UKREN blog

Wednesday 8 June 2016

There Will Be No Armageddon


10% of voters eligible to participate in the UK’s upcoming EU referendum are from Black/Asian/minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. However, campaign groups have been slow to address the specific needs and concerns of this demographic.

A ‘Remain’ campaign which flies the flag for freedom of movement is not guaranteed to capture the imagination of BAME communities. A report published by The Runnymede Trust last year (‘This is Still About Us’) revealed that BAME communities are not necessarily pro-migration: they are less likely to travel across Europe, and more likely to experience racial profiling and harassment at its borders. Equally, a ‘Leave’ campaign which affiliates itself too closely with UKIP’s ‘pull up the drawbridge’ sentiment is unlikely to entice black voters.

On Thursday 2nd June, local BAME activists, and community and business leaders met in Leeds to debate “Brexit: Should We Stay or Should We Go?”. The UK Race and Europe Network (UKREN), in partnership with Just West Yorkshire were delighted to welcome Saleem Kader (Bombay Stores), Kamal Mashjari (Al-Ghazali community centre), Leslie Rowe (Green Party), Michael Privot (European Network Against Racism) and Leila Taleb (Just West Yorkshire) to speak on a panel chaired by Dr Simon Lightfoot (University of Leeds).

In his opening remarks Michael Privot likened speculation around the post-referendum situation to “like debating life after death - there is nobody who has been there and come back who can tell us what it is like”.

Privot warned against “fear-mongering on both sides”, and both the panel and audience expressed distrust in the debate which has so far been characterised by misinformation, and the circulation of facts and figures that are difficult to verify. Leila Taleb said that she “rejects the dichotomy of #Stay and #Leave camps- it’s a bit more fluid than that!”. Taleb’s sentiment would be frequently echoed throughout the debate: this sense that the strictly binary nature of the referendum did not allow space for nuance in popular debates. Taleb supports remaining in a Europe, but a Europe that must necessarily be reformed, and become much more democratic and accessible in its processes.

Privot joked “There will be no armageddon”: whichever way the vote swings, the cogs of the economy will continue to turn on 24th June and business is likely to be as usual. However, the heated discussions that have arisen around the referendum must not merely dissolve once the ballot papers are counted: now is the time for action and activism, for the shaping of a European Union and a continent that reflects the needs of the people it serves.

Governance and transparency

Community leader Kamal Mashjari spoke movingly about on his experience growing up in Liverpool, where his community felt failed by politicians on both the left and the right. He reflected on the tragic events of Hillsborough in 1989, and how he had watched as the establishment and its institutions “lied and did nothing”. Other panellists joined Mashjari in demanding reform for a European Union that was more democratic, transparent, and accountable.

Leslie Rowe, a member of the Green Party in Yorkshire and Humber concurred that citizens should take democracy for granted “at our peril”. Rowe made reference to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) currently being negotiated in ‘closed meetings’, which if agreed will lower food and environmental health standards, allow corporations to sue the government for loss of profits, and undermine international efforts to combat climate change.

There has been much discussion about how to prevent  TTIP on both sides of the debate. Brexiteers have presented leaving the EU as a protective move against the distinctly deregulatory flavour of TTIP. Conversely, the Remain camp suggest that as David Cameron is one of TTIP’s most avid supporters, having promised after the G20 to put “rocket boosters” under the agreement, and that Britain is likely to drive TTIP forward irrespective of its EU membership.

Race equality matters

Audience members considered race equality within the EU to be an issue of critical concern. Privot commented that, “it is impossible to not make the link between current EU policies and the rise of the far right across Europe”.

Privot also stressed that racist and discriminatory policies enacted at national levels are also responsible for the increasingly hostile environment for migrants, and BAME migrants in particular, in many European countries. To name a few: in 2004 the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) upheld a French law that prohibited the wearing of burqas and other face-covering veils in public spaces; in July 2015 Denmark slashed benefits to migrants by 50% in order to “get a grip on the flood of asylum seekers into Denmark”, and in September 2015 Hungary rushed through emergency laws setting out strict punishments including prison terms both for people crossing borders ‘illegally’, as well as for Hungarian citizens assisting migrants in their journey.

Europe’s lurch to the right has most recently manifested in the success of of right wing candidate Norbert Hofer in the first round of Austria’s most recent elections. Other right wing parties who have gathered momentum across the continent include France’s Front National led by Marine Le Pen; Germany’s Alternative fur Deutschland led by Frauke Petry (who in January stated that German border police should "use firearms if necessary" to stop refugees entering the country); the Netherlands’ Dutch Party for Freedom led by Geert Wilders (who advocates ending immigration from ‘Muslim countries’ and has campaigned to ban the Quran in the Netherlands), and Italy’s Lega Nord led by Matteo Salvini.

The Trade Union Congress (TUC) in Britain recently released a report outlining the risks of Brexit from a race quality perspective. These risks included a potential threat to EU guaranteed rights such as protections for outsourced and temporary workers, who are over-represented in BAME groups, as well as leaving UK Equality legislation vulnerable to government-driven amendments to reduce ‘red tape’, and without the EU to provide critical resistance to these moves.

Conversely, some advocate that the UK has been progressive in its race equality legislation, and as such is not reliant on the EU to advance race equality. Some point to the race equality duty (vis the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000), which arose from the McPherson enquiry into the police investigation of the murder of Steven Lawrence, a young black man murdered in a racially motivated attack in 1993. The McPherson enquiry outlined, for the first time, an understanding of institutional racism, which was incredibly progressive in comparison to equality law up to that point, and remains unique in Europe. In addition, three trade unions in the UK (The RMT, ASLEF, and BFAWU) are backing Brexit, stating that the EU overwhelmingly supports the interests of big business, and does not prioritise the interests of workers.

The business of migration

Much heated discussion emerged around the relationship between migration, trade and business. Saleem Kader, Managing Director of Bombay Stores pointed to a difference in scale in migration ‘then’ (in the 1950s, when his predecessor Abdul Kader arrived in Bradford and put down a deposit on an old chip shop), and ‘now’. Taleb agreed with Kader that we “live in a different world now”. However, she also pointed out that the globalised world of 2016 had very different needs and concerns to that of the ‘50s, and even in the last referendum of ‘75 when immigration was a complete non-issue, and emigration and the loss of skilled British workers and wealthy retirees to Europe was a far larger concern.

Concerns around migration focused on two issues: firstly that of a perceived burden on Britain’s welfare system (a fear which has been debunked by a study at UCL which revealed the EU migrants are net contributors to the economy, to the tune of £20bn); and secondly of an ‘unfairness’ in the treatment of EU and non-EU migrants. There is unequivocally a substantial difference in treatment of EEA and non-EEA migrants in the UK- although arguably, successive immigration legislation and a culture of hostility towards all migrants is working hard to close this gap.


Kader lamented that he is unable to employ workers from non-EU countries who have specialist skills that are relevant to his business, and presented the case for a less lopsided immigration policy, where entry would be permitted based on the Britain’s ‘need’ for an individual’s skills rather than simply on their ‘right’ to free movement.

Privot lamented the absence of a genuine ‘circular migration’ opportunity within Europe. The difficult process of entering European countries often means that workers who might otherwise travel to a European country to work for a short period, a couple of times a decade, end up reluctantly staying in the destination country. Whilst making circular migration routes more accessible must not come at the cost of genuine inclusion frameworks in the host country, it exists as a clear example of a policy which needs to adapt to reflect the real needs and lived experiences of workers.

Rowe stated that the UK needs to trade more widely with the rest of the world in order to tackle Britain’s budget deficit, which increases by £1.4m each week. UK’s fastest growing export markets (Chile, China and the United Arab Emirates) are currently all outside of the EU, but a leap in exports to emerging markets will require careful consideration. Exporting more heavily to these markets would require significant infrastructural development, such as more airport runways; proposals which have been described by the Green Party as “incompatible with the UK’s climate change commitments”.

A post-referendum vision

Mashjari remarked that for him the issue of ‘trade’ is secondary, and that the priority must be on the social impact on families and individuals.

A member of the audience spoke compellingly about the origins of the EU, which was created after World War Two to counter the extreme nationalism which had devastated the continent. Rowe stated that the gradual takeover of big business within the institution has in fact skewed its founding purpose, and the EU is now ‘beyond reform’.

Privot concurred with Mashjari that the EU had become orientated towards profit, rather than fundamental rights for individuals. He suggested that both Leave and Remain results need to inspire Europe to reform the EU; if Brexit occurs, then through harnessing the likely downsizing of the EU as an opportunity to relaunch a more democractic and representative union, and if Britain remains, through maximising the considerable progressive advocacy power of UK activists to shape better race equality legislation throughout Europe.

By Leah Cowan



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