What the hell happens now on Fantasy Island?
December 23, 2016 Leave a comment
Since June 24, I have been going back and forth across more or less visible borders, attending talks, discussions, debates, symposiums, hearings, and other forms of airing of grievances related to the EU referendum in the U.K., in which a very simple question was asked: would British citizens like to retain membership in the European Union?
By the time most readers of this blog sit around a table filled with food prepared and packaged from all corners of the single market, introducing romantic partners from all over the Schengen area, and exchange gifts paid for in Euros, it will mark six very long months since a vote that defined the future of not just the UK, but the Union as a whole. In an accessible yet outstandingly thorough book, Ian Dunt details that not only were the British people not prepared for the full-bodied outcome of the referendum, neither was their government. It lays out the responsibility at the feet of Theresa May, perceived as broad-shouldered and strong-willed, but just as much bumping in the dark and stumbling upon ideas. Most importantly, what it describes in numerous chapters focusing on economic consequence is that removed from immediate and dire financial payback, the UK is losing more than free trade agreements. Several key ideas are contained within the right to access the single market. Some of those ideas are entirely contingent on EU membership; some of those ideas are tied to freedom of movement.
EU citizens benefit from an incredible amount of privilege, compared to other political systems. The structure of the organisation, not federal but tailored to further integration, allows citizens of all member states to: be represented in a parliament; access specific courts; appeal to a broader consensus; receive grants; be financially supported in academia and the job market; be compensated in the event of an illness; see political, civil and human rights safeguarded. Among those rights, Brexit affects freedom of movement the most. Something very specific to the United Kingdom, however is that this withdrawal from the European Union, no matter how world-altering and overwhelming it is, may not even be the end game. At a talk at LSE Law on 8 December, professor and barrister Conor Gearty of Matrix Chambers explained his position quite clearly: for the Prime Minister, exiting the EU was simply a proxy move towards a repeal of the 1998 Human Rights Act.
Indeed for many, human rights and the legal obligations contained therein are at bigger fault. It was the ECtHR in Strasbourg most often accused of violating British sovereignty; it was the Human Rights Act accused of forcing the nation to welcome refugees beyond coercively agreed upon quotas; it was principled legislation that formed adherence to a European project the U.K. never felt much a part of. Slowly unveiling its arguments over the summer in a series of videos, “On Fantasy Island” is a compelling collection of all the lies and myths surrounding Britain’s capacity to provide for the safety and liberty of its citizens outside of the realm of international law. It starts with reminding the citizenry that the roots of the European convention on human rights themselves are British; that the history of European construction and expansion has been based on British cooperation; but that mostly, the Strasbourg court, often maligned to the point of needing to be defended in the New York Times, has never been opposed to the United Kingdom so much.
Both Dunt and Gearty, while focusing on separate institutions – the EU for the former and the Council of Europe for the latter – are preoccupied with the same question: what will become of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland once London initiates the process of removing itself from the rest of the world? With humour and quite a rare concern with facts, legal accuracy and political consistency, the issues here are tackled with less doom and gloom that could be anticipated. There is time, although little, to stop the ongoing machine. There are safeguards, although vanishing, to protect what can be saved. There are figures, although drowning in white noise, to provide much needed expertise. Dunt and Gearty are among those. The image of an isolated, alienated Britain on a self-imposed exile adorns the cover of both their books, as we are about to step forward into a year marking the ascent of populism and geopolitical retreat in the name of base fear and incorrect perception of security.
One thing is certain: we on the continent must shoulder some of the blame. The most europhile among us must reflect on where the institutions we take so much pride in have failed to appeal across social classes, did not step up in times of heightened worry – about terrorism, about employment, about immigration, even more so about identity. The generation that has entered the job market in 2008 feel entitled to basic labour and union protection, to freedom of movement, to a right to privacy, to access to health care, and to protections against police violence. If the EU has felt like it itself encroached on progressive visions for commerce, on self-determination or has undermined the principles of democratic representation, then it must consider its reaction to the biggest issues of our time: the refugee crisis, the Greek debt, surveillance, freedom of opinion. The EU must take a look, beyond poor communication, at what it forgot to mention about its role in sheltering acquired rights, the permanence of entitlements, and the necessity to keep close to citizens. Otherwise, the Nigel Farage of Europe – Le Pen, Wilders, Five Star – will continue harvesting votes from those who deserve better.
Ian Dunt: Brexit: What the hell happens now? At Canbury Press.
Conor Gearty: On Fantasy Island, at Oxford University Press.