June 29, 2016 Written by Georgios Giannakopoulos Published in EUROPE
Illustration: Antonio Rodríguez GarcíaIllustration: Antonio Rodríguez García
In the aftermath of the British referendum, we asked friends of AnalyzeGreece with links to the UK what they thought of the result. We will be publishing short interviews with them over the coming days. George Giannakopoulos, an intellectual historian at Queen Mary, University of London, who has been living in the UK since 2010, gives us his thoughts on Brexit and its implications for migrants in the UK, as well as for UK politics and the rise of the far right across Europe.
What was your initial reaction to the referendum result? How do you assess its potential impact on migrants in the UK?
The news reached me in a hotel room in Denmark. I spent the night in front of a TV screen in contact with friends from the UK. The whole situation brought back memories of last year’s long and bruising Grexit nights. Another summer; another referendum; another set of anxieties. Anxieties about Europe and about the country I’ve chosen to reside in for the past six years. One could hardly miss the anti- EU mood in the country in the run up to decision day. Brexiters were very effective in framing public discussion around immigration, power and control. It is high time, they argued, to control “our” porous borders with the EU; to empower “our” disaffected English citizens from a dysfunctional unrepresentative Eurocracy; to regain Britain’s global so-called “prestige”. Jo Cox’s assassination interrupted the debate. To some of us it seemed that the reaction to the politics of hate might strike a chord with voters and energize the Remain campaign which by then was predominantly led by conservative arguments about the economy and sentimental appeals to abstract European ideals. Then came the moment of truth. The politics of fear prevailed. A misguided longing for national ‘control’ swept through England leaving Scotland, parts of Wales, Northern Ireland and London adrift in a sea of reaction.
Predictably, everyone in the UK is talking. Social media are full of commentaries and op-eds. Unfortunately, a good number of commentators in the Greek press offer misguided readings of the situation, be it from the left or the right. The tendency to read the British reaction against the EU from the lens of the Greek-EU debacle is distorting to say the least. If I were to point out a couple of interesting pieces offering a less distorting analysis, I’d have to mention Will Davies’s Thoughts on the sociology of Brexit and Peter Mandler’s take on the London/rest of the U.K. divide.
My generation has benefited immensely from the open borders policy of the EU. Even those who frequently trumpet their ‘anti-capitalist’ credentials by pointing to the so-called ‘neo-liberal’ foundations of the European project have profited from traveling, living and studying across a unified European space. Britain, and London, have been at the heart of this. The ensuing period of uncertainty accentuates fears. It is highly likely that new migration laws will affect directly the prospects of employment for European migrants in the country. Moreover, it is still unknown how the highly internationalized British university model will adjust to the new realities. This is just an example of the huge challenges lurking in a period of protracted instability and anxiety.
What are the implications for Europe and Britain?
Living through the rise and demise of the Syriza moment in the UK, I had the chance to witness the hunger for political change and progressive reforms in Britain (and Europe). The unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party came to signify this. Corbyn’s reluctant endorsement of the Remain campaign seemed to be moving in the right direction despite the pressure coming from small factions of the far left which were behind the so-called Lexit campaign. At this moment, it is not clear whether Corbyn’s Labour will survive the unprecedented challenge mounted against his leadership. Corbyn’s campaign faults and leadership style has been subjected to much hyperbole. On the whole, I find Martin O’Neill’s qualified account very well-balanced. The Labour Party is in dire need of an effective political and national strategy to address the political and national divisions in a disunited United Kingdom. Predictably, the Tory Brexiters are beginning to backtrack on many of their promises and the one force which seems to benefit at the moment is the right-wing populism represented by UKIP (and the Front National in France).
Finally, one has to mention the resurgence of Englishness as a response to the challenges of globalization and the purported “loss” of national identity. The media have been reporting racist attacks towards Eastern European migrants. A few weeks ago, in a coastal town not far from London, I witnessed an impromptu march by a small group of white middle aged English males holding anti-refugee and anti-immigrant placards and chanting racial slurs. The incident occurred in a very crowded street in broad daylight. What surprised me was the apathy of the crowd. The indifference shown reminded me of the attitude of many Greeks towards Golden Dawn. Scenes from a (dystopian) future to come.
Georgios [Yorgos] Giannakopoulos is an intellectual historian. He studied political science and history in Greece (BA, MA Panteion University, Athens) before embarking on a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. His research revolves around ideas of nationality and internationalism in early 20th century British thought.
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