On the 2nd of June, JUST were proud to host an evening debate in Leeds, in partnership with the UK Race and Europe Network, to discuss the implications of either leaving or remaining in the EU from a Black and Minority Ethnic perspective. Read our report on the debate below.
(Photo:Jeff Djevdet/flikr/cc) JUST Recommended ReadingWith so many arguments to consider and so much information to digest on such a multifaceted issue as our membership of the EU, we decided to put together a collection of articles, essays and sources we feel are of value, both for deciding which way to vote in next week’s referendum, and for understanding the challenges we will continue to face on issues of racial justice, equality and democracy, whether within or without the EU.
Brexit: Should We Stay or Should We Go?
On the 2nd of June, JUST was proud to host an evening of debate on the EU Referendum with our partners at the UK Race and Europe Network. We wanted to facilitate a discussion that would focus on issues important to BME communities and young people from a social justice and anti-racist perspective to counter the mainly partisan tenor of the public debate thus far.
Polling data suggests that BME and young people are among the least likely to vote; this is perhaps unsurprising, since in the mainstream coverage of the referendum has come to resemble an internecine struggle for power within the Conservative party. We hoped that by hosting this debate we would give voters the opportunity to hear and engage with arguments around a decision that will affect all our lives.
Joining us for the debate were Dr. Simon Lightfoot, an EU Lecturer from University of Leeds who chaired the debate; Dr. Saleem Kader, owner and chief executive of Bombay Stores who favours Brexit; Kamal Mashjari, a community activist from the Al-Ghazali Community Centre who supports staying in the EU; Dr. Leslie Rowe, a Green Party member who supports the Brexit position; Leila Taleb, a political activist from Bradford arguing in favour of Remain and Dr. Michael Privot, the director of the European Network Against Racism based in Brussels, who sought to provide some expert insight on the institutions of the EU in the context of the fight against racism and the possible implications of Brexit for anti-racist activism in Europe.
At the beginning of the evening we took an entry poll and a sizeable majority indicated that they had already decided which way to vote, but around 20 percent said they were still undecided.
With such a multifaceted subject, there were a wide variety of points discussed, some familiar, some less so. Dr. Kader argued that while our economy required immigration, he felt that our membership of the EU meant that we could not control it in order to maximize the benefits to our economy. He argued that current levels of immigration were putting public services under pressure, and that current immigration policy unfairly excluded better-qualified and skilled people outside of the EU.
Mr. Mashjari countered that our public services are reliant on immigrants, and growing up in Liverpool in the Thatcher era, he knew from experience that the real threat to public services was the ‘toxic ideology of the Tories’, who attack public services with austerity and then blame their failure on immigrant scapegoats. He argued that the EU has the ability to restrain some of the worst Tory excesses, particularly in light of leading Brexiteer Ian Duncan-Smith’s recent revelation that he looks forward to the greater ‘flexibility’ Brexit will allow around protecting workers’ rights currently enshrined in EU law through legislation such as the Working Time Directive.
Both Mr. Mashjari and Miss Taleb argued that membership of the EU afforded opportunities for young people to gain a broader experience of European culture and history through initiatives like the ‘Erasmus Programme’, an EU Student exchange program from which they both benefitted at university. Mr. Mashjari said that his experience studying in Madrid had given him lifelong friendships with people across four continents and that programs such as these are an invaluable tool for building greater European cooperation and solidarity.
Miss Taleb expressed her concern that arguments around immigration and sovereignty—often tainted with xenophobia and divisive nationalism—were disengaging young people from the debate. She said this was disappointing, since the decision we are making now is the legacy we leave to the next generation and that we were in danger of leaving for the wrong reasons, with no guaranteed route to rejoining. Dr. Privot agreed that the concept of sovereignty had been appropriated by the reactionary right and transformed from the idea of ‘individual sovereignty’, a traditional principle of the left, to the idea of ‘national sovereignty’, which has become a means to sow distrust and disunity among the people of Europe.
Given that the Leave campaign has been dominated by the voices of ‘right-wing’ Conservatives viz. Boris Johnson, Ian Duncan-Smith and Michael Gove, it was refreshing to hear a left-wing perspective in favour of Brexit from Dr. Rowe.
He stressed that the Leave campaign draws support across all political parties and offered a scathing critique of the anti-democratic features of the EU. He painted a vote to leave as a vote for freedom through parliamentary democracy and a rejection of the EU commission and bureaucracy, which cannot be thrown out through the polls. He described an EU that is a champion of austerity, which has been forced on the poorer members of the EU against the will of their people (and often their governments, too), and warned of the anti-democratic TTIP, the so called ‘free trade agreement’ between the EU and the United States that will place the rights of multinational corporations above those of ordinary people and even of governments to legislate in accordance with the will of their populations.
We feel it is important to note that while these arguments are both principled and understandable, they largely ignore pragmatic considerations that demand attention. Many European governments have had austerity forced upon them, but the UK government has been one of the most enthusiastic proponent of austerity globally, and, as Mr. Mashjari pointed out, leaving the EU will almost certainly strengthen the Conservative’s austerity agenda. Likewise, TTIP is an assault on democracy; yet, as with austerity, the UK government has been a leading advocate of the deal within the EU. Opposition to the TTIP within the UK is weak so preventing a similar deal post-Brexit would be extremely difficult. Those arguing to leave the EU do not explain why it would be easier to oppose such deals outside the EU, where there is, in fact, significant opposition to them, often even at governmental level.
Dr. Privot was at pains to stress that ENAR takes no official position on the referendum, but offered his personal reflections from the racial equality perspective. He assured the audience that should the UK leave the EU, there will be ‘no Armageddon’ the day after; the UK will continue to function and will maintain close relations with our European neighbours. He urged the audience to ‘reject fear-mongering’ and to ‘recognize that there are good arguments on both sides’. He said that Brexit would inevitably result in a downsizing of the EU and could potentially result in a loss of solidarity among European activists. He also pointed out that UK activists had played a major role in promoting racial equality legislation within the EU.
There was a lively audience response in the Q&A session following the debate, with many members of the audience keen to give their point of view and ask questions. One audience member dismissed Dr. Kader’s argument for control of immigration as a ‘myth’, arguing that the business lobby would never allow the UK Government to leave the single market, and, therefore, we would be bound to freedom of movement through our trade obligations. He argued that the UK’s immigration problems are caused by UK policy, not by membership of the EU.
Another audience member introduced himself as a British expat living in Europe and expressed his fear of having his family rights taken away. He pointed out that the EU was born out of a fight against fascism, and that Britain should not turn its back on Europe at a time when far-right movements are gaining popularity across the continent. Dr. Privot again cautioned against fear-mongering rhetoric, and pointed out that EU institutions as they currently function do not provide the protections against fascism they once did, and that international solidarity and activism is far more important in confronting the rise of fascism in Europe.
One of the students in attendance expressed their deep concern at much of the rhetoric about human rights and the European Court of Justice that is characteristic of many within the Leave campaign. They felt unsettling precedents were being set in the public discourse and that arguments should be made for extending human rights further, not dismantling the protections that are already in place. One young woman in the audience implored the other attendees not to ‘run away’ from Europe and the problems it faces, but to ‘stay and fight to make it better’.
Perhaps one of the most important sentiments to emerge from the debate was expressed by Dr. Privot in his closing remarks. He said that there are movements across the continent working for a more democratic Europe, and that no matter what the outcome of the referendum, the most important factor in the fight for racial equality and human rights is the international solidarity and cooperation among these movements. He urged all present to maintain their energy and not to stop talking about Europe after the referendum, when the struggle for equality will continue to demand our hard work.
A quick show of hands at the end of the evening showed that, while those who had already made up their minds before the debate had not been swayed by the opposing arguments, virtually every one of the audience members who had said they were still undecided at the beginning of the evening said that the debate had helped them come to a decision on which way to vote on the 23rd of June.