The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union (EU) has sparked national and international shock as well as outrage. More than just a decision on whether the country should stay or go, it was transformed into a referendum on the continuing power of multiculturalism and toleration against the resurgent forces of racism and xenophobia.
However, this popular narrative misses how much of Brexit’s rhetoric and politics was fueled by the increasingly racist and conservative rhetoric of the EU over the past decade. In recent years, the EU has become a vehicle for spreading neoliberalism and austerity — forcefully if necessary. Central to this project was the promotion of racist rhetoric scapegoating “lazy,” “inefficient” and “ungrateful” southern countries such as Greece and Spain for their economic woes. Adding fuel to this fire was the demonization of Arabs and Muslims as part of a “war against extremism” that supported European imperialism abroad and racial elitism domestically.
The hateful rhetoric and violence driving Brexit did not arise in a vacuum — it ironically grew hand-in-hand with of the EU’s own dangerous racism. It must be met with a progressive response that challenges this racist politics both inside the United Kingdom and beyond its borders.
Closed Borders, Open Racism
The very term “Brexit” conjures up popular images of a racist backlash against immigrants and an emotionally charged desire for closed borders. It was a campaign driven by a misguided but resonant fear of a “foreign other,” from the Eastern European who was “stealing” British jobs to the Syrian refugee coming to “terrorize” the population at large.
The EU for its part became a symbol for cherished liberal values of toleration and multiculturalism. The sentiment to remain transcended economic concerns and reflected a broader desire to reject a rising tide of prejudice and a reactionary politics of the worst kind. To be “in” meant for many an embrace and celebration of differences and a condemnation of all those who would try to rule through exploiting traditional social divisions.
Yet in truth, there is a certain irony to this debate that too often continues to be ignored. It is that a large swath of those who voted to leave the EU were simply echoing its own racist discourses. The pro-austerity agenda of the EU implicitly drew upon a trumped up “north-south” cultural divide that stereotyped countries such as Greece as economically “irresponsible.”
There has also been a growing acceptable demonization of non-white citizens — particularly Arabs and Muslims — as part of a war-on-terror struggle against “extremism.” These stereotypes were only stoked in the wake of the refugee crisis, where, across the continent, those fleeing persecution were suddenly branded as unwanted “intruders” threatening European “civilization.”
Thus, while the UK closed off its borders to Europe, it retained the EU’s politics of racial and ethnic stereotyping. The country’s cultural protection was itself in no small part a profoundly regional import.
Playing the European Blame Game
The justification for leaving, of course, was not solely premised on a politics of explicit or implicit racism. There were also more respectable overtures made to the very real issues of the EU’s lack of democratic accountability and the United Kingdom’s demand for national sovereignty.
Underpinning these concerns was a belief that the EU was almost completely responsible for the UK’s economic and social problems. In this regard, it mirrored Europe’s own politics of deflection and denigration. EU leaders time and again victimized vulnerable populations as responsible for their own exploitation and inferior position.
The eurozone crisis last year put this strategy in stark relief. Greece was portrayed as an economic drain on the continent’s richer and more “responsible” countries like Germany, France and the UK. The fact that these nations profited from Greece and the rest of Southern Europe’s economic woes was conveniently marginalized. These ethnic-based discourses of blame also overshadowed that this debt was accrued and was being used as part of a pro-austerity agenda pushed by international elites to justify cutting public services for their own private benefit.
Similarly, the horrific and tragic attacks in Paris and Brussels have been channeled into official policies that focus on the dangers of “extremism” at the expense of addressing the root causes of this violent radicalism. Conveniently disregarded was the endemic racism and imperial foreign policies that were fueling these actions and allowing for such hate-filled ideologies to flourish within Europe.
Those in support of Brexit were simply following the EU’s political lead. Blaming immigrants for the country’s economic woes, vilifying an EU bogeyman for its lack of popular democracy and maligning Arabs as threatening Britain’s “way of life” exemplified a broader regional politics of using popular racism to reinforce elite interests and rule. Ironically, the UK was perhaps never more European than when it left.
The EU’s Racism Comes Home
Following this momentous decision to leave, those who chose to remain must find a new way forward. Understandably, in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, there has been much confusion on both sides, and even reports of regret. For some of the left, this opened up a potent opportunity to move the country away from the neoliberal hegemony of the EU. Others sought to blame a less-than-enthusiastic Labour Party leadership for this shocking defeat.
Yet these gestures do little to fully grasp the critical task ahead. It is crucial to articulate a progressive agenda that unites individuals and communities within and across existing borders in a new revolutionary project of social justice and economic equality. Crucial to such efforts is to struggle against the rising tide of racism and oligarchy both at home and in solidarity throughout Europe and the world.
To simply blame the “ignorance” of Brexit supporters would be to repeat the very politics that first destroyed the EU’s ideals and now is leading to its concrete destruction. It is to trade the jingoism of the nation for that of the continent, both of which bear the bloody mark of past and present racial and class oppression. It is to try and cure the most virulent symptom of this poisonous politics rather than the disease itself.
There is little doubt that the vote to depart the EU will leave an indelibly negative stain on the UK. An entire generation will lose the right to work and live outside the small island where they were born. Just as significantly, minority populations and immigrants — much of what makes the country so culturally and economically rich — will feel ever more threatened and vulnerable. And this does not even begin to touch on the economic damage that it will wreak.
However, it is also the chance for a new beginning. To create a politics built not on forced allegiance, but shared values and interests. To create the foundations for a fresh unity that runs deeper than the construction of common enemies. The potential breakup of the UK as a consequence of this result speaks to this possibility of dissolving old imperial bonds with the hopes of creating something more progressive in the present.
Brexit was, above all else, the racism of the Europe coming home and turning against itself. Perhaps, in the ultimate paradox, it is only from these tragic ashes of defeat that a European Union worthy of its founding ideals can finally be born.