UKREN blog

Friday 22 April 2016

There is no Utopia: a critical choice for referendum voters

The upcoming referendum poses a critical choice for voters. June 23rd offers a choice between two possible tactics: is reform or withdrawal the best way to achieve transnational democracy?

On the other hand, some consider the vote to be a pivotal moment in British history- a re-negotiation of ‘values’ and ‘purpose’ in relation to Europe. Some are asking themselves whether EU membership fosters a society that operates well for the many ordinary workers and the most vulnerable segments of our society, or whether it is designed to benefit the elite and wealthy few?

Earlier this month the UK Race and Europe Network (UKREN) hosted a panel debate to explore the referendum question from the perspective of (a roomful of) Britain’s 8 million Black/Asian and ‘ethnic minority’ citizens.

So far, much of the referendum discussion on national media platforms has focused on the priorities of neoliberal austerity governments and big business players, such as trade, security, and Britain’s position on the ‘world stage’.

UKREN decided to turn attention to the needs and interests of ordinary working BAME people, and asked them: what does the EU mean to you?

We had a lively and stimulating discussion; there was no question that attendees were engaged and invested in the topic. But a concern was raised from both camps of the debate: how to engage with a diverse range of voters who don’t feel quite so involved?

UKREN’s video exploring young and BAME people’s thoughts on EU membership provided an opening stimulus for discussion (view it here). Indeed, panellists identified that voices they were keen to hear from in the debate included the Left-wing Brexit position (or ‘#Lexit’), BAME voters, and young people.

On a #Lexit note: Novara Media, an outlet that addresses “social and economic issues viewed as crucial in shaping the 21st Century” has produced a programme on their video-streaming channel ‘The Fix’ titled “Can There Ever be a Left-wing #Brexit?” (viewable here). In the show, Novara Senior Editor Aaron Bastani and lecturer and writer Anindya Bhattacharya present convincing arguments for the radical #Lexit case.

Meanwhile, in their timely publication ‘How (not) to talk about Europe’, non-partisan think tank British Future advises that in fact ‘participation’ will be a key aspect of a referendum that is ‘good for Britain’.

The report states that, “this is a choice that affects all of us, not just the people who care most about it”, and emphasises that “a referendum in which most people participate, where they feel they’ve been given a clear and fair choice, will help ensure that the decision we make has democratic legitimacy”.

Last month, media outlets began to promote the idea that BAME voters were not being appealed to- and that their votes would have a significant impact on the outcome (see pieces in The Voice, BBC, The Times). British Future anticipates that ethnic ‘minority’ communities will make up 10% of the vote. In addition, British Future notes that a ‘Leave’ campaign closely allied with UKIP is unlikely to attract sympathy from BAME voters, but there is- potentially missed- opportunity for this side of the debate to appeal to “small c-conservatives and natural Eurosceptics [...] favouring stronger ties to the Commonwealth”.

Practical considerations about the post-Brexit situation were also voiced.

A key question which has gone largely unanswered by politicians, is what which actually happen if Britain leaves or remains in the EU? Is over-emphasis being given to the complexity of negotiating new trade deals with the EU member states? Will the deals be worse, as good, or better than what it had before?

Will Britain have to agree on free movement in order to strike independent trade deals, as happened in Norway and Switzerland’s negotiations? Will Britain wield more power standing apart from a ‘declining trade bloc’, or by being a leader within the world’s largest single market?

Migration and free movement- a key and recurrent topic in the public debate- was also raised. Concerns included the impact of net migration on BAME communities already living and working in the UK.

Referendum campaigners on both sides have focused on Britain’s need or capacity to control its borders. In reality, Britain’s borders are the most ‘closed’ that they have ever been.

In the Huffington Post last month, Simon Woolley, Director of Operation Black Vote, cited research from the Runnymede Trust revealing that many BAME people see the EU as “‘Fortress Europe’: a way of "keeping out non-white immigrants while allowing significant levels of European migration”.

When we think about free movement, it is critical that we consider: free movement for whom? Free movement in Europe for all Europeans? Or just for white Europeans, at the cost of the most militarised borders in the world around its periphery?

A member of the panel reminded participants that the equality impact of free movement for Black/Asian and Ethnic Minority was vastly disproportionate. A report published by The Runnymede Trust in December 2015 (‘This is Still About Us’) revealed that BAME people living in Britain are “less likely to take advantage of free movement within EU borders”, and that if they do cross internal EU borders they experience a high incidence of racial profiling and harassment.

Clearly, the issue of migration to and within Europe is a complex topic- far more complicated in fact than the sweeping binaries of ‘free movement’ or ‘closed borders’ being batted about by politicians leading the referendum campaigns.

Panellist Tamara Chabe wrote in a think piece for Conservative Woman, “Our immigration system now discriminates against non-EU migrants in favour of unskilled EU migrants, and leaving the EU would allow us to have a fairer immigration system”.

Whilst it’s alarming to imagine a rendition of the UK’s immigration system that could be less fair than its current operation, 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.

Conversely, some panellists suggested that the ‘Leave’ vote was underpinned by a fundamentally xenophobic position, and that Britain choosing to ‘Remain’ in the EU needs to be accompanied with a genuine commitment to assisting people fleeing to Europe in need of shelter and protection.

In a article this week, panellist Zoe Gardner outlined that “The British and European approach to the migrant and refugee humanitarian crisis simply isn't working”.

In the piece, Gardner deftly dispels myths around the current ‘migrant crisis’, explaining that- amongst other concerns- there is a need to re-orientate focus from so-called ‘pull factors’, towards ‘push factors’ such as “war, brutal repression and large scale human rights abuses with impunity”. Gardner notes that, critically, “Smugglers [a distracting issue touted around by Home Secretary Theresa May] are the symptom, rather than the cause of the refugee crisis”.

The issue of solidarity with other European member states was hotly debated. A report titled ‘Austerity measures across Europe’ authored by the Universities of Sheffield (UK) and Uppsala (Sweden) explains that “Austerity measures have been pursued by governments of all colours [...] the severity of austerity measures increases when we look at Poland and the UK [...] at the far end of the spectrum we find the most considerable austerity drives which, as expected, are those places hit hardest by the financial crisis: Italy, Spain and, most notably, Greece”.

Some suggest that Britain, as a member state which has contributed to private banking disasters and structural malignancies within the Eurozone has an obligation to stand in solidarity with countries such as Greece and Spain, through continued participation in the EU.

A criticism levelled against the EU by panellist Kunle Olulode, Director of Voice4Change England, was the institution’s lack of democracy and transparency. Tom Watson - Deputy Leader of the Labour Party- has previously described the EU as an ‘unelected, unaccountable body of profiteering individuals’.

Dreda Say Mitchell, writing for The Guardian notes that, "There doesn’t seem much point in electing MPs if their votes can be overridden by supranational institutions like the EU or tax-dodging corporations. Much of the apathy and cynicism towards politics is a result of people feeling that real power is somewhere else and not in the ballot box. I’ve seen the EU described as “post-democratic”. Some of us would prefer the real thing back".

In contrast, a stance argued by the ‘Remain’ panellists was one which supported reform, and moves towards a more ‘social’ Europe.

Campaign group Another Europe is Possible has been spearheading this approach, promoting a radical “in” vote, and putting the case for staying in the EU, “independently of Cameron and big business, opposing any part of a “renegotiation” that attacks workers’, migrants’ or human rights [...] arguing for an alternative economic model, maintaining European citizens’ rights to live and work across the EU, and for far-reaching democratic reforms of European institution”.

In addition, currently, a project called Good Europe is curating blog posts showcasing a range of future 'visions' for a more equal, sustainable and democratic Europe (you can explore some of these here under ‘Latest’).

As Maurice Mcleod (@mowords) writes in Media Diversified's excellent politics columnn 'White Men Dancing': "I’d rather we stay in and fight for the EU I want than skulk off into the corner of Europe to play on our own".

Panellists also voiced their concern about Britain’s relationship with the commonwealth, and the detriment of its continued affiliation with a ‘declining trade bloc’.

Panellist Kiri Kankhkwende, a columnist at Media Diversified was quick to supply caution to romanticising the commonwealth, and echoed a point made by Woolley in his Huffington Post article that when Tory MP’s evoke the rhetoric of the ‘empire’ and promote the idea of forging closer links with the Commonwealth, they are speaking about Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand, and not Pakistan and Jamaica.

Panellist Tamara Chabe, who campaigns with the Leave groups Grassroots Out and Africans for Britain, wrote a piece for The Telegraph last month, arguing that “Britain’s continuing membership of the EU is holding the nation back from fostering stronger trading links with Commonwealth countries, many of which are growing at a faster rate than EU economies”.

Sam Akai, Director of Democratic Institutions for Poverty Reduction in Africa argues that “the European Union is an ongoing disaster for Africa” and that “no other continent bloc administers a more comprehensive trade protection against Africa than the European Union”.

There’s certainly a lot to consider.

One message is easy to hear within all the noise: the arguments put forward by the official campaign groups need to be straightforward, and clearly articulated. They also need to look beyond the headline sensational topics of ‘borders’ and ‘business’, in order to capture attention from voters with a diverse and nuanced range of needs and priorities.


By Leah Cowan


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