Identity: (strongest first) European, Flemish (culturally rather than politically), Belgian (that is what is on my passport), Dendermondenaar (town of birth), Italian (decade there left strong imprint), British (through professional environment more than a decade of residence, and passport of son), Spanish (passport of wife and son), French (four years of residence), Torinese and Bristolian (two cities I have lived in more than the passing-by couple of years I spent in many other places).
Writing about Brexit is a challenge. As the daily reality changes at high speed, ex post analysis looks out-dated, while predictions of the future are really not the preferred domain of academic writing (even for a lawyer). In this context, I welcomed Christian Joerges’ invitation to contribute to this paper by writing about Brexit from a personal perspective. The idea is an interesting one; in the flood of daily information, the personal perspective sheds light on the living experience of the Brexit reality.
There are several personal Brexit stories to tell. The first one is that of the EU citizen who is an academic in the UK. As a professor of EU law, for instance, I am pretty sure my undergraduate EU law course will no longer be compulsory, but this probably only means that I will have less, but more interested, students on it. More problematically, Brexit may well undermine our two post-graduate EU focused programmes in the likely event of the fees become prohibitive for European students. But most problematical is the loss of European funding. Given how the EU dealt with Switzerland once it intended to limit the free movement of persons, it is highly unlikely that the UK is still going to receive EU research money. And, given the way EU research money has allowed me to do what I like doing most in this job, i.e., research, the absence of any replacement UK funding may well be a sufficient key driver to make me move somewhere else. This little story tells something about the fate of EU studies and, more broadly, the future of academia in this country. The UK, for instance, is the biggest receiver of grants from the European Research Council, and many of those grants are awarded to non-British citizens. Without EU funding, and strong uncertainty as to whether there will be any compensating UK funding, the UK will become a far less attractive place for research. The pestering of EU citizens and the dilution of their rights that Brexit may entail (see below) is not going to help, either. All this adds to other factors that have been undermining the attractiveness of British universities for some time, such as the ever increasing bureaucratisation, the managerialism and workload pressure, and the introduction of a national teaching-quality assessment (similar to the research assessment, but raising (even) far more problematical questions in terms of measuring such quality by criteria such as student satisfaction) in an attempt to justify the extraordinarily high tuition fees.
But it is not my aim here to tell the little story of how academia in the UK will be affected by Brexit. The personal story that I want to tell is another one. It is the personal story of the insider-outsider, and this has to be told in a double way. As an EU citizen living in this country, one is an insider who has to live through Brexit in a very personal and direct way, while, at the same time, being stigmatised as the outsider. Narrating this personal story tells us something more broadly about the value of European citizenship. At the same time, the insider-outsider perspective allows us to shed a different light on the developments in this country. EU citizens who have resided in more than one country, facilitated by EU citizenship, have a different story to tell. Relying on their lived experience in different countries, they can provide an insider-outsider perspective that both the insiders and the outsiders lack.
Having resided nearly a decade in the UK, my insider-outsider perspective during the referendum campaign became quickly clear when discussing the topic with colleagues and friends. I soon got the impression that most of my British colleagues were much less worried about the outcome of the referendum than I was. To be honest, while I had had a lingering worry from the moment the referendum idea was launched, it was only during the campaign that I really started thinking through all the potential consequences of Brexit and the massive costs that it would have. Chatting about the topic in the corridors of our daily academic routine, many British colleagues appeared convinced that there would never be a majority for Brexit; as some said, this was because “we British are pragmatists”. Pragmatists? Over the last decades, whenever, on “the continent”, a political party on the right tried to carve out a space for itself on ideological grounds, out of the muddled ground of Christian democratic and social democratic centrist politics, it would look to the British Conservatives. Equally so, on the left of the political spectrum, where the only ideological debate appeared to be set by the British “third way”. More recently, the new identitarian politics in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as a more radical post-crisis ideology on the left may have changed the picture, but, for decades, it looked as though, if one wanted to be ideological, one had to go British. So much for British pragmatism. As a Belgian, who has also lived a decade in Italy, my idea of political pragmatism is clearly different from that of my British colleagues!
Having lived in the Belgian, French and Italian welfare state, I also appeared to have a different perception on the huge social cleavages that fracture the UK. I soon suspected the referendum would become the occasion to throw that reality in the face of “the élite”. Moreover, even for somebody who has lived a decade in Italy under the Berlusconi “regime”, the polarized and poor quality of the media in the UK has never stopped surprising me. All this made me much more pessimistic about the referendum outcome than most of my colleagues.
In what follows, I will link my personal experience as an insider-outsider during the referendum and post-referendum debate with two broader questions: 1) the role of the media and participation in modern democracy; and 2) identity and the value of European citizenship.
During the referendum campaign, my university was approached under the Transparency Act to disclose the EU funding that the Cardiff Centre for European Law and Governance had obtained through its recognition as a Jean Monnet Centre of Excellence. The request came from UKIP. We had no problem in disclosing the information as both our EU budget as well as all the funded activities were already clearly listed on our website, including a long list of seminars organised over the last years, which have often been very critical on the state of affairs in the EU.
During the same period, I received an email from somebody claiming to be interested in doing a Ph.D in Cardiff but asking for clarification as to whether we would have a problem with him being very critical of the EU and wanting the UK to be out of it. The nature of the email and proposed topic (which would not have fitted our expertise) put some doubt on whether the person had any real intention of doing a Ph.D with us. When I also found out the person was very closely related to UKIP, I started wondering whether it was just an attempt to make us state that we only accept pro-EU research and subsequently depict us as the EU’s Trojan horse in the country. Attempts like this, to silence voices that might say something pro-European, are not entirely new in this country (and I can tell other stories in the context of previous EP elections, for instance), but they were strongly intensified during the referendum campaign.
UKIP engaging in disclosure requests on EU funding was just a minor institutional expression of attempts to silence informed voices on the EU. During the referendum campaign, the battle became much more intense on a personal level. The few (British) colleagues who took up the challenge to bring some element of expertise into a campaign that was characterised by ignorance and disinformation were marginalised in the traditional media and were viciously attacked on the social media, death threats included.
In this context, I made a difficult personal decision: I decided to refrain from actively contributing to the referendum debate. This was, above all, a strategic decision. In a context in which expert opinion in general was looked at with derision, the voice of the “enemy expert” would have even less of a chance of being heard. As the debate became ever more polarized, to the point of inciting feelings of hatred, my expert opinion would immediately have been put down as being obviously biased because it was expressed by the “damned foreigner” wanting to stay here. There are enough rational and informed people around, particularly in my direct environment, who would not take such a simplistic opinion; and I eagerly exchanged my views on Brexit with them in an informal way. But these were generally not the people to be convinced of a Remain vote. The debate had to be held outside the ivory tower of academia. However, whenever there was space for an EU expert on the media or on public debate events, I believed my British colleagues would have a higher chance of convincing an anti-EU crowd, particularly as this crowd had increasingly become an anti-immigrant crowd; and I am especially grateful to some of my direct colleagues for taking on this role.
Although my decision to refrain from active involvement in the referendum debate was mainly a strategic one, it also had a psychological dimension. Why would I volunteer to face all the insults and aggression if my action might even prove to be counter-productive? Moreover, at a personal level, I knew that facing such levels of aggression would make me feel myself to be an outsider. The most vile remarks or racist abuse might not be representative of the majority of this country, but if you are a direct victim of it such rationality may not counterweigh the creeping feeling that you had better re-consider whether this is the right place to live. However, avoiding masochistic sessions of being publicly insulted did not save me from feeling an outsider. It suddenly hit me that, without a voice, I was a complete outsider. I had no right to vote in the referendum, and despite being most directly concerned by the outcome and despite being an expert on the EU, raising my voice seemed both impossible and useless. This was the first time in more than two decades of “living abroad” that I really felt like an outsider. The referendum outcome only strengthened this feeling. The problem was not just that I could not identify with what appears to be the political and cultural opinion of the majority of this country. In a way, I had lived this experience already when living in Italy under the Berlusconi governments. There was a huge gap between my beliefs and values and what the majority of Italians were happy to vote for. At the same time, I felt part of the very large majority of the country who strongly opposed the government, and, although I had no right to vote, I felt in a position to be an active participating citizen able to voice his discontent. The difference between my Italian and my British experience is that only in the latter have I become the explicitly targeted outsider. The Berlusconi government held an anti-immigration discourse and policy but it was targeted at the “extracomunitari” (non-EU citizens). This left me in the fortunate position of being somebody who could strongly oppose these views, but could still feel part of the community, linking in with the large minority. It is only today that I realise how strongly the stigmatisation as an outsider affects even your ability to speak up. I have great empathy for the 48 per cent of British who voted Remain, and even for some who voted Brexit, but are shocked about the turn that politics has taken, to the extent that they say “I do not recognise my country anymore”. However, they still have voice, and the alienation that they feel is not the same as that of the targeted outsider.
That one could feel suddenly so estranged had much to do with the incredibly poor level of the public debate on Brexit. The abominable “quality” of the British tabloids is world famous, as well as their visceral hatred for the EU. One of the most shocking experiences during the referendum, though, was the very poor journalism of the BBC. A study by my colleagues in the School of Journalism at Cardiff University showed that, already, way before the referendum, the BBC’s coverage of EU issues was primarily concerned with representing Euro-sceptic voices and focusing on party-political conflict instead of substantive discussion. During the referendum campaign, this only got worse. The BBC strongly reminded me of what happened with the Italian public TV RAI under the Berlusconi government. Journalists who are poorly informed about the EU considered that the neutrality of the broadcasting was ensured simply by applying a formalistic parity, the famous “par condicio”, between “pro” and “contra” speakers, most of whom were politicians rather than experts. Speakers could make whatever claims they liked, with journalists failing to ensure any quality control. The debate has also been incredibly inward looking. While the issue was about the UK’s relationship with the EU, the debate was entirely focused on internal political arguments, as if the UK-EU relationship could be redrafted by the UK alone. Moreover, the debate was entirely set by one side of the political spectrum; namely, UKIP and the Conservatives, with the latter providing a key voice for Leave and the main voice for Remain at the same time. Labour did not develop a clear vision or voice on the referendum, while both the Liberal Democrats and the Greens were marginalised in the media, silenced with the excuse that they were not representative enough in Parliament (a reasoning clearly not applied to UKIP). In the hands of the Conservatives, the Remain campaign could not provide any other discourse than future-predicting scaremongering about what would happen in the event of Brexit, as they found themselves unable to bring any positive message about European integration after decades of rubbishing it.
If the traditional media failed dramatically in ensuring an informed debate, the new social media raised even more problematical questions. Whoever believed the Internet would provide us with an easy tool to ensure democratic debate should think twice. Lies and half-truths were multiplied and multiplied with every click of the mouse and tap on the screen, without any intermediary aiming at fact-finding and quality control. On top of this, any comment section and forum would immediately turn into personal insults, and regularly racist abuse.
There was, mainly by the end of the campaign, some valuable information on the Internet, which was not easily available in the standard media, but, in all probability, it only reached a very limited audience. In a way, the Internet simply amplifies the trends in the traditional media. Brexit raises profound questions about democracy in times of the Internet, and, in particular, about the use of referenda.
Brexit showed a mixture of a failure of the traditional media to ensure quality control and fact-finding beyond political statements, combined with a very unbalanced political debate, as much of the opposition failed to develop an alternative narrative. Under these conditions, the Internet only exemplified the weaknesses of the political and traditional media debate. Continue reading