Europe is not a policy but an idea and as such it is rooted in tragic experiences of the past century that should be always kept in mind. Michał P. Garapich argues that the upcoming vote should not be decided on fear but on hope that we have learned something from the past. He also suggests that, from the perspective of studies on the Eastern and Central European migration experience to the UK in the last decade, a Brexit may actually lead to increases in migration numbers.
As a non-British EU citizen living in the UK, I am happy to call this island home. However, as polls point to the possibility of the majority of the British electorate voting to leave the European Union, I feel increasingly uneasy about the turn of British politics and public discourse in the recent months. It is as I am somehow less welcomed, less accepted by half of British population. Although to call this atmosphere akin to Germany in the 30s is an exaggeration or actually an insult to the victims of the Nazis, I feel that Britain is moving backwards. And one of its most prized social achievements of last decades – a creation of an open, liberal, diverse and (relatively) meritocratic society is at risk from nationalistic protectionism and the narrow perception of an isolated island immune from global influences.
It is hard to underestimate the weight of the decision the British will make on the 23rd. They will decide not only about the UK future and its possible breakup, but may deliver a shock to the EU, which this institution may not survive. The British electorate is thus deciding on the future of a half billion people and the generations to come.
In this context, to mention immigration is rather trivial. And to argue that Brexit will bring control over British borders is inaccurate and plain demagogic as Dhananjayan Sriskandarajah recently argued in The Guardian. My research among Polish and other Eastern and Central European migrants before and after the EU enlargements in 2004 and 2007, points to the fact that migrants usually find ways to navigate and out manoeuvre systems of borders, restrictions and mobility regimes. This is not an isolated island any more. Hundreds of thousands of EU migrants will probably rush for British passports to secure their freedoms and since restrictions will make circular migration less practical, Brexit may actually lead to increases in migration numbers. Eventually, markets will decide and British employers and business will not endure without the foreign labour force. Most likely, the post-Brexit arrangements will involve retaining some form of the freedom of movement. There is no way around this and no propaganda around the point-system will change it. In order to keep the growth, Britain will have to keep the borders – as it is now – relatively open.
This means that the only real impact of Brexit will be to weaken Europe and strengthen its enemies: It is clear that Russia and Putin will become increasingly assertive bringing the prospect of war to European soil closer – something the EU managed to prevent for decades. And this is where the real argument lies: Europe is not a thing, it is an idea. It is not a policy – it is an emotion. Emotion born out of the ashes of Warsaw and Dresden and millions of dead from Stalingrad to Salamanca. We can endlessly argue about house prices and trade agreements but Europe is not just that.
Of course, call me a Pole with a historic chip on his shoulder. But for me, as for generations of Poles, French, Germans and Italians, and yes, also Brits, Europe and its institutions was the way to prevent another self-inflicted calamity this continent is so infamous for. Plain and simple. In order to do that, you needed to dilute sovereignty, since too much of it leads to lethal nationalisms. After WW2, we should not trust those flag waving, my-country-right-or-wrong singing folk. Even today I feel uneasy while looking at those (sometimes) innocent looking football fans waving flags. But this is me, an anthropologist looking at human behaviour from a distance.
But my historic chip is an average Polish one. Both my grandfathers died as result of war – one, a cavalryman gunned down by Germans in battle, the second died in a madhouse after two years in the Gross Rossen concentration camp and a year in a communist jail. Both my parents bear the scars of that war until this very day. Typically, my dad turning 80 last week expressed fear that Brexit will lead to a more scary and nationalistic, thus deadly Europe. He is not a political analyst, he does not follow global events, reads little these days. But as a child of war, he knows. He said that he is glad one of his sons and his grandkids live in Britain, so far away from Russia. He may be an old Pole with disturbing wartime memories, but today, in his mind what Brits may do, point to the dangers he hoped Europe would avoid. So why should Brits care?
Referendums are won by emotions. If this is so, then the undecided should pause and try to think about Europe the way my father does. Peace on EU soil since 1945 was largely due to former archenemies deciding that it is better to institutionally merge to the extent that conflict is rendered impossible. This is the guarantee that keeps people together. Britain, a blessed country that was not invaded or seen war on its soil for 500 years (bringing it to others, however) seems to be less sensitive to this, despite the fact that in 1975 one of the campaign slogans for the EU was: “It is better to lose sovereignty than a son or daughter”. Fear of conflict and war is a powerful emotion. This is an emotion that hang over my family for decades with both my parents – children of war – suffering mental problems as a result. They know how it feels to constantly fear death, uncertainty and loss – as children they absorbed these feelings from adults around them. This is why they worry. It is such a contrast from the emotions of Nigel Farage who seems to dislike the idea that the pint he is being poured is served by a Slovak, a Frenchman or a Pole and who gets irritated by the sound of foreign languages on trains. Sometimes I’d like to have fears like that – banal, silly and easy to deal with.
I came to this country in 1984. It was very different from now and London was then a place that felt on the periphery of history, not to mention of things like the arts, food or science. Today it is the global centre of all of these and I feel at home here. The contribution of immigrants into that creative and productive mosaic, though a cliché, is only partially true as it was the readiness of the British society to absorb, accept and listen to these people that made what this country is today. This unique British ability for intercultural communication made possible the creation of one of most diverse cities in the world. It is something everyone should be proud of. Unfortunately, the rise of anti-immigrant emotions seems to indicate that there is also a darker side to this society. So – you, the undecided, please do not let it win. Please do not ruin something that so far – with all its problems and imperfections – has worked. In your decision, do consider the war.