We’re leaving. A narrowly won referendum and the U.K. is leaving the EU.
Despite having my own doubts about the EU, I voted to Remain and I’m more gutted with the result than I thought I would be. I’ve lost the future I thought I would have. As a British immigrant living in Brussels, married to a British official at the EU, I thought I would be here in Belgium for a long time.
I had grand plans to put solar panels on our roof, grow vegetables in our garden, get a compost patch and rainwater butts, learn french by chatting with the old people at the local old peoples home and making friends with my neighbours, join the campaign against the planes that fly ridiculously low over our neighbourhood and the common Belgian practice of giving out company cars (or mobile pollution machines as they should be known), to not go back to work because my husband has a stable job and stay at home and look after my own daughter and draw cartoons … So many plans, none of which make sense financially, but that I thought could add up to a kinder, healthier, more environmentally friendly and secure life for me, my family and the community I live in. All now up in the air because I don’t know how long we will be here anymore. Now that my life is temporary maybe I will try to get some of those things done in a fairly half-arsed way, but mainly I want to decide whether or not my husband and I want another child, because if we do I want to have it with the support of the Belgian healthcare system, not the NHS.
Thinking about things this way, I can understand why people voted for Brexit because of fears of immigration. Being turned into a temporary immigrant has vastly reduced my incentives and ability to get out of my expat bubble and put down roots and give something back to the community I live in. It has also lessened my feeling that I have any right to interfere in the way things are done here if I’m not staying for the long haul.
In our society employees are increasingly supposed to be ‘flexible’, ‘adaptable’ and ‘enjoy fresh challenges’ above all else, and have to physically move and/or change careers multiple times in their lives whilst being available 24/7 by email. This means that even none immigrants are struggling to put down roots and make non-virtual communities, so what chance does an immigrant who is struggling with language, culture and the fact that they’ve left half their heart back where their friends and family are have?
Whilst this up-rootedness and lack of community may be fine in big cities in London where everyone has made a pact to ignore each other and if you were to smile at a stranger on the tube they’d think you were a lunatic and/or hitting on them, in smaller towns or villages ignoring people isn’t an option. With the addition of deep austerity cuts to social services and unemployment benefits, it isn’t unreasonable for people who don’t have the choice of moving either because their job is tied to the land they live on, or they are retired, or they prefer to speak to friends and family in the real rather than virtual world, or they are ill or they need to care for sick relatives, or because for the type of skills they have they would be looking at taking a massive pay cut if they were to do them in another country, to dislike the concept of free movement of people. What good is the free movement of people if you and your children (to whom because of cuts to education* are never going to have the kind of skills that will enable them to get a ‘flexible’, ‘adaptable’ or ‘challenging’ job) can’t benefit from it?
Ultimately the free movement of people without the safety net of excellent public services and strong employee rights is a race to the bottom for wages. Along the way our environment gets destroyed by default, as very few people have the resources or feel enough connection to where they are to fight for it.
It’s the truly terrible jobs that no one would do unless they were desperate and the towns that were abandoned decades ago that have been hit first, and now it’s the so called low skilled jobs in hospitality, the care sector, and the construction industry, and they are only fracking under Yorkshire, so don’t worry if you have a ‘high skilled’ or creative job – it’s not like anybody else in the world can speak English and use a computer or that the internet makes a mockery of copyright laws. Us and our children and the mythical community we are retiring to will all be fine.
Looking beyond the whipped up smokescreen of bigotry and racism (which is awful but fighting racist hate with hate for rascists only creates more hate), there are some big problems with our rootless society that immigration is only a symptom of, not a cause. So what causes it? As shown in the diagram below I think its the combination of three main global factors , which prior to Brexit the EU encouraged with it’s underlying neoliberalist free trade and free movement principles, but also helped to balance within the EU with employee right protections, tough regulations and subsidies:
As a country with a relatively high GDP prior to Brexit and the added bonus of being English speaking, we were obviously an attractive place to come for migrants from all over the world. Now that we’ve chosen to leave the EU and in the short term tanked our economy, we’ve reduced our attractiveness, and indeed some people may choose to leave as businesses move jobs to countries within the EU.
But in the long term what change do we want Brexit to be the catalyst for?
Well, if we want people to want to be where they are and put down roots and reduce global immigration, we could do the opposite of all the things we were doing before hand to cause it in the first place, and completely reform our global economy and society to live in local communities in tune with our environment. (Ironically given the globalised nature of this change the forum the EU provides to get different countries together might have been able to help had we not burnt our bridges quite so spectacularly).
Or we can ignore the underlying issues that the referendum has stirred up, and after a period of economic and political turmoil go with the business-as-usual-but-with-marginally-tighter-border-controls-that-are-not-actually-necessary-because-no-one-wants-to-come-anymore fudge option, and leave everyone that bit worse off and that bit less connected to where they are:
Given Boris is already denying immigration was part of the reason people voted for Brexit, I think we all know which way we are going to go if we leave it to the politicians. So we either buckle up and increase our flexibility and adaptability, because the lives we had just got more temporary and rootless, or we………….???
Help, I DON’T KNOW. But please can we talk about it?
*There is some good news on the education front: The internet has been invented. There are tutorials and information on EVERYTHING on the internet. If your child is struggling with a subject or wants to know more about something than is taught in the classroom they can find it online. No more need for our two tiered education system! Everyone has access to the same unbelievable resource! For those of you working your socks off to send your children to private school, the internet has just saved you in the region of £30,000 per year per child.