How Will Brexit Affect The UK’s Marginalized Populations?

Franziska Kohlt’s Polish family grew up in East Germany after being expatriated there following the Second World War. Her mother couldn’t go to university until after the reunification, when Kohlt was a small child. When it came time for Kohlt herself to attend college, she strategically took advantage of her position as a citizen of an EU member state, and went first to a university that didn’t charge fees, and then won an EU-funded Erasmus scholarship to study abroad in England. “I worked extremely hard, moved to the UK to do an MA, and eventually won a place at Oxford,” she says. When her grandfather found out about her placement at Oxford, he commented: “When I was working in the mines, if somebody would have come up to me and said, ‘Your granddaughter is going to study at Oxford,’ I would have declared them mad.”

This is the world Kohlt grew up in — a world where her hard work was rewarded by a placement at a top university, made possible by the freedom of movement granted by the EU’s open borders.

On Friday, July 24, residents of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland woke up to a completely different world. To the surprise of millions of English, Scottish, Irish, and Welsh voters, Britain had voted to leave the European Union. Not many knew what that would mean, but we soon learned: The pound has dropped significantly against the dollar, racist harassment is on the rise, and Scotland will probably hold a referendum for independence from the UK. Prime Minister David Cameron has resigned and former mayor of London, Boris Johnson is rumored to take his place.

The European Union formed in the wake of World War II essentially as a protectionist state — by tying the member states into economically binding agreements and laws, it ensured that another war of aggression would be less likely. The UK joined the EU rather reluctantly in the 1970s, following pressure to do so out of economic benefit. But being in the EU has, for the UK, largely been a major benefit — they receive subsidies for various projects and welfare support, as well as maintaining freedom of movement for citizens. This has led to a larger influx of immigrants from EU member states into the UK.

Kate Snelson, a British master’s student in literature at Oxford University, told The Establishment: “The freedom to move around Europe makes us a richer nation, not only in the sense that we benefit from the talented Europeans who come and work here, but in that this freedom also promotes multiculturalism and tolerance.”

The motivations for the Brexit referendum vote — a nationwide yes/no vote on whether or not to leave the EU — have to do with Prime Minister David Cameron basically taking a gamble within his own party, betting that the UK wouldn’t actually vote to leave. It was a tremendous gamble to take, and has now resulted in the UK making an extraordinary move — no one has voted to leave the EU before. The UK now will have to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty — the treaty that established the EU — and they have two years to negotiate the terms of their exit, which means renegotiating everything from tariffs on imports to the status of students in EU member state universities.

In short: The Brexit vote changes everything about how the UK has functioned for the past 40-odd years.

And everywhere I’ve turned during the time since the decision, people have been in a daze — disbelief is the primary emotion, quickly followed by anger. I live in Oxford, where 70% of the county voted to remain. Oxford is a university town, with a high population of immigrants and international students — most of them from EU countries. They came to the UK because of the ease of movement, because of the quality of the research, and because it offered better tuition prices to members of the EU.

Kanta Dihal, a PhD student from the Netherlands, says she was able to come to the UK for graduate school because of her EU status: “I’m self-funded, but thanks to my EU status I pay home tuition fees. Thanks to this status, my small scholarship from the Netherlands is able to cover most of the costs; because I have no restrictions on the number of hours I work, I am able to cover the rest with teaching jobs.”

Dihal’s experience reflects much of the thinking in the Remain camp: having freedom of movement in the EU is important for British people and for Europeans who wish to come to the UK to study. Indeed, many UK universities possess deep ties to the European Union, through scholarships, funding, and research partnerships. All of that academic and scientific progress is in jeopardy with Brexit — each of those deals that these universities made will have to be renegotiated, and it will be harder for EU-based students to come here to study.

Dihal is a bisexual woman who lives with her husband in Oxford after he managed to find a job here (he is also Dutch). She says, “It has taken my husband and myself seven years to find jobs close enough to each other to move in together, and we might lose that again soon.”

Of deepest concern for many young people in the UK, however, is what a more conservative governmental leadership that is not beholden to the EU’s laws about human rights will mean for them personally. Many EU human rights directives have forced the UK to develop laws that are compliant with EU human rights standards. The Equality Act of 2010, for example, came about largely as a result of pressure from the EU for the UK to get its ducks in a row on LGBT civil rights. The act guarantees equal rights in employment and private and public services — something conservatives in the UK disagree with, in a way that parallels service denials in the United States. With a UK separated from the EU, it’s very probable that a newly conservative government — one without David Cameron at the helm — will work to repeal certain contentious rights granted in the 2010 Equality Act.

Indeed, the current rumored replacement for Cameron, Boris Johnson, was heavily criticized in 2013 after making a joke about “taking chum up the Arsenal” at London’s Pride event that year. When running for London mayor in 2008, Johnson took a policy stand against marriage equality, and has a long history of making racist remarks (he once referred to black people in commonwealth countries as “piccaninnies . . . with watermelon smiles”). The ascendency of Johnson to the top spot, especially in the midst of negotiations with the EU for Britain’s exit, ensures that LGBT and racial minority rights will be considered expendable.

Many in the UK also fear Brexit’s victory legitimizing anti-immigrant and anti-LGBT sentiments in other countries. Snelson says, “There is a real, urgent need to recognize that Brexit has encouraged those who embrace xenophobia and racism to call for further action, citing the referendum as a ‘victory’ for these abhorrent views under the banner of us ‘taking our country back.’” The perceived legitimatization of xenophobia in the Brexit campaign gives the far-right a leg up in this argument about “taking our country back” — the ramifications of which will likely be felt in the U.S. presidential election in November. Indeed, Britons are already seeing an increase in racist harassment in the days following the Brexit vote.

Kohlt’s own predicament is much more uncertain with a vote for Leave. Her status as an immigrant in the UK may be in question. Britain is now “a country . . . full of people who don’t feel like they belong — because they’ve been left behind — or because this referendum has shown a side of this country they don’t feel part of,” she says. But, she believes, it’s not hopeless: “We need to talk to each other. I’m looking forward to the day I can go outside again not having to confront either mindless abuse and arrogance or the words, ‘I’m so sorry; I’m so ashamed to be British’ replacing ‘Hi, how are you?’”

Indeed, right now, it seems to be all about the choice Britain wants to make following the biggest choice of all. Snelson summed up the choice: “I worry we have come out of the referendum a parochial ‘little Britain,’ defined more by prejudice and fear than acceptance.”

And Britain, now, must make a conscious effort not to roll back their record on human rights, not to turn inward, but to keep looking outward and figure out how to live as a nation again.


Lead image: flickr/Sam

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