Editor’s note: In light of the December 2019 Conservative electoral landslide in the UK and its impact on the future of Britain, Brexit, and the EU, we are re-publishing this article — originally written July 3, 2016 — to provide important context about what Brexit means today.
Thursday 72% of the adult population of the UK voted in what has been dubbed one of the most important referendums in modern times. The topic of consideration: Should Britain leave the European Union? In this age of Twitter-hashtag-ready abbreviations, the referendum has been called “Brexit” (a blending of “Britain” and “exit“).
Early in the morning of the 24th June 2016, I dragged my tired, mornings-aren’t-my-thing self onto a bus, opened Facebook on my phone, read a couple of statuses, and felt my heart sink to somewhere in my stomach region. One quick look at the BBC News website later and my fears were confirmed: Brexit had won. The UK had voted to leave the EU.
I had believed that the side against Brexit (the “Bremain” side, as it has become known) would win by a comfortable margin. Surely, I thought, most people would look at the pros and cons of it all and come to the conclusion that the EU is an overall positive influence on Britain.
It seems that I was wrong.
Brexit’s win was only marginal (52% of the vote), but it was a win nonetheless. While this referendum is not legally binding, and it would be perfectly within the government’s authority to completely ignore the views of the public on this matter and keep Britain in the EU anyway, it is not currently looking like that will happen.
Prime Minister David Cameron (who is pro-EU) resigned within hours of the results coming through, and the major money is on Michael Gove (who is anti-EU) to take his place. Unless some attempt is made by the Bremainers to appeal Brexit, there is a good chance that the UK will be leaving the EU within the next two years.
The results of this referendum have upset a lot of people, not the least of whom include the thousands upon thousands of EU citizens living in the UK. Whether the bodies who set up the EU intended for it to happen or not, the EU has undoubtedly been a driving force for social justice in the UK over the last 40-odd years. Now that Britain is most probably going to leave, it seems that the social justice that has been established is already starting to unravel, and that is heartbreaking to witness.
The EU and Social Justice
The EU was originally created as a treaty for peace and cooperation between its members. At a time when Europe had until very recently been at war, and massive clean-ups were still happening all over the place, the need for countries that had been fighting each other to work together to rebuild was paramount. Thus, the predecessor to the EU, known as the European Coal and Steel Community, was born.
As time went on and more countries joined, the EU evolved and started creating legislation that covered areas other than just coal and steel. Among the most prevalent of these was the allowance of tariff-free trade between member countries. As well as making the trading of goods easier and more lucrative for all parties involved, this also paved the way for the free movement of people.
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For a part of the world that had previously strongly protected its borders from foreign invasion, this free movement was a fantastic opportunity for people to travel, study, work, and live in countries vastly different from their own. This ability to become immersed in other cultures and learn that there are different countries and ideas and people out there is a powerful tool against prejudice and racism.
The Shattering of the Dream
By leaving the EU, Britain is rejecting this tool and thereby creating an environment where racism and prejudice are considered more acceptable. Most unfortunately, evidence of increasing hate crimes and racism have already been occurring.
The EU has also facilitated significant progression in egalitarianism and human rights. Because of EU law, for example, men and women enjoy equal pay, four weeks’ annual leave per year, and up to a years’ maternity/paternity leave in Britain. Workplace safety laws are also very carefully maintained. These relatively basic allowances are unheard of in most other countries, including the most well-developed and egalitarian places.
In other words, the EU cares about the people within it in a way that the more right-wing governments of Britain have not yet demonstrated. Leaving the EU will mean that Britain will no longer be held accountable to EU humanitarian law.
While this does not necessarily mean that Britain will become a less egalitarian place to live, signs such as serious talks about privatising health care and limiting benefits to the disabled and unemployed indicate that Brexit indeed means bad things for egalitarianism in Britain.
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Lastly, the EU brings with it a certain “all for one and one for all” philosophy, with an understanding that all members of the EU will help each other out. Some of the EU’s previously poorer countries, such as Ireland and Portugal, were helped out by the EU while they were struggling financially. When France suffered a terrorist attack in late 2015, the EU was immediately called upon to provide support (which it provided, of course). Britain has also benefited from this mentality in the past, with poorer areas of the country receiving refurbishments on EU funds.
By leaving the EU, Britain will no longer be part of a greater movement to help out these other countries. From a social justice perspective, this means that Britain now has more opportunity to act selfishly and put its own wants above the needs of other places, including areas within the country itself.
To date, no country who has been admitted into the EU has since left. If Brexit goes ahead, Britain will be the first, and social justice within Britain will suffer as a result. British people will have less opportunity to visit other countries and learn about different cultures, while more licence could well be given for racism and bigotry towards immigrants and people of color living within the country. The rights of women, the poor, and other minorities will fall under the mercy of a political party that has historically proven itself to not consider the rights of the people it governs as a particularly high priority. And Britain will no longer be required to provide assistance and aid to other countries as a member of the EU, making for a society that inadvertently encourages its residents to look after its own desires before considering the needs of the less fortunate.
There is no doubt that Brexit is already having, and will continue to have, a terrible effect on social justice in Britain. What we advocates must do is continue to work towards a future of social justice for everybody, whether we are part of the EU or not.
[Feature Image: Photo of a crowd of people in cloudy cold weather. They are wearing coats and jackets, some of them also in hats, and are facing away from the camera to look out over the River Thames in London, England. The person closest to the camera is wearing a beanie on their head with the design of the Union Jack flag. In the distance are ornate buildings and trees on the other side of the river. Source: Skitterphoto for Pexels]