Brexit: A testing time for Europe

UNITED statement on the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union

This morning Europe woke up to the news that the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. It is a result that few people expected, and its effects could be as significant for the rest of the EU as they will be for the UK itself. For the first time since the Second World War, a major European nation has decided to take a step backwards in the process of European integration.

It was always clear that immigration would be an important factor in this campaign, but the level of some of the anti-migrant rhetoric still shocked many. Nigel Farage’s now infamous “Breaking Point” poster was a particular low, while scaremongering about future EU membership for countries such as Turkey, Albania and Serbia was a key theme throughout the campaign.

But to label those who voted to leave simply as “racists” is both dangerous and wrong. What we have witnessed is a huge working class mobilisation against the status quo. Apart from the well-documented case of Scotland, which might yet become an independent state, one of the most striking dividing lines in the election results is that between liberal, cosmopolitan and wealthy cities such as London, Oxford and Bristol on one side, and much of the rest of England and Wales on the other. Working class communities ravaged by years of industrial decline, government neglect and austerity measures took the opportunity to unleash their frustration on the elite, and they succeeded.

Their concerns – about issues such as employment, housing and healthcare – are legitimate, and deserve concerted action. But it seems clear that the Leave campaign would not have been able to win in the way it did were it not able to link these concerns to migration – a phenomenon, it said, which could only be controlled if Britain threw off the shackles of Brussels. It is clear that this narrative of blaming migration for society’s problems found a receptive audience, with Remain campaigners across the political spectrum unable to provide an effective counter-argument.

And what about the EU itself? The Brexit vote is likely to embolden anti-migrant and anti-EU elements in other countries to demand their own referenda – and both Marine le Pen and Geert Wilders have already started the push. If lessons are not learned from the UK campaign, this could be the beginning of the unravelling of the European project, which, for all its flaws, has been a key element in establishing the peaceful order of post-war Europe. It could also prove a major strengthening moment for the extreme nationalist forces that the EU was designed, in part, to contain.

It is clear that, across the EU and the rest of Europe, new solutions are needed to the problems facing our societies. The narrative that blames migration for all of these problems needs to be challenged. That is why UNITED this week launched the new #LifeSeekers campaign, which seeks to present young people with new perspectives on the issues facing them today. In light of the referendum campaign, such positive and inclusive initiatives seem to be more important than ever. Whatever your opinion on the European Union, it is clear that these are testing times for the European antiracist movement. As ever, we must stay strong and stay UNITED.

Join UNITED's #LifeSeekers campaign!