A few days ago, I listened to a radio interview with a man from Iran who had immigrated to the UK some three decades ago. He suggested that the UK was now flooded with EU (and non-EU) migrants and advocated that the British people should reboot the system by 'brexiting' the EU. The journalist argued that surely an immigrant would be more accommodating of the critical challenges facing migrants in Europe and across the MENA today. The man remained unconvinced and added that the UK had changed dramatically and was no longer the way he had come to know it some thirty years earlier. So the interview tapered off with the journalist expressing his astonishment and puzzlement.
I, on the other hand, was really neither astonished nor puzzled since this man is not the only immigrant to suggest those ideas. And like him, by the way, I too am someone who was not born in the UK but was happy to find myself here and to enjoy the hospitality of this country. So why was I not as surprised or puzzled like the journalist?
Some two decades ago, I chose to make the UK my home for two key reasons. On the one hand, I decided to exit a region - the MENA - where human beings might be born in the image and likeness of God but they certainly are not free or equal. Fundamental freedoms and civil liberties were - and still are to a large extent - in short supply. Men and women are subject to their rulers' whims, to their brutality, arrogance or mercy, despite the huge potential and resourcefulness bottled in those young societies. No wonder so many men and women have been fighting for dignity and bread - for recognition of their humanity - since 2010. And no wonder the pushback by vested powers has been ferocious too.
The second reason was because I believed that Europe - and certainly the UK - provided a more level playing field in professional terms. In the MENA region, it is often a question of whom you know rather than what you know, whereas my experiences have taught me that things are far more merit-based in Europe despite the subtle albeit noticeable changes sweeping across European societies too.
Fast-forward to 2016!
The two macro-issues that are being peddled by the Stay and Leave groups today are immigration and the economy. The Stay group has a distinct edge over the economic arguments, with numerous studies corroborating their analyses, whilst the Leave proponents are able to exercise emotions over immigration numbers. However, and as 23 June (date of the referendum) draws nearer, the gloves are coming off with increasing celerity. Having established the key arguments of economy versus immigration in the minds of would-be voters, both sides are now increasingly evoking a range of micro-issues and personal considerations. Everything from the cost of our properties, holidays or food staples to the very survival of the NHS are being clumped together into the confusing jargons of 'hope' and 'fear'!
It is true that things have changed quite dramatically in the UK over the past few decades. I still treasure my first memories when I arrived into England to study Law. My evening 'tea' in a bedsit often consisted of boiled meat and boiled cabbage whilst an open and smoke-emitting fireplace in the corner warmed the dining room. I do not need to highlight how our palates have changed alongside our travelling habits and social attitudes. Our country is now far more multi-cultural, more inclusive, varied, colourful or even eclectic, with a babel of languages to be heard on most high streets. So no matter the happy benefits or somewhat fewer unhappy challenges of this transformation, we are now willy-nilly part of a larger world - call it EU, EEA, Single Market or even the much-touted global village.
It seems to me that what worries many people today is not solely the broad issue of immigrants taking our jobs (quite untrue) or of milking our welfare benefits (cautiously untrue too) but equally those secondary issues attributed to the social and religious changes in our midst that are not their 'cup of tea' and do not tally with how they define the GB brand in their minds. But is this not a simplified way of looking at 2016?
Whether we accept those changes or feel uncomfortable with them, we have to realise that there are bigger issues. Today, the stakes are higher with terror organisations menacing our way of life. This is not a cliché: terrorists - and not only ISIL - are trying to break our security and cohesiveness in order to lunge us back into the ribald rivalries and bitter dissensions of the past. And although we could struggle alone against those perils, is it not also the EU - alongside NATO on a more international level - that has helped nudge the odds in our favour? Is it not the joint cooperation and intelligence-sharing - no matter how wobbly at times - that reduce the menaces lurking at every corner?
Do I really wish to turn my back on this Club of 28? Do I really wish to run the risk that we might be better off on our own? Am I ready to take a leap in the dark simply because I do not like the EU sense of tutelage, its con concomitant changes or even its regulations on the shape of bananas and the texture of cucumbers? I know this might sound a tad flippant, since one can subsume them under the unattractive rubric of harmonisation, but so are some of the arguments being highlighted by those advocating an exit. Is it not better to improve things from within instead?
Tinkering with this formula at a time of many unknowns is unwise and - dare I add - un-British too!
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