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Brexit - When Did Unashamed Selfishness Become So Acceptable?

21/06/2016 11:55

Within a week, the UK will have voted on whether to remain in the European Union. The sheer quantity of debate in the run-up to the referendum has been extensive - exhausting, even - but it's sadly unlikely that the quality of argument will have motivated a significant number of people to turn out and vote. Never mind the question of whether the general public are the right people in the first place to make such a complex decision, the difficulty in comprehending the many factors at play has been exploited and worsened by the 'Brexit' campaign's systematic use of misinformation and fear over fact and reason. What is most disappointing though is how both sides are guilty of having narrowed the debate about what it means to be in the European Union, with the 'Remain' campaigners too often arguing in the terms of the self-interested concerns of those pushing for Brexit. In doing this, Remain supporters are missing a vital opportunity to the present positive reasons to stay in the EU which are being largely overlooked. More than this, they are playing a part in the normalisation of selfish attitudes that put 'Britain first' - an agenda set by those wanting to leave which is divisive, inward-looking and reliant on flawed evidence and prejudices. Ultimately, it is an agenda that is harmful to the prospects of British people, whether or not the Brexit campaign wins.

Nearly all of the debates we have witnessed revolve around the needs of the UK and whether we will be better off - they are about our economy, our public services, our security. This is understandable, especially in a context where many of us have legitimate fears about these issues. However, we have been sold a lie if we believe that the existence of these concerns is as a result of the EU. We would not have voices crying "charity begins at home" if we did not have a political backdrop of cuts for the many and benefits for the few. It is disingenuous to attack an institution which redresses imbalances in wealth (including in areas of our own country neglected by Westminster) for inequalities in a society where taxes have been cut for the rich and obscene corporate greed as highlighted by the Philip Green case is normalised. We are reminded by Brexiteers how we are the 5th largest economy in the world and how 'taking back control' from the EU can make Britain great again. But the irony is that with the resources we currently have (and should be ensuring we collect through fair taxation), we should already be a nation without child poverty, housing shortages, foodbanks, stretched health services and increasing inequality - whether or not we are members of the EU. To blame the refusal of a UK government elected on 24% of eligible votes to act on these issues on malevolently 'faceless, unelected EU bureaucrats' is simply the Brexit campaign taking advantage of domestically-imposed struggles for their own ends. At best this type of argument represents false logic and at worst, suggests an attempt to deliberately misguide the electorate. Aside from this, why should we trust anyway that any money we might gain by leaving the EU would do anything other than feed into a system which currently best serves only the privileged few?

The immigration debate and the assertion that EU migrants put pressure on services is the prime way in which the Brexit campaign has taken advantage of the very real struggles faced by people trying to secure primary school places and GP appointments, for example, and apportioning them to our membership of the EU. In reality, pressure on services is a political choice from Westminster. EU migrants are net contributors in terms of taxation, and on average, use services less than native Brits - thus they contribute more than their fair share towards the government's task of providing services to meet need. It is logical to say that an increased population will demand more of existing services, but the real issue of the government failing to take revenue and invest it in services that respond to changing demographics and need is being overlooked. Against this background of underinvestment and stretched services, we forget that the nationality of the service user is not the issue. Irrespective of the evidence that EU migrants bring disproportionate revenue which the government chooses not to put towards public services, it is difference on the grounds of nationality that is emphasized. This ultimately represents fearful division and along the lines of 'otherness' - xenophobia.

If there are imbalances in our transactions with the EU, they are a result of the inherently un-British attitudes of isolationism and selfishness that drive the Brexit campaign itself and which will only be reinforced by a 'leave' vote. The EU offers the same opportunities for British citizens as it does to the migrants Brexiters decry for 'taking our jobs' here in the UK. We theoretically have the same opportunities to live, work and study abroad and have entitlement to use the services of other member states. Only, we don't go abroad as readily as other Europeans come here, because of our inward-looking attitudes which mean we do not see other countries as bearing opportunities for us in the same way that skilled and unskilled European workers view the UK. Other countries see learning English as attractive and valuable in relation to the opportunities that it can bring, and their governments provide the appropriate structures by which people are encouraged to learn our language. We by contrast are are increasingly poor at looking beyond our culture in the sense of encouraging the uptake of European languages. This not only limits our ability to live and work in other parts of Europe, but inherently restrains our horizons and ability to see ourselves as part of a broader European culture. It's not that other countries don't have anything to offer us, that we are the best and therefore don't want to leave the UK to live and work abroad as others seek to come here. It is that our idea of this being a possibility is automatically narrower as a result of inward looking attitudes that will only be exacerbated by Brexit.

The overwhelming emphasis on our own needs (and scapegoating of the EU for our own failure to better look after all in our society with the resources that we already have) has largely been pandered to by the Remain campaign. The cost of this has often been to unsuccessfully convey a positive vision of Europe and the benefits we gain from membership that aren't just about economics or our own needs. We are not just responsible for ourselves in our ever more interconnected world, and by relentlessly focussing on our own potential for success we are at risk of overlooking the damage we may cause to the success and stability of others by leaving. Brexiteers say that leaving the EU will mean we can self-determine and work better with others around the world, but what does a self-prioritising agenda do to further working with others? What kind of message would we be sending to the rest of the world if we were to reject a union borne out of a desire for peace, just for the sake of grater wealth and the freedom to consider our own interests alone? Surely Brexit will only serve to encourage others towards selfishness and increase division. Surely it will harm the rest of the EU economy and to a degree harm the relationships we have with those explicitly asking us to remain. Can't we afford to frame the question in terms of the interests of Europe rather than the UK, to think about the prosperity, security and integrity of our shared relationships rather than our own provincial concerns?

We cannot afford not to care about others. If we can't afford to give money to our neighbours to help with the redistribution of wealth, economic crises, the protection of the environment and international cooperation, then I'm unsure which countries can. We can't afford to accept a consensus that is convinced that there is not enough money to go around, when the reality is unequivocally that we have enough for everyone if only we were to challenge the structures that prevent us from sharing it equally. Above all, when we think of the history of Europe before the EU and the present-day context whereby global stability is precarious to say the least, we have to remind ourselves when we vote on the 23rd June that the prosperity of our international relationships is as important as the prosperity of our national wallet - that there are some things worth paying for, like peace.

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