miércoles, 16 de agosto de 2017

Thoughts on Brexit

Last 29 March, Theresa May, UK Prime Minister, sent Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, the letter which triggered Article 50(2) of the Treaty of the European Union, that is, the setting-off of the UK’s exit from the EU after the referendum which took place on 23 June 2016. Natural as it may seem following her posture since she began holding her new office, we must not forget that, as Euronews reported a few days after the referendum, “She was a ‘Remain’ supporter during the campaign, sticking to the government line: that Britain would be better off remaining part of the European Union. Back then, she warned UK voters that Brexit could have seriously damaging effects on the economy, the security, and even the current form of the United Kingdom. May said that leaving the EU would be ‘fatal for the Union with Scotland’, as the Scottish National Party (SNP) would most likely try again for independence if Scotland voted to remain while the UK as a whole voted to leave. She said that access to the European Arrest Warrant and other legal tools meant that ‘My judgement, as Home Secretary, is that remaining a member of the European Union means we will be more secure from crime and terrorism’. May also warned about the economic consequences of Brexit, highlighting the World Trade Organisation rules that ‘would oblige the EU to charge ten per cent tariffs’ on some UK exports, and while not all tariffs are so high ‘some are considerably higher’. This would be the case, she says, until a trade deal with the EU can be reached. It’s disappointing that, now she is supposedly in charge, she is blithely ignoring her own warnings and is prepared to inflict an act of monumental self-harm on the UK economy by pulling Britain out of the single market.”

During a secret audience with investment bankers a month before the EU referendum, Theresa May privately warned that companies would leave the UK if the country voted for Brexit. A recording of her remarks to Goldman Sachs, leaked to The Guardian, reveals she had numerous concerns about Britain leaving the EU. It contrasts with her nuanced public speeches, which dismayed remain campaigners before the vote in June 2016. Speaking at the bank in London on 26 May 2016, the then Home Secretary appeared to go further than her public remarks to explain more clearly the economic benefits of staying in the EU. She told staff it was time the UK took a lead in Europe, and that she hoped voters would look to the future rather than the past. In an hour-long session before the City bankers, she also worried about the effect of Brexit on the British economy. “I think the economic arguments are clear,” she said. “I think being part of a 500-million trading bloc is significant for us. I think, as I was saying to you a little earlier, that one of the issues is that a lot of people will invest here in the UK because it is the UK in Europe. So I think there are definite benefits for us in economic terms.” At Goldman Sachs, May also said she was convinced Britain’s security was best served by remaining in Europe because of tools such as the European arrest warrant and the information-sharing between the police and intelligence agencies.

Yet, in the typical opportunistic twist of these breed of politicians, after Cameron’s resignation and until the elections on 8 June, as Pablo Guimón illustrates on El País, “May endorsed ‘hard Brexit’. She rejected any sort of compromise as far as border control is concerned and accepted a ‘clean exit’ from the common market and the customs union. However, her poor election results posed (as it has been unanimously understood), the defeat of the hard line. ‘Pragmatic Brexit’ is the buzzword now. The United Kingdom is willing to allow the free movement of EU citizens once Brexit is enacted on March 2019 and for a transitional period of at least two years. Even the most euroskpetic ministers of this weakened government have thus admitted, apparently yielding to the outcry of the corporate world, fearful of the negative effects for the Economy if a radical departure from the trading bloc were to take place. It is also noteworthy that Michael Gove himself, who took the leading role in the Brexit campaign, today Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has been commissioned to admit the the Government agrees upon the necessity of a transitional period with a ‘pragmatic approach’ to the free circulation of persons. This concept of a transitional period has always bothered the most stubborn Europhobes, afraid that it could be extended indefinitely and leave the country in a situation similar to Norway’s, contributing to the EU’s Budget and subject to the Court of Justice of the European Union, but with no right to speak or vote in Brussels. Not that they have any other choice when, in addition to the blow in the elections, we take a look at YouGov’s poll for The Economist, which concludes that 51% of British people want a ‘soft Brexit’, as opposed to 44% who prefer a radical departure. The terms of the divorce and the future agreement should be concluded by autumn next year so that the European Parliament can timely pass it. And that is where everybody seems to agree: it is materially impossible. That is the reason why May’s Government has admitted that a transitional period will be necessary (they have used the euphemism ‘implementation period’) to avoid leaping in the dark after 30 March, 2019. On the first quarter of 2017, the United Kingdom has gone from one the fastest-growing economies in the EU to the slowest one.”

A few months before the setting-off of the UK’s exit from the EU, Gideon Rachman warned from Financial Times that “Once Theresa May triggers Article 50, she has precisely two years to negotiate a new deal with the EU. Senior civil servants have told the Prime Minister that it is highly unlikely that the UK will be able to negotiate both the terms of its divorce and a new trade deal with the EU within the two-year deadline. In doing so, she has knowingly placed Britain at a massive disadvantage in the forthcoming negotiations. As soon as Britain triggers Article 50, the EU can simply run the clock down, knowing that the UK will be in an increasingly difficult situation, the longer the negotiations drag on without agreement. At the end of two years, Britain will be out of the EU and would face tariffs on manufactured goods and the loss of ‘passporting’ rights that allow financial services firms based in the City to do business across the bloc. The economic damage from this kind of ‘hard Brexit’ would be severe, blowing a hole in the government finances as tax revenues from the City shrink, ushering in a new period of austerity. The most ardent Brexiters claim that this is all scaremongering. Why, they ask, would the EU contemplate the restoration of tariffs when this could be damaging to its own economic interests? The Leavers can answer that question by looking in the mirror. It is clear that the main motivation of the pro-Brexit camp in Britain is political, not economic. And the same will be true of the EU side in the negotiations. In the British case, the political goal is to restore parliamentary sovereignty and to regain control of immigration. On the EU side, the goal will be to make sure that Brexit does not lead to the unravelling of a European project that has been built up over 60 years. That will mean making sure that the UK pays a clear and heavy price for leaving the EU. As a result, both sides will accept some economic damage rather than sacrifice their political goals. The economic damage the EU will sustain is likely to be smaller and more manageable than that borne by the British side. The EU represents a far larger market for Britain than Britain represents for the rest of Europe. Britain sends 44% of its exports to the EU, while the UK takes only about 16% of EU exports. Some in Britain speak blithely of relying on the rules of the World Trade Organisation after Britain has left the EU. They ignore the fact that Britain is a member of the WTO under the auspices of the EU. Creating an entirely separate British WTO membership requires another set of complex negotiations. And the longer the process is dragged out, the longer Britain is likely to be suspended in a legal limbo that will discourage long-term investment. The obvious solution would have been for Britain to remain inside the EU’s single market, but outside the EU until such time as a new deal was struck. By failing to get that assurance, the British government has severely weakened its position — even before negotiations start.”

As stated by Simon Kuper on Financial Times, “Brexit was sold with falsehoods and is now being mismanaged. To cite just a few Brexiter politicians: David Davis sketched a deal with the EU as simply a matter of a quick visit to Berlin; Daniel Hannan said that obviously the UK wouldn’t leave the European single market; and Nigel Farage predicted that other countries would follow Britain out of Europe. It hasn’t quite turned out like that. More than a year after the referendum, the cabinet still can’t agree on what kind of Brexit it wants, or when. The British state is steaming towards its third disaster in 15 years, after the Iraq war and the financial crisis. Actual foreign information keeps surprising the Brexiters. Even cabinet ministers are discovering only now that Britain will pay the EU a large divorce bill. The tabloids weren’t fully informed either. Though they always complained that Britain was ruled from Brussels, few of them bothered keeping a full-time correspondent there. Britain became a great power because it pioneered the fossil-fuel economy in the 18th century, and because being an island was excellent protection when states still invaded each other. Neither advantage exists any more. Britain today is like a cute little bonobo ape that thinks it’s a gorilla.”

As Craig Calhoun, from the London School of Economics, explained at El País, “Owing to this controversial voting, Theresa May is facing the harshest decline of the British economy since 2009. G20 has already called for the UK and the UE to settle a quick and fluid exit to expel the spectre of uncertainty. The referendum campaign aimed at such a low level of information and quality of the debate that, instead of helping citizens understand the state of play, politicians and de facto powers have sought to frighten the population so as to harness their vote.”

The day after the referendum, Chris Patten stated it clearly on Project Syndicate “A referendum reduces complexity to absurd simplicity. With Brexit, we have seen Donald Trump-style populism come to Britain, a widespread hostility, submerged in a tsunami of populist bile, to anyone deemed a member of the ‘establishment’. Brexit campaigners like Justice Secretary Michael Gove rejected every expert as part of a self-serving conspiracy of the haves against the have-nots: all were portrayed as representatives of another world, with no relationship to the lives of ordinary British people. The tangle of international cooperation and shared sovereignty represented by Britain’s membership of the EU was traduced into a series of mendacious claims and promises. The British people were told there would be no economic price to pay for leaving, and no losses for all those sectors of its society that have benefited from Europe. Voters were promised an advantageous trade deal with Europe (Britain’s biggest market), lower immigration, and more money for the National Health Service and other cherished public goods and services. The reality is that the decision to leave the EU will dominate British national life for the next decade, if not longer: it is difficult to imagine any circumstances in which the United Kingdom does not become poorer and less significant in the world; many of those who were encouraged to vote allegedly for their ‘independence’ will find that, far from gaining freedom, they have lost their job.”

John Carlin spoke out in the same vein on El País: “Theresa May and her assistants repeat over and over the mantra that ‘the will of the people’ must be respected, endowing the quote with sanctity, as if it was heretical to question the result of a referendum in which the vast majority voted with little knowledge of the material consequences of leaving the EU.”

A few days later, Aditya Chakrabortty elaborated on the economic side of Brexit on The Guardian: “Britain has just voted for a severe recession. No big business will want to make serious investments in a country riven by uncertainty, where sterling is on the way to becoming a backwater currency.”

Thomas Piketty, not at all suspect of endorsing the EU’s economic policy, wrote this on El País: “Younger generations are going to suffer for a long time the consequences of the choice of their elders.” And Nobel Prize laureate Mario Vargas Llosa agreed with him: “Younger and better educated Britons, aware of the risk that isolation meant for their future, voted for Europe; older and less prepared ones voted to leave. Yearning for a world which is already gone, which will never come back, plus an outdated political and economic nationalism, prevailed over realism.”

It is obvious then that the Brexit victory was due to the lies of the political leaders (Prime Minister David Cameron to begin with, who right after waking up on Friday morning, in his first public appearance, did exactly the two things he had sworn not to do: resign and postpone sine die the application of article 50 of the Treaty on European Union on the withdrawal of a member State of the Union) as much as to the enthusiasm with which the voters embraced those lies. The same David Cameron that, as Stephen G. Gross explains on Foreign Affairs, “Made the chance of a Remain vote even more unlikely by the way he framed the debate. He intended to use the threat of a referendum to extract concessions from Brussels, just as Prime Minister Harold Wilson had done in 1975. In the process, Cameron, like UKIP leader Nigel Farage, reinforced the message honed by Margaret Thatcher: that voters should see the EU not as a political vision to be shared with the continent but as an organization from which to extract rents. From this perspective, why should a country remain in a polity that lacks a unifying ideal, that is portrayed even by its defenders as a utilitarian project, and that at the same time seems to be fraying from the standpoint of economics and governance?” The same David Cameron that a few months earlier, as Mario Vargas Llosa wrote on El País, “rushed to call this referendum unnecessarily and regretfully, without any legal requirement, owing only to a forced political expediency, a mistake he has paid with the end of his political career and which the forthcoming English History will not be likely to forgive. The Brexit victory sets a disastrous precedent and represents an invaluable support to anti-European (and generally fascist) parties, movements and splinter groups such as Marine Le Pen’s Front National in France, Alternative for Germany, Geert Wilders front in Holland, and others in Poland, Austria, Hungary and the Nordic countries. Brexiteers will soon be greatly disappointed, as far as immigration is concerned, when they realise that their victory is not going to deter the arrival of those dreaded foreigners, not even reduce it a whit. It is not the European Union which brings those surges of immigrants to their shores, but the need Great Britain has of them to fill those jobs the Britons wouldn’t even do by force, as well as the social laws which, with more generosity than realism, were enacted in good times in order to foster that immigration which seemed so necessary back then.”

As Katharine Viner wrote on The Guardian, “At the end of a campaign that dominated the news for months, it was suddenly obvious that the winning side had no plan for how or when the UK would leave the EU – while the deceptive claims that carried the leave campaign to victory suddenly crumbled. At 6.31 am on Friday 24 June, just over an hour after the result of the EU referendum had become clear, UKIP leader Nigel Farage conceded that a post-Brexit UK would not in fact have £350m a week spare to spend on the NHS – a key claim of Brexiteers that was even emblazoned on the Vote Leave campaign bus. A few hours later, the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan stated that immigration was not likely to be reduced – another key claim. The remain side’s worrying facts and worried experts were dismissed as ‘Project Fear’ – and quickly neutralised by opposing ‘facts’: if 99 experts said the economy would crash and one disagreed, the BBC told us that each side had a different view of the situation. (This is a disastrous mistake that ends up obscuring truth, and echoes how some report climate change.) Michael Gove declared that ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’ on Sky News. He also compared ten Nobel prize-winning economists who signed an anti-Brexit letter to Nazi scientists loyal to Hitler.”

The hangover the day after the referendum, as Íñigo Domínguez illustrated on El País, exposed the awful truth of the lies and broken promises about all the wonderful things that were supposed to come about: “The arguments which led 17 million voters to opt for leaving the EU have proven fallacious. One of the main crusades of the Brexit campaign was the decry that the United Kingdom sent 350 million pounds every week to the EU (actually 250, from which the financial support received from the EU should be deducted); The main promise, which even advertised on public buses, declared that by drying up those funds, a good proportion (100 million), could be allocated to the National Health Service. However, right after waking up on Friday morning with the referendum results, Nigel Farage himself claimed that he had never said such thing and that it must have been a ‘mistake’. The other great promise which attracted the Brexit vote was the establishment of an immigration control system to halt the arrival of EU citizens, without taking into account that there is no free access to the EU single market unless there is also free movement of citizens; and businesses are still the top priority, since 44% of British exports go to the EU.”

Nigel Farage’s lies about the NHS and immigration are doubly disgusting when we read accounts like María R. Sahuquillo’s on El País: “62% of immigrants from Western Europe have a university degree, compared to 24% of the British working population. There are around 130 000 healthcare professionals from other EU countries in the National Health Service, representing approximately 10% of its doctors and more than 4% of its nurses, which means that it is more likely to find an EU citizen providing healthcare in the public health than receiving it. Should the United Kingdom leave the EU and the working conditions change, the public health could have a staff shortage of around 50 000 healthcare professionals. Besides, leaving the EU would entail another situation for the United Kingdom: unless agreed otherwise, their citizens will lose the right to medical attention free of direct charge in EU countries. NHS feeds off Europe: not only professionals, but also funds, research aids and European medical networks. Cutting off from the EU will have an impact on the research done by public health institutions, which receive hundreds of millions for innovation, development and analysis projects (last year alone, health centres like University Hospital Birmingham or Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital received around 232 million pounds from the Horizon programme funds).”

Pablo Sempere warned as well about this matter on Cinco Días: “A letter from the Heads of Houses of 35 colleges of the University of Oxford urged British Members of Parliament to protect the rights of EU citizens residing in the United Kingdom once Brexit is triggered. In this letter, the Heads of Houses demanded all MP’s from every party to endorse this amendment and they made them aware that the University of Oxford, among the most prestigious ones in the world, ‘would sustain immense damage if its EU professors, researchers, alumni and academic staff lost their right to work and study in our country.’ As a matter of fact, University of Oxford is opening its first campus outside the UK at the end of 2018 in Paris to cope with the entirely possible loss of European funding once Brexit is completed. ‘The prestige of British academic centres is intimately bound up to its internationalisation. To this day, more than 125 000 students in UK universities come from abroad, and nearly 15% of the teaching staff is european. Besides, research is not done by countries any more, but internationally,’ outlines Carolina Jiménez, Head of Education and Society at British Council.”

No wonder demagogues like Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage or Michael Gove have led astray their fellow countrymen, when even their renowned public broadcaster performs such a shameful coverage of the referendum campaign: as Charles Grant put it, “BBC did the right thing giving centre stage and time to both parts equally, but they did not comply with their obligation to inform and educate. For fear of leading anybody to think they were in favour of the EU, they did the impossible not to behave in such a way that could be interpreted in that sense. When veteran journalists interviewed supporters of leaving outright lying, they did not question their comments. This was largely due to a general lack of knowledge on the EU of a significant part of many well-known BBC hosts and interviewers. The Leave campaign was directed by Dominic Cummings and Matthew Elliott, two highly-experienced political activists who knowingly said and printed misconceptions such as the weekly 350 million pounds from the United Kingdom to Brussels or the imminent accession of Turkey in the EU. They took advantage of the fact that, unlike in commercial advertising, there are no sanctions for false political information. They managed to make the campaign be seen as a battle of the people against the elites, and nobody seemed to care that Boris Johnson went to Eton and Oxford, Michael Gove to Oxford and Nigel Farage to Dulwich College. The remain campaign quoted the many experts who said that the United Kingdom would fare better inside the EU; however, every time they did all they achieved was reinforcing the argument of those in favour of leaving of their patronizing common folk. Hostility against elites has become a strong force, not only in Europe, but also in the USA.”

That is another possible reason which could explain why the oldest democracy in the World was deceived like this: the prevailing ignorance in the United Kingdom with regard to the meaning and the mechanisms of the European Union, as explained by Kathleen R. McNamara on Foreign Affairs: “Unfortunately, many British voters appear not to have known exactly what the EU is. The reality is that British political dynamics, more than the EU’s rules, have created the United Kingdom’s social and economic problems. Whereas other States within the EU have struggled with immigrants from Syria and Iraq, the United Kingdom has had a tiny number of asylum claims; and studies show that immigrants pay far more in taxes than they take out in benefits. Indeed, the areas with the most foreigners, regions already integrated into a new cosmopolitan world, voted overwhelmingly for staying in the EU.” French satirical weekly magazine Charlie Hebdo said the same thing their own way: “For years now, we’ve seen geniuses like Boris Johnson solemnly explaining that Brussels now regulated the permitted size of bananas,” and took the opportunity to open old wounds and look after number one: “When you look at the success of the frankly racist discourse of Trump in the US, you can’t help but think that the failure of the English-speaking world’s model for dealing with migration has not yet reached its lowest point. If the elite sometimes talk a lot of crap, the people aren’t that far behind them in the bullshit stakes: it was those same fabulous ‘people’ who burned books in 1930’s Berlin because the authors were Jews; at the end of the Second World War in France, who was it that publicly shaved the heads of those French women who had slept with German soldiers? Yup, that’s right, those wonderful ‘people’ again. This vote to quit Europe by the ‘people’ of Britain can go right on the shelf beside all those other manifestations of hatred and fear. Since they want to become once more foreigners to the rest of Europe, does that mean that we should block up the Channel Tunnel? Then when they want to visit the Continent, they’ll have to climb into inflatable rafts and paddle across the narrow sea; once at Calais, we’ll give them hot coffee and blankets, volunteers will take over, sort them and move them to reception centres for displaced (and unwanted) foreigners; that will make them feel right at home.”

John Carlin on El País was somewhat harsher on his fellow countrymen: “Hooligans show us a grotesque caricature of how more than half of their fellow countrymen interact with the rest of the World (in the specific case of the referendum, with disdain, mistrust, ignorance and an absurd imperial nostalgia plus a deplorable disrespect and lack of any sense of responsibility). Politicians who campaigned for Brexit did not hesitate to resort to the xenophobic tendencies lurking in the minds of hearts of English people since their childhood. For those who voted for Brexit, the cheap populism of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage et al. had the same effect as beer for hooligans: it dumbed then down, emboldened them and brought out the worst of them. On the contrary, Scots are not indoctrinated with xenophobic sentiments from a young age; besides, as former Minister Michael Gove well knows, their state education system is far superior to the English one. Scots are richer than English in the mental capacities necessary to know the difference between false and real preachers. History will say that a bunch of fools decided the fate of the oldest parliamentary democracy in the world; a country defined throughout the 20th century by tolerance and common sense, now identifies itself before the world with mean insularity, ideological obfuscation and nationalist paranoia.”

These charges of xenophobia against the United Kingdom may be shocking for those who have not experienced their society, as Georgina Fernández Villanueva describes on La Voz de Asturias: “British society is not as tolerant as they try to portray. Kids are continuously calling each other ‘nigger’, ‘paki’ or ‘Polish vermin’, and the sentence ‘My father says that your father steals social assistance and that you came here to take our jobs and our subsidized housing; go back to your fucking country’ is fixed in their minds. The same goes for adults, with accusations such as ‘Your people are coming here to take our jobs, rape and steal.’ They conveniently forget that they don’t have enough native population to fill certain jobs: languages, health, education, engineering. Ironically, while many celebrate their own Independence Day in the hope of finding that job they had been denied due to the keen immigrant competition, those sectors ‘remain’ full of foreigners working 12-hour shifts for lack of skilled labour. A foreign self-employed worker pays 700 pounds in taxes per month, enough to pay the subsidies of nine unemployed British for one week, the same people who could be picking fruit, collecting garbage or working at McDonald’s but, of course, those jobs are already taken by the Poles.” She also details a bit more England’s education issues: “Michael Gove’s educational policy made school curriculums look like those for children with special education needs: Geometry and basic Calculus at the age of 15, and Social Sciences such as Economy, Philosophy, Ethics or basic notions of Politics are virtually missing; it’s as if they were trying to dumb people down. But the country has voted in line with the wishes of those predators of public services to the cry of “Turks are coming!” Or like Íñigo Domínguez’s on El País: “The result of the referendum in the UK, in favour of leaving the EU, has disabled some mechanism which inhibited expressions of racism; and when barbarity kicks off, you don’t know any more what’s going to happen. On Friday night in a Tesco grocery store in Gloucester, a man began shouting and started asking everybody in the queue if they were English: ‘this is England now, foreigners have 48 hours to f**k right off! Who is foreign here? Anyone foreign? Are you Spanish? Italian? Romanian?’ Tabloids, after sparking the worst instincts against immigration for years, lack the necessary objective criteria to publish these pieces of news.”

UK’s political climate has been dramatically poisoned after the referendum, and May’s Administration is mostly responsable for it. Home Secretary Amber Rudd tried to force companies to make lists of their non-British employees. Health Secretary stated that foreign health workers’ jobs were guaranteed only as long as there were not enough trained British workers to replace them. After the outcry, the Administration had to back up in both instances, but a breeze of xenophobia is looming the country.

Cristina García, as Patricia Ruiz reported on El Diario, experienced it personally: “‘My mother called me on the phone and we were chatting about how the day had gone for both of us.’ She wasn’t paying attention to traffic when a sudden brake led her to thinking they had had an accident, but it had been the bus driver. ‘He got out of the cabin to yell at me that, if I meant to keep talking my bloody language, I should go to the upper deck. There’s a climate of tension since then; I had never seen anything like this in the two years I have been living here in London’. The British police has reported a 57% increase of racist incidents during the four days following the Brexit victory announcement. They know they are related to the Brexit referendum because the attackers say things like ‘we voted for your to leave.’ Several Spanish and Turkish restaurants in London’s borough of Lewisham had their windows broken with stones, and the Hammersmith Polish Social and Cultural Association woke up with several xenophobic graffitis saying ‘no more Polish vermin, leave the EU.’ (?) In Hudington, with a large Polish community, several neighbours claim having received letters with racist threats. In the UK, racism has always been present beneath the surface, has gained momentum thanks to the political discourse of some parties during the campaign, and has felt legitimated after the Brexit victory. The only thing that has changed after the referendum is that people used to yell something and run away, whereas now they don’t seem to have any problem to approach and harass in public. Politicians should admit their role in the creation of an environment which may have fostered this kind of attitudes.”

Some even feel compeled to write anonymously: “The country has undoubtedly benefited from the international nature of this workforce. To compete internationally, UK’s universities have to be able to attract the best talent, wherever it is found. Success in the international rankings relies on their ability to do just that. If the UK votes to leave, it will become less attractive not only for EU nationals, but for the brightest and best across the world. Several US-born colleagues, for example, have told me that one of the reasons they settled in the UK was because the indefinite leave to remain here gave them access to the EU. We are being blamed for the state of public services such as health, housing and education, and for undercutting wages, even though the real culprits – chronic underinvestment, poor planning, ineffective governance and watered-down labour laws – are entirely homemade. I have been told: ‘It’s not about people like you, it’s the others.’ I am, apparently, a ‘useful’ foreigner. Therefore, who are the ‘others’ they are talking about? The Polish plumbers? The Lithuanian fruit pickers? The Spanish nurses? The Greek doctors? Or is it the benefit tourists, those mythical creatures that, like the Loch Ness monster, have never actually been spotted, but that surely must exist, given the amount of conversation about them?”

These charges of racism, xenophobia and bigotry do not come just from immigrants like Georgina and Cristina, or foreign journalists like Íñigo, but also from UK citizens like Aditya Chakrabortty, senior economics commentator for The Guardian: “In Huntingdon, Polish-origin schoolkids get cards calling them ‘vermin’ who must ‘leave the EU.’ (?) None of this is coincidental. It’s what happens when cabinet ministers, party leaders and prime-ministerial wannabes sprinkle arguments with racist poison; when intolerance is not only tolerated, but indulged and encouraged. In order to further their campaign and their careers, these professional politicians added bigotry to their armoury of political weapons. Over the past few months, the men who are now shaping Britain’s future outside the EU effectively ditched public decency, and decided it was OK to be racist.”

Also reporting for The Guardian, but on this occasion writing for Vice, Mark Wilding’s view is that “Something changed in Britain after the referendum, the country has witnessed what has seemed at times like an outpouring of hate. There have been anonymous letters sent in Tunbridge Wells, inviting recipients to ‘Fuck off back to Poland.’ A German woman had dog shit thrown at her front door and was told by her neighbours she’s no longer welcome here. A British Asian mother, walking her son to school in Greater Manchester, was physically assaulted by a man who asked her: ‘I voted for you to leave so what are you doing here?’ While it would be tempting to describe these as isolated incidents, the evidence is more than anecdotal. More than 3000 hate crimes were reported to the police in the week before and after the referendum, a 42% increase on the same period a year before. Mark Hamilton, head of the National Police Chiefs’ Council, described the rise as ‘probably the worst spike’ on record. He was in little doubt that the referendum was the reason. ‘Some people took that as a licence to behave in a racist or other discriminatory way,’ he told the Guardian. ‘We can not divorce the country’s reaction to the referendum and the increase in hate crime reporting. People felt emboldened and felt their racist views were now what more than half of the country also felt. I don’t think racism is a new concept by any means. However, people that are so inclined now think that half of the country agrees with them.’ A report examining the rise of racist and xenophobic behaviour in the wake of the referendum analysed 636 individual reports of hate crime found that in 51% of cases the perpetrators referred specifically to the referendum in their abuse. In one typical incident, a middle-aged white man entered a bar the day after the vote was held and told a young British Asian woman: ‘We’ve voted to leave Europe today but we should have voted to kick all you lot out. You’ll never be real British.’ It also seemed that some voters believed the referendum result had sent a message – that it was a protest against any kind of immigration. It was a view characterised by the Brexit voter who was photographed in Essex wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan: ‘Yes! We won! Now send them back.’ Our views on race and immigration are not formed in a vacuum. In 2012, current prime minister and then Home Secretary Theresa May outlined her aim to create ‘a really hostile environment for illegal immigration.’ A year later, the Home Office deployed six advertising vans displaying a message aimed at illegal immigrants: ‘Go home or face arrest.’ Liz Feteke, director of the Institute of Race Relations, said recently: ‘If a hostile environment is embedded politically, it can’t be a surprise that it takes root culturally.’ In her report, Priska Komoromi found that around a quarter of the incidents reported to the three social media campaigns involved abuse using the words ‘go home’ or ‘leave’. Carl Miller is research director of the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos and recently conducted an analysis of Twitter updates sent over the referendum period. He found that discussion of immigration on the platform peaked around the date of the vote. So did the number of xenophobic attitudes being expressed. Between 19 June and 1 July, Miller found 16 151 tweets containing terms linked to xenophobia or anti-immigrant attitudes. The highest concentration of these updates occurred on the referendum date itself. As highlighted by the PostRefRacism campaign, Twitter was also used by victims of abuse to share their experiences. Between 25 and 29 June, Miller found 2413 reports of hate crime on the platform. It’s widely assumed that the true number of incidents is much higher than those which are reported. The conditions which can spark an outpouring of hate emerge suddenly. Attitudes take much longer to change.”

Also from The Guardian, Matthew Weaver provides similar figures: “In the 38 days after the referendum there were more than 2300 recorded race-hate offences in London, compared with 1400 in the 38 days before the vote.”

As things go, as Helen Pidd recounted on The Guardian, “Not even speaking English will protect you against bigotry. Overt racism is not a thing of the past, and airing racist views in public is socially acceptable. For foreigners, being abused in the street, being called ‘fucking black’, ‘black dog’, ‘dirty doggy’, being told to ‘go home’, having their door painted red as some kind of preparation for Kristallnacht revisited, having their windows egged and broken, being afraid to open them for fear of people pouring rubbish, is just part of British life, like excessive apologising and eating roast meat on a Sunday.”

This campaign against immigration by tabloid press increased racist incidents and made many people feel unsafe, to the point of avoiding speaking their own language on the street, as Silvia González López recounted on El País.

On El País, Segismundo Álvarez Royo-Villanova explained those xenophobic outbreaks in psychological terms: “We human beings are still making decisions based on mechanisms developed in primitive societies, when belonging to a group was the only guarantee of security and survival; that’s the reason why it’s so easy to reawaken at any time fear of others, group selfishness, ethnocentric and exclusionary nationalism. Primitive thinking works from the financial point of view, too: societies with limited resources and non-developing technology are under a zero-sum system, that is, what the group or individual earn is what my tribe or myself are losing. In an open market economy like today’s, exchange and innovation allow everybody to profit, therefore the entry of new workers can be beneficial in general, so the enrichment of some does not entail the impoverishment of the rest. Unfortunately, an intellectual effort is necessary to understand that, while pointing an accusing finger at an outside culprit immediately echoes deep inside us; that’s why the ‘them’ (rich folks, foreigners, the EU) versus ‘us’ (the people, the Spaniards, the real British) political rhetoric is so successful; that’s why immigration, an important problem along with many others (demography, education, improving institutions) becomes the heart of many campaigns. We can’t fight against those who hold unreasonable positions by trying to bridging the gap with them (just like BBC did), because that battlefield is always favourable to the most radical ones or those who are more artful with propaganda, not to the ones with the best reasons. All this applies not only to politicians, but also to the citizens, who are the main figures in politics and elections at the end of the day; if we are not willing to get involved in opinion-forming, civic movements, reporting corruption, or even directly in political parties, we will allow to rule over us tomorrow those we consider clowns today.”

As an example of how easy it is to manipulate voters, we can take a look at Ipsos Mori’s survey of public opinion. Citizens from 25 countries were asked which matters they were most worried about. The results showed that Britons are most worried about immigration (42%). And not only that: among the 25 countries included in the study, pushing worry about this issue is higher in Britain than in other countries like Germany, Sweden or even Turkey, which are more directly affected by the refugee crisis resulting from the civil conflict in Syria.

However, those xenophobic outbreaks are not at all surprising when those who harbor such feelings of hatred see them legitimated by the messages of their leaders. When, as Gonzalo Fanjul illustrated on El País, “Theresa May’s (the new UK Prime Minister) arguments are similar to Nigel Farage’s and Marine Le Pen’s openly xenophobic rhetoric, in view of her not so subtle campaign against illegal immigrants (“Go home or face arrest”). As Michael Ignatieff put it in a recent interview in The New York Times, ‘We’re seeing an ideological split between cosmopolitan elites, who see immigration as a common good based in universal rights, and voters, who see it as a gift conferred on certain outsiders deemed worthy of joining the community’. The concept that an established community (United Kingdom, Spain, Europe, Catalonia) is entitled to decide upon the access and the residence of those ‘outsiders’ in their territory may seem an obvious remark, but it is not. Inasmuch as restricted mobility determines the right of others to progress, education, health or simply personal protection (considered universal rights), we run into a conflict between both parties which cannot be settled just by saying ‘we were here first’. Accepting that would mean waiving the foundations that put an end to slavery or guaranteed women’s suffrage, since we cannot grant to a passport those rights we have denied to race or gender.”

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