As I sit here at my desk, a storm is passing through Dublin. Rain lashes against the window, and the wind whips the trees back and forth. Seems fitting, as a storm of huge political and economic consequences is engulfing the European Union this morning. The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. The vote was 52% Leave, 48% Remain. David Cameron has announced his intention to step down. The British Pound has fallen to levels not seen since I was a child. Needless to say, it’s been a challenging morning.
I went to bed last night honestly thinking that the “Remainers” would win. The final polling and betting markets pointed towards the UK staying in the EU. I was half awake this morning when Brad picked up his phone from the nightstand, and skimmed Twitter. “They voted to leave”, he said – almost too calmly. I shot straight up and I’m sure a string of profanity came flying out of my mouth. I’m a huge fan of politics on both sides of the Atlantic, and I am truly shocked by this decision.
The Brexit has profound implications for Ireland. The UK is our largest trading partner. As the pound plummets, Ireland’s exports become more expensive to the UK. Despite Ireland’s troubled past with the UK, they are probably our closest political ally. Our futures and past are inextricably linked. Enda Kenny (the Irish Taoiseach/Prime Minister) faces an uphill battle to both convince the EU not to punish the UK for leaving, and to also maintain Ireland’s economic footing.
I would be lying if I said that I was writing this without a sincere interest in what happens to the EU. Brad and I have invested 5 years of our time, money, and energy in Ireland. We are on the cusp of applying for Irish citizenship, and thus, EU citizenship. This additional passport will give us the right and opportunity to live and work anywhere in the EU. There are real costs to being an expat (financial and emotional), and up until this point, those costs were balanced by the opportunity and benefit of EU citizenship. Now the question – if the UK leaves, is the future of the entire EU ideal at stake? Will our EU citizenship be worthless? Or will the EU emerge stronger, leaving the UK to sort itself out as a small country in a big world?
I think a lot depends on the politics of the far right and populist movements within Europe. The Netherlands, France, and Austria have seen the rise of far-right parties clamoring for their own referendums. Part of this is in response to the migrant and refugee crisis, and also on the lack of economic opportunity felt by its citizens. If you look at the demographics and geography of the Leave vs Remain votes, you see the same patterns. Low-income, marginalized communities voting to leave, while middle-to high-income earners voting to remain. The educated, middle-class have the most to gain from increased connections with Europe, while those with lower levels of education and resources have the most to lose. So it follows that people voted where their economic interest lie. However, there is more to in than that. There is the nasty underbelly of nationalism and xenophobia that came to the surface in the campaign. There was the mailers sent out by the Leave campaign that equated refugees to criminals. There were Boris Johnson’s appalling comments about the President of the United States. And then there was the horrific murder of Jo Cox, an MP and member of the Remain campaign.
I am heartbroken that the politics of fear, anti-immigration, and racism won. Even the killing of an innocent MP was not enough to sway voters. I am frustrated that David Cameron put his country’s future at stake to placate some members of his own party that didn’t particularly care for “those people” coming into the United Kingdom. I ask myself, “Am I blindsided by this decision because I am a member of the ‘privileged few’?” (Even though I use that term with a bit of irony considering how I don’t feel privileged at all.) As a friend of mine pointed out, “Do those of us who are educated, mobile, ‘privileged’ even, derive greater benefits from equality and financial interdependence?”
Absolutely. How do we change that for the future?
The wave of populism engulfing both the UK and EU doesn’t end there. Donald Trump has risen to popularity, and the presumptive Republican nomination, on this populist wave. I think one of the reasons that this decision has rattled me so much, is that there are so many parallels between Brexit and the current political situation in the US. I am not a supporter of Donald Trump, his campaign, or the ideas he claims to stand for. But I do think that Brexit is a shot across the bow for the US Presidential campaigns. That if we ignore the concerns of the nativist, marginalized voters, it will have serious ramifications on the US economy, politics, and country. If we tell people who have lost the most from globalization, integration, and equality that things will get better, but provide no concrete examples, then we should not be surprised when they toss out the entire system in favor of something new.
My research into intergenerational poverty has taught me that moving people up the economic ladder is hard work. It requires tough choices for both policy makers and the individuals themselves. But right now, we offer sound bites while cutting budgets for job training and benefits for workers struggling to move up. We give lip service to the idea that everyone can succeed when the reality says otherwise. The voters who voted to leave the EU are calling out those soundbites, “This system didn’t work for me. Your reality is not my reality. We need dramatic change in our politics to get what we need.”
Going forward, how do we enact policies that will convince those left behind that we are truly stronger together? How do we reach out across race, class, religious, and ethnic boundaries to ensure that a rising economic tide, borne by freer movement of goods, services and individuals, truly benefits everyone, and not just those of us who happened to be born in the right place at the right time?
I could continue writing for days, but I’ll wrap up. The sun has peaked out from behind the storm clouds. It may be sunny for awhile, but I see more storms on the radar. A fitting analogy to the next few months, if there ever was one!
Image via New York Times.