I’m trying to make sense of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Words have escaped me, as they escaped me so often recently… after the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, when I saw the body of that little boy on the beach, or heard of the tragic loss of Jo Cox MP – a shining star in a rising sea of darkness.
The difference between this tragedy and these other tragedies that have periodically pierced our bubble of normality over the past year is that this one is self inflicted. But these tragedies are all connected. The sense of losing control, of encroaching threat, of fear knocking on our doors has been steadily rising. Until yesterday – in the UK at least – the reaction to this growing fear was an outburst, an emotional reaction to what were seen as external events. Give it a few days, the media moved on and normality or sorts returned. But the fear continued to simmer. Yesterday, however, this reaction morphed into an internalisation of the destructive force of that fear. It has become the new normal. It is inescapable now because the repercussions of this self-inflicted wound are so far-reaching.
I spent the first day of a post-Brexit world trying to understand my citizenship options as a non-resident UK citizen living in another EU country. Many others I’m sure will have done the same. I am an EU citizen and I can’t just “un-become” one. My life, my family depends on being part of the EU. It has shaped my life in so many ways. The implications of this sense of ‘un-becoming’ for so many
will only grow over time as the deep community connections, the family bonds created and sustained on the basis of being one EU, trading relationships carved out, are now fundamentally altered. Many funding arrangements now need to be rethought. Such is the depth of our inter-dependence, which has sustained peace and stability for several generations, the challenges of extricating us from what is an essential part of who we are is a mammoth task. It massively time consuming, expensive and deeply divisive.
What’s more, the whole exercise in many respects is the most extraordinary, dangerous waste of time and distraction from the most urgent challenges we face today. The stark reality is that this decade is the last chance we have to address climate change – a global threat that requires a political mindset based on interdependence and deep collaboration across borders. The EU’s leadership role, whilst far from perfect, in this has been critical, as it has in so many global issues. As a friend put it “Brexit is like shifting teacups around whilst the world is burning”. The political momentum required to tackle that and other massive global problems has just been dealt a significant blow.
For however massive this political earthquake is, it also generates a unique moment of opportunity. In fact, people have suddenly been awoken from a slumber – from a false sense of security about the forward path of progress – and more will awaken in the coming weeks as they realise what they perhaps unwittingly voted for. Young people in particular have sooken up. Whilst Brexit gives the illusion that casual racism, xenophobia and bigotry have become a mainstream view, I don’t believe this true. At least not yet. Many were motivated to vote out not by hatred, but by a false hope that this was a good, honourable and reasonable choice for their country. For others, disengaged and excluded from mainstream politics for years, this was a stand against the status quo. Whilst many will stand by their choice, as reality dawns, many others will be sickened and perhaps ashamed by what this actually means and the deceit it is based on.
That sense of political engagement now needs to be harnessed. But it can’t be harnessed by the same political forces that caused this mess. A new force is now needed – one made up of ordinary people who actively reach out and demonstrate with their actions and their voices, that they want a new politics based on a shared humanity – and everything that goes with that… mutual respect, tolerance, dialogue, kindness, equality, compassion, mercy. Those values are not a given now, but need to be re-affirmed, and above all lived out in public life. It is about changing mindsets rathet than minds. In many respects it is the internationalist vision that Jo Cox MP and many many others live and indeed die for. This force cannot remain silent or invisible. It needs to actively reject and resist the hate, intolerance and division which could now permeate society. We now need many more Jos who speak and act with courage and integrity and face down the complacency, fear and anger which exists inside us all.
Yesterday the angry thunderstorm clouds in the skies all over Europe seemed to reflect perfectly the political storm now engulfing us. More than a faint, haunting echo of the words of David Lloyd George and even Churchill came to mind. How unprepared we are for a divided Europe, a Brexit future. Moving forward, as Lloyd George famously said will take ‘all the wisdom, all the calm, all the judgement of the mariners who are guiding the ship.’ In fact, it will take far more than that. It will take new mariners – and we have a choice over who they are. It may even require a new ship. Only a popular movement which affirms in a million words and deeds that we have ‘more in common’ can save us now from ourselves. Europe has come so far. Going back is unthinkable.