain from the EU, the country will be cured of crime, austerity, save the National Health Service and also the steel business (The Guardian 16 April). It seems as if this vote is more about ‘otherness’ than money; mostly about a clear division of what means ‘us,’ which is predicated on what we consider ‘other’ than us. It looks like the set up for a play in which nobody wishes to reach the second act: there where the conflict between poor people happens. One example of such war between poor people had already taken place, mostly behind closed doors, when relationships between Greece and Slovenia suffered due to the EU bailout of Germany and France’s banks in 2010. Countries like Slovenia, Portugal and others had to contribute in money that the Greek population did not see, as it went directly to cover losses from the books of banks speculating on Greece. Scary as it might sound, war between poor people could happen even in the UK. The current British government is more than aware that poverty is an issue, as the economic situation is not rosy, but no talking about it looks like the answer so far. What could then be the solution? To make sure that ‘we’ are not included in the pool of inexorably poor people, those in the making in Europe, or those entering the Eurozone from countries devastated by oppressive governments, war or endemic poverty – often maintained by diverse forms of Western colonization.
However, the debate on the Brexit needs to be interpreted on a different level of understanding that goes beyond its topicality. The point is that Eurogroup is a body that does not answer to any parliament. In principle, the large unquestioned and democracy-free zone in which the Eurogroup moves assures that economic decisions are taken following the idea of a Europe’s single market, which is independent from politics. In reality this is nothing but a monopoly, as countries yield to its pressure and witness a loss of sovereignty for the European States that is unprecedented since the 1930s. Accordingly, the Eurogroup established the production of great wealth but also rampant poverty, which brought in social instability and extreme polarization of political opinions. The refugee’s crisis is only the last drop, maybe the one that revealed the weakness of the present system to respond to the problems the very social contract it represents should be able to. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Europe is settling into an anti-democratic philosophy, as primarily demonstrated by the current political shift towards the far-right of Austria (FPO), Denmark (DF), Finland (PS), France (FN) and Hungary (Jobbik).
Contrary to what it might be the first response, the actions that need to be taken are ethical in nature. Thus, can Europe draw from its tradition of democratic values or this situation is the prelude of an age of irrationalism and violence? Will what is recognized as classic democracy be demolished, forgotten, or fail in taking notice of the critical social situation in Europe? Is there space for a European coalition able to fight the rise of anti-democratic ideas? Or have the ultra-right movements already won, as the disintegration of the European Union is a given? We should recognise that ethics requires us to face these questions. If the European Union diverges from what it initially stood for, people need to unite and change it. What lies before us, announced by diverse signs of social anguish and political vulgarity, should prompt us to act, as we might be called to give an account of what we have done to change the rules of the game before Europe plunges into unrestrained violence. As it seems, for Britain it might come down to micro-politics, as voters need to be aware of the importance of their vote in this moment of crisis.
Then, should not Britain stand united behind the idea of a stable democratic Europe, and push for democratic changes? Is Britain able to do this? Not necessarily. The problem being that people in Britain are not equipped to look at the referendum on these terms. The disassociation with Europe is often predicated under the dialectic of the ‘us’ versus ‘them’, where cultural otherness is the dominant adjective on which the difference between people in the UK and those living on the continent of Europe is perceived. Consequently, while yet additional conflict between low classes is predicated on ‘cultural diversity’ and keeps them busy, the most fortunate attends to their business in the globalised world. Are the poor in Britain any different than the poor in Europe? Is this about a sense of superiority in the face of a future in which ‘keep up appearances’ is the only thing left to a sea of underpaid and under-represented people whose parents used to be middle-class?
As a European living in Britain, I can only witness the confusion and ask: can you see what is the game here?
Romana Turina teaches at the Department of Theatre, Fim and Television of the University of York, UK. A researcher, she explores the representation of silenced history, politics and cultural memory in the media.