Great Britain is my adopted home. I have deep affection for this nation — for its people, for its great tradition of liberalism and for its commitment to justice and human rights. For its art, literature, theatre, music and film, its long record of groundbreaking scientific discoveries, its beautiful countryside, its National Health Service … I could go on.
The European Union (EU) referendum on June 23 will be one of the most significant decisions British citizens will ever have to make. The outcome will affect how the UK is governed, national security, the economy, human rights, the environment, culture … every aspect of our lives. It will define what it means to be British and could alter this country’s relationship with the world for generations to come.
Rhetoric of the “Leave Campaign”
I watched in disbelief as some British leaders resorted to racist rhetoric in the lead-up to the referendum. Boris Johnson made a notorious comment about the EU in an interview with The Telegraph: “Napoleon, Hitler, various people tried this out, and it ends tragically … The EU is an attempt to do this by different methods.” Johnson should remember Godwin’s Law, which states that in any argument, the first person to mention the Nazis is deemed the loser. Both the leave and remain campaigns have descended to fearmongering but Johnson has arguably stooped the lowest, by comparing the EU to Nazi Germany. I say “arguably” because he has some tough competition.
We must not forget that the EU is more than an economic entity. It is a vital peacekeeping force in Europe.
A recent poster for the “leave” campaign, released on the eve of an England vs. Turkey football match, shrieked: “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU,” warning Britain of an invasion of murderous, kidnapping, gunrunning Turks. Another depicts an EU passport as an open door, with footprints leading through it, and the caption, “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU. Vote Leave, take back control.” Never mind that this is factually untrue — as Polly Toynbee’s excellent article in the Guardian explains. This has, increasingly, been the fail-safe tactic of the “leave” campaign — xenophobic attempts to persuade British citizens that there is a marauding army of Eastern European and Turkish criminals poised to descend upon the UK. The question of the EU has brought out great passion on both sides of the argument — it has also exposed the latent prejudice at the heart of the “leave” campaign.
Some of the leaders of the “leave” campaign seem to have forgotten their history: the purpose and achievements of the European Union. Winston Churchill spoke in 1946, after World War II, of the need for a united Europe, “under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom.” The European Union was formed to preserve that peace and the EU has been largely responsible for keeping it, ever since. The leaders of the “leave” campaign seem to have forgotten that the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, for its contribution to “over six decades … of the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” The Nobel committee president, Thorbjoern Jagland, said the EU has played a critical role in transforming a European “continent of war” into a “continent of peace.”
War in Europe — Remembering Srebrenica
I do not take “peace, safety and freedom” in Europe for granted.
In 1993, I traveled to the former Yugoslavia to document the mass rape of Bosnian women by Serbian forces, as part of their campaign of ethnic cleansing. Between 1992 and 1995, Bosnian Serb troops cut a bloody swathe through the Bosnian Muslim population, to the cost of over 100,000 civilian lives. Over 2 million people were forced to flee their homes. The war culminated in the genocide at Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, where 8,373 Bosnian Muslims — civilians, women, children and virtually the entire male population — were systematically slaughtered by Bosnian Serb troops in cold blood during four days of carnage. It was the worst massacre on European soil since the Third Reich. The war did not involve any EU member states.
When issuing the indictment against Gen. Ratko Mladic at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Judge Fouad Riad described “scenes of unimaginable savagery, thousands of men executed and buried in mass graves, hundreds of men buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers’ eyes, a grandfather forced to eat the liver of his own grandson. These are truly scenes from Hell, written on the darkest pages of human history.”
For those of who have lived in peace in the EU for so long, such “scenes from Hell” are unimaginable. We must not forget that the EU is more than an economic entity. It is a vital peacekeeping force in Europe.
EU Unity, Diversity
I was born in Managua, Nicaragua, and educated in France — I have dual nationality, and I choose to live in the UK. My daughter was born in Paris, my granddaughters, my little grandson and great granddaughter were all born in the UK.
In the past, the UK’s outlook seemed to me to incorporate the best parts of the European Union’s ethos of inclusion, solidarity and diversity. The EU anthem, from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, has no words, to show that no one language has precedence. The stars on the flag are arranged in a circle to show that there is no hierarchy between countries. The EU motto is “United in diversity.”
We all know that the EU is not a perfect institution, but to abandon it in favor of a policy of isolationism would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as the saying goes. Britain draws great strength from its relationship with Europe. To cut ourselves adrift from this common heritage with the EU, our economic, political and cultural ally, would weaken Britain and its place in the world. I am deeply troubled by the possibility of Britain’s leaving the European Union.
As someone who has dedicated their life to defending human rights, peace and civil liberties, I welcome the EU as a progressive force, holding countries to high, common standards for human rights. Abolition of the death penalty is a precondition for entry into the EU and it’s the leading institutional actor and largest donor to the worldwide fight against the death penalty. It maintains close ties with the Council of Europe, which has made worldwide abolition of capital punishment one of its governing objectives, and is dedicated to promoting democracy, rule of law, human rights and economic development in the EU. I have been the Council of Europe’s goodwill ambassador for the abolition of the death penalty since 2003.
The EU has enshrined in law important protections for women’s rights, LGBTI rights and workers’ rights. All EU member states are required to fulfill the Copenhagen Criteria as a prerequisite: Members must be “stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities.”
We are at a critical juncture in the history of women’s rights. There is an important proposal currently making its way through the European Parliament, for EU-wide ratification of the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe, the most comprehensive international treaty on combating violence against women and girls. Twelve EU countries have already ratified the convention, and 13 have signed, but not ratified it. The UK signed the convention on June 8, 2012, but has not yet ratified it. I urge Prime Minister David Cameron to make ratification of the Istanbul Convention an urgent priority.
The EU has a number of other pioneering pieces of legislation such as the European Protection Order by which survivors of sexual assault or domestic violence who are granted legal protection such as a restraining order in one EU country are entitled to the same legal protection if they move to another EU country. The EU also guarantees equal rights to a pension. Women are often excluded from company pension schemes because they work part time and take breaks to have children. “EU law now prevents discrimination and guarantees equal rights for all social security benefits,” as reported in The Huffington Post. EU law requires that a woman’s job be held open so she can return to work without loss of status or pay. This is progress from the days when women were routinely sacked for becoming pregnant — this still took place in the UK until the late 1970s — but we are not progressing fast enough in the UK or anywhere else on creating gender equality. We have not even achieved the minimum standard of equal pay for women in most countries. I believe that these EU legislative protections for women are of paramount importance.
Climate change is the greatest threat we face in our time. I have participated at the United Nations climate change conferences since 2007, in my role as founder, president and chief executive of the Bianca Jagger Human Rights Foundation. The European Union has often been the voice of reason in those fraught international negotiations. The EU has some of the most ambitious targets in the world on reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change. TheEU “Climate and Energy Framework”pledges a reduction of at least 40 percent in greenhouse gas emissions relative to 1990 levels, at least a 27 percent share for renewable energy and at least 27 percent improvement in energy efficiency — all by 2030.
As for environmental protection, the EU’s Natura 2000 program is the largest coordinated network of conservation areas in the world, covering 18 percent of the land area and 6 percent of its marine territory, offering protection to Europe’s most valuable and threatened biodiversity.
The UK government’s environmental track record is far from perfect. Prime Minister Cameron has unreservedly endorsed fracking. Last year, 10 conservation groups, including the National Trust, Greenpeace and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, expressed their concern at the dangerous “watering down” of the UK’s environmental policies. I fear that if Great Britain were to leave Europe, we could be left to the tender mercies of the UK government.
A Rich Cultural Tapestry
The creative industries in Britain thrive on a relationship with Europe. Last week, I went to Glyndebourne to see Il Barbiere Di Siviglia, or The Barber of Seville. The production was sparkling, witty and hilarious. The opera was directed by a British woman and conducted by a Spanish man, sung by Italian and German baritones, as well as an American tenor and an Australian-American soprano. According to a letter signed by 282 leading figures from film, music, theatre, literature, dance, design, the arts and fashion, including Sir Tom Stoppard, Tracey Emin, poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy, Wolfgang Tillmans, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Sir Patrick Stewart, Sir Anish Kapoor, Benedict Cumberbatch, John le Carré, Dame Kristin Scott Thomas, Steve McQueen and Dame Vivienne Westwood, among many others, the British arts are stronger within a united European Union. It is a fact that EU funding has been critical in helping the UK film industry flourish: The Creative Europe program provided critical seed money for Oscar-winning British films, such as The King’s Speech, The Iron Lady and Slumdog Millionaire. But perhaps even more significant than money,says the letter, is the creative exchange between countries — the collaborative, artistic endeavors that being part of a European community makes possible.
Britain’s relationship with the EU is equally critical to the sciences, according to a letter to the Times signed by more than 150 fellows of the Royal Society. Stephen Hawking said the Brexit would be “a disaster for UK science,” adding, “Being able to attract and fund the most talented Europeans assures the future of British science and also encourages the best scientists elsewhere to come here.” The UK holds a pre-eminent place in the world of the arts and sciences, and this could be jeopardized by leaving Europe.
One hundred and three universities have also come out in favor of the “remain” campaign, including Oxford, Cambridge, the London School of Economics and Political Science, the University College London and Edinburgh. “While no one is suggesting that UK universities could not survive outside the EU,” they write, “leaving would mean cutting ourselves off from established networks and would undermine the UK’s position as a global leader in science and the arts.”
Europe is currently open to young British people from all walks of life. In one of the worst economic climates in living memory, the ability to travel and work in Europe has been a lifeline for them. It is no surprise that at a student debate in Leeds in February, 298 of the 300 students present wanted Britain to stay in the EU. Their generation has grown up with the economic and cultural advantages of being part of Europe. They cannot imagine anything else. As well as work, young people can travel to see galleries, architecture, theatre, beautiful landscapes and great cathedrals all across the continent. I hope that future generations will be not denied this opportunity.
Those who complain about the influx of European migrants and refugees also forget that it goes both ways — there are 1.4 million Britons currently living in Europe. Their lives would be seriously impacted in a number of ways, including recall to the UK, increased taxes in their EU country of residence or the withdrawal of benefits such as health care. After the Brexit, no more Britons could relocate to an EU country with such ease.
A Referendum on Xenophobia
I was very moved by the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans’ beautiful posters urging Britain to stay in the EU. It is true that I am politically aligned with Tillmans on this issue — but the fact remains that these images provide a strong contrast to the racist rhetoric of the “leave” campaign. “No man is an island. No country by itself.” says the simply printed text, superimposed on a stark aerial view of the UK coastline. Another, showing a softly blurred image of a vivid blue horizon, says, “What is lost is lost forever.” Tillmans’ posters are not part of an official campaign — he made them of his own initiative, with the help of his London and Berlin studio assistants. They are a passionate personal plea from an artist who believes that the EU is “the largest peace project in human history.”
I fervently believe that the UK must remain in the EU if it is committed to being part of a better, more peaceful, more just, more diverse, more tolerant, more economically secure world. I also believe that to leave the EU is to slip backward, perhaps irrevocably, into isolationism and xenophobia — all in the name of misplaced self-interest and fear. Winston Churchill said in 1963, “The future of Europe if Britain were to be excluded is black indeed.” I believe that our future, were the UK to leave the EU, would be equally black.
Note: This piece was originally posted at The Huffington Post.