Brexit: Hysteria, Prejudice, and Misguided Emotion on Both Sides

[A version of this article was published in Muftah Magazine.]

It would have been best for both Britain and Europe if Britain had voted to stay in the EU. I, too, subscribe to that opinion, but it is hard to relate to the self-righteousness and hysteria that go along with it in the current aftermath of the Brexit vote. It is particularly puzzling among the non-British. Public discourse is exploding with expressions of panic and a kind of solidarity in resentment. But underneath all the scorn and anger, few substantive arguments figure into the discussion, while many of the endlessly repeated conventional points are misguided and offensive.

  1. “People voted to leave the EU because racism!”

17 million people voted to leave, dwarfing the number of voters that support Britain’s populist right-wing party, UKIP. There’s a wide spectrum of political beliefs and conflicting motives under the Leave umbrella — including valid grievances that will likely continue to be ignored.

The Lexit campaign articulated a coherent left-wing case for leaving the EU. On their website, the campaign has a page provocatively dedicated to quotes from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, despite him campaigning for the other side. But Corbyn, I believe, gets it: the European Union is an undemocratic institution whose machinations we need to actively oppose, but the fight will not benefit from Britain bailing.

Xenophobia figured into the debate in a significant and toxic way, but widespread economic hardship is just as important a consideration. As any demagogue worth their salt can tell you, the latter is easy to channel into fueling the former.

Beyond that, though, are we supposed to believe that the EU represents an antidote to tribalism? Would a vote in favor of staying in have been a reaffirmation of tolerance or immigrant rights? Among its many harsh responses to the current refugee crisis, the EU struck a deal with Turkey, at the end of 2015, to serve as Europe’s gatekeeper. Since the beginning of 2016, there have been reports of Turkish border guards shooting Syrian refugees with live ammo.

Or take the Greek “hotspots,” as the squalid and inhumane refugee camps have been named to make them seem less terrifying. With its economic stranglehold on the country, the EU is blackmailing Greece into not integrating the people detained in them, as the ousted former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis recently explained. “Europe is large enough. It is rich enough. We should be able to handle this refugee crisis humanely. … When the Iron Curtain came down in 1991, … we accepted one million refugees within a few months. Half of Albania moved to Greece. Do you know what happened? Nothing. It was all fine.”

All this is in response to a crisis for which Europe should own up to its considerable share of culpability, not least because of its various military adventures alongside the US, toppling bothersome governments such as those in Libya and Iraq, while supporting repressive regimes elsewhere. So let’s not pretend that the EU is some shining beacon for immigrant rights and inclusivity.

If the rhetoric coming from parts of the Leave campaign has been marred by racism, the Remain side, too, has shown its true colors: classism, which is much more ubiquitous than the xenophobia on the other side. Those plebs and dumb rubes voted the wrong way!

Which brings me to this argument:

  1. “People didn’t even know what they’re voting on!”

This is true — but it goes for both sides. And it would have been just as true if the result of the vote had been different.

Much has been made of the fact that Brits were furiously googling “what is the EU?” a day after the vote. But why are we assuming that these were exclusively people who voted to leave? This certainty seems to stem from the very same classist outlook: the other side is clearly too dumb to do their research while it still matters.

Quick: is the European Council the same as the Council of the European Union? What is the European Parliament, and what is the European Commission? Who’s the European Commission President?

The truth is that most people know precious little about the EU. This makes for an insidious secret weapon of sorts: EU institutions come across as distant, immaterial, bureaucratic, boring. Meanwhile, the fates of countless people are decided behind their closed doors. TTIP, the corporate-authored faux trade deal, is being negotiated in secret, to gut regulations on everything from the environment and food safety to labor rights and financial products. And Greece is only the most recent example of the EU’s push to subjugate democracy and welfare to the dictates of international capital, and is used to funnel taxpayer money into the coffers of big European banks.

After their surprise loss, Remain voters need to start educating themselves, too. How can one write frenzied Facebook posts oozing with contempt without knowing what, exactly, one is supposed to be frenzied and contemptuous about? Ninety-nine percent of the endless post-Brexit jeremiads I’ve been exposed to, whether online or in a coffee shop, are just as heavy on emotion and slim on substance as anything you’ve heard from the other camp.

I was below voting age in 1994 when Finland, my native country, held a referendum to join the EU. A month later, neighboring Sweden also voted to join, 52% to 47%. That’s pretty close to a coin toss, which is what you’d expect when people make an arbitrary choice between two options they know next to nothing about. In Finland, where the vote was decided by a slightly clearer 14 points, there was another motivating factor that had nothing to do with the single market, either: whatever this EU is, I remember grown-ups musing, it’s one more safeguard against Russia. (Compare that to actual former Soviet satellites that voted to join the EU with overwhelming majorities.)

The vote in Finland was preceded by a costly “education campaign” and extensive opinion polling by the government. An advisory referendum is itself not much more than a hyped-up opinion poll, though. In fact, Finland saw one of the few filibusters in its history when the anti-EU camp decided to stall the formal EU membership application until after the Swedish coin toss was finished. The hope was that a “no” vote would convince our lawmakers not to apply for membership, either, polls be damned.

This would have been quite possible, since the referendum was not legally binding — as is the case with the Brexit vote.

  1. “This goes to show that democracy is only good when you have an educated population.”

This is implied in the first two arguments, but some go so far as to say it out loud. It’s a disgusting sentiment that brings to mind strategies like literacy tests used in southern states of the US to disenfranchise minorities.

Aside from that, this farce had little to do with the people’s will to begin with. Holding a referendum on a specific issue in a parliamentary system is, in fact, an implicit admission that the system doesn’t represent the people. This was a reckless gamble taken by Prime Minister David Cameron in an attempt to quell anti-European criticism within his own party, and to counter the rise of UKIP.

Democracy in Britain is a joke, for the same reasons it is a joke in the US and many other places: aligned interests between, and an overlap of, the economic and political elites. Elections hardly matter. Tragically, the segments of society that are predicted to suffer the most from the consequences of Britain leaving the EU are the same ones that mostly voted in favor of it.

This is a similar phenomenon to the rise of Donald Trump. Instead of vilifying and mocking those who are persuaded by populists like Trump and Nigel Farage, we should recognize that vast swaths of the population have been left behind by an exploitative and uncaring system in which they have zero agency. The result is a willingness to cast a protest vote against anything that smacks of globalization and elite rule, or in favor of any disruption to business as usual. Both within Europe and the US, the environment has been ripe for successful demagoguery for a while now. The remedy should be more genuine democracy, not less.

And if the electorate is supposed to be more educated, who should be schooling them? Should we have believed the outgoing prime minister, who has fucked his own population like it was a dead pig? Or his predecessor, Tony Blair, the smirking war criminal?

Both the IMF and the World Bank came out with dire warnings about a possible post-Brexit future. But who the hell cares what the IMF and the World Bank have to say? They are among the worst culprits in spreading the kind of life-wrecking globalization that people desperately hope to revolt against.

Or should we have listened to the mindless chatter of the media class? By now, it should be uncontroversial that those whose “expert opinion” is constantly fed to us don’t know what they’re talking about. Political analysis and predictions from your average professional pundit are about as accurate as anything you’ll hear down at the pub. Just from the most recent history (remember these?): Bernie Sanders has no chance of mounting a credible challenge to Hillary Clinton, and Donald Trump has no chance of becoming the GOP candidate. I thought I’d learned my lesson, and even I was sure there was no chance Britain would vote to leave.

Bloomberg News was hilariously caught off-guard the morning after, though the article was taken down seconds after I tweeted these screen shots:

(Not sure what’s going on there but, you know, campaigning can be a pretty intimate experience. I wonder if these young activists know their possible courtship was designated as “celebrating the result” of the vote, before the results were in.)

  1. The end is nigh!

With all that in mind, who knows what the consequences of the vote will be? No doubt things can get nasty, but in all honesty, I don’t know that — and probably neither do you. For comparison, read this New York Times piece from 1993, projecting doom and gloom after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. What happened in reality? Not much.

More importantly, whatever the effects of Britain leaving the EU might be, it is unclear, as I noted, whether this will even happen. I wonder if the Brexit leader, London mayor Boris Johnson, didn’t take an even greater risk than David Cameron? Maybe all he wanted was to do some populist grandstanding, with the assumption most people had, that his side would lose? He certainly didn’t come across as particularly jubilant in his statement. He praised Cameron, cautioned against haste, and stated: “There is no need to invoke Article 50,” i.e., to begin the formal process of seceding.

What — like, ever? Who knows. Much of the political elite in the UK and around the world, as well as educated and wealthy people more generally, are opposed to the result. This was another virtual tie (52% to 48%), and it wouldn’t be the first time an EU-related referendum is ignored or the coin tossed again because the unwashed masses got it wrong. Or perhaps the UK will become even more of a de facto honorary member of the EU than Norway is.

I don’t know — and as with the other aspects of the current hysteria, I won’t join those who pretend to know.

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