What sort of precedent did the Brexit vote sent for the validity of the demonization of immigration, and the growth of a firmly anti-globalist impulse? The combination of a growing state security apparatus and economic insecurity on European boarders has created a fear of hordes and the arrival of migrants moving on foot that has created the now-dismantled migrant camp known as the “Jungle” near the port of Calais, not far from the Ferry Terminal for ships leaving for England. This settlement became a site emblematic of the proximity of migrants to Britain in the summer of 2016, and helped to embody the fears of immigration close to the shores of England, giving a concreteness to the fears of immigration that deeply divided Britain on the need to protect its borders, and the dangers of doing so. It was a debate about what being British meant, and where we draw our borders, which the Calais encampment, as the posters of refugees from Eastern Europe and Syria, illustrated with increased proximity.
Crossing to Calais on the Eurostar this summer, I looked out intently out of the rapidly moving train window for migrant camps who had been so central to the “Brexit” referendum by which England recently left the European Union, that has held up to 6-8,000 refugees hoping to move to England–and some suggest the number reached as high as 10,000. Indeed, as “Leave” seemed so successfully cast as an imperative, and “Remain” as the honest commitment to “Remain” seemed to have decidedly less media presence and staying power, the haunting residents of the camps, filled with refugees and migrants from Syria, Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan, if often left out of most maps of the election, provided a compelling if faceless specter for many.
The haphazard and improvised constellation of lean-tos, make-shift huts, and tents were ordered in streets beside orderly rows of fenced-off white metal shipping containers relocated to Calais to provide temporary forms of housing after their arrival. Although there were not any migrant camps in evidence from my position in the train, the camps were in the past few weeks increasingly in the news, as the UKIP party that predicted an England inundated by refugee influx that social services and health could not accommodate, all because of England’s membership in the European Union, on the eve of Britain’s vote on the European Union Referendum–as “Leave” parties conjured fears of what belonging in the European Union would mean for the everyday Englishman in an age of increasing global displacement of refugees and cross-border traffic of men and women seeking work, education, and safety. When the rapid train suddenly paused for unforeseen difficulties due to people on the tracks, one couldn’t but wonder how the halt related to those risking lives to enter the tunnel running beneath the Channel, whom local police quarantined in semi-permanent “homes” of converted shipping containers.
While the Eurostar connected two railway stations, and half of London and Paris was glued to the European Cup, the “Brexit” vote revealed a hiving off of about a third of Britain similarly eager to separate itself from the European Union–as voters voted, probably unaware of the consequences, in a plebiscite that trumped parliamentary politics in anti-democratic ways. For Brexit became a performative mapping of a severance from Europe, in ways to manufacture an imaginary boundary between England and a refugee crisis. The precarity of living in shipping containers now seems to be about as great as that of the European Union. What was Jungle is largely destroyed, rendered uninhabitable save for the 1,200 unaccompanied minors who reside in the complex of huts, tents, and containers, as 4,403 migrants bussed to refugee centers across the country, to seek asylum, the settlement provided an effective threat of migration and effective specter of fear in the EU Referendum. Indeed, it helped to ensure the surprising and unexpected success of a referendum designed to keep refugees at bay and finally withdraw the country –at significant national monetary cost–from the European Union for the foreseeable future. As multiple fires began to burn in the Jungle after workers moved in to begin dismantling the camp, while some pointed the finger to refugees seeking to dismantle and erase the structures where they lived others pointed to British anarchists, even with the clearance began, so strong was the fear of migrants that the fate of 1,000 children seeking entrance to the UK is unknown, suspended by the post-BREXIT government of Theresa May.
English voters on the Referendum were presented with almost dizzying fears of immigration and declining social services that were impossible to visualize adequately. In an onslaught that dominated the news and challenged voters’ attention spans and moral compass, “Leave” flyers used fear to mobilize against remaining in the European Union. In a canny onslaught and bid for attention, reminiscent of right-wing politicians, flyers of “Leave” raised the specter of fears of immigration policies out of control and wrested away by a European Union whose member states stood only to escalate. The eventuality of remaining in the EU was seen as an abdication of responsibilities, and a misplaced trust in Brussels to control the entry of refugees and Eastern Europeans seeking jobs into the UK: if migration to the UK had grown to above a quarter of a million–“the equivalent of a city the size of Newcastle“–the arrival of two million over the coming decade mandated by “free movement of people” conjured a suitably dystopian future. Voting to Remain in the European Union was to accept this lack of control, and the subordination of British law to an over-reaching European Court; expanding the myth of foreign oversight of Britain, Leave claimed to offer the opportunity to check the flow of migrants to restore control to British hands. The argument of empowerment may have been deluded. But the powerful promise to return £350 million in taxes flowing to Brussels, and the prospect of immigration growth once such “candidate countries” as Turkey, Serbia, Macedonia, and Montenegro joined Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia, to the tune of a cost of nearly £1.8 billion, provided a compelling rationale to vote “Leave” and to identify interests with the possibility of controlling the fair of the expanded borders of globalization alone, and rather than in the European Union. As a movement of “faux populism,” carefully orchestrated to be effective at the ballot, the Brexit supporters stirred up fear into a central role in the election that attracted a growing range of supporters to the ballot.
The dizzying expansion of a region without frontiers was joined by a cry “to take back control” of England’s future. The Referendum was presented as “our last chance to take back control,” a virtual mantra of the Leave campaign, and control “our borders” and international “influence” lest the nation be filled with immigrants against who one can draw no clear border. With the Turkey, Serbia, and Macedonia joining the EU, ran the implicit message, Syrian refugees were bound to be waiting at the gates as well, without a compelling way to turn them back.
Such a compelling framing of the debate about the nation’s compromised future in a landscape of expanding “rights” fostered fears of an end of public futures, “without handing our permanent control to people we cannot vote out”–as if the vote presented the last attempt at independence, ignoring the special relation of the UK had long insisted to the EU. To be sure, the Leave campaign also increased regulations that the EU introduced, without suggesting other financial benefits.
The mapping of the response to the Referendum released a new plethora of maps in hopes better to explain the final vote of the plebiscite that precipitated the break from the EU. Can these maps–and the mapping of social divides in England’s complicated tapestry of islands which integrate immigrants and regions where they still remain unknown, provide any insight in the difficulty to create consensus about the growing population flows that globalization has produced? The question is important, because it suggests a new problem of political consensus not only in Britain and the European Union, but also in the United States. For the unprecedented misinformed plebiscite gave voice to a deep unease with parliamentary deals that brokered the terms of England’s membership in the European Union, and with globalization, that dangerously undermined the responsibilities that the EU has gained to respond to the global threats of refugee crises–a role that has been foisted upon it by the economic promise Europe continues to offer as a zone without apparent national frontiers. While we’ve been told by informed voices that the EU “had it coming,” whatever that means, or that the current European Union compromised British demands, or warned that the creation of social and political affinities could ever follow from enforced economic union, or give rise to public confidence, rejection by plebiscite of membership in the European Union subverted democracy, by a campaign bred from xenophobic fears and assertions the EU “has failed Britain” as a whole.
The recourse to demographic polling, hex bin maps sought to go beyond easy dichotomies, and unpack what seem deep-running fault lines within the country, and the difficulty of reconciling the nation given the increased political fault-lines attempted to process and reconcile divides in political parties that plagued the land. But rather than suggest the complex lines of fracturing between the political mosaic of Conservatives, Liberals, Labourites, UKIP and Greens in England’s new political landscape, the Leave/Stay dichotomy revealed new divides in the body politic.
Despite the many tired dichotomies that have been extracted ad nauseam from data visualizations of the EU Referendum–from old v. young, north v. south, working class v. metropolitan elites; educated v. non-graduates; identifying as “English” v. cosmopolites–the complexion that has redefined the country reflects a growing retrograde tendency of rejecting the status quo and belief in the benefits of hiving off that was undemocratic and displayed a perverse nostalgia of deeply conservative roots.
The referendum that former Prime Minister David Cameron presented as a panacea or safety valve to staunch opposition to the EU in Great Britain encouraged one of the most badly informed electorates in memory to protest the entrance of eastern Europeans into the country, and the perception of economic malaise and overburdened public services, and erase the benefit of free trade accords and that led to considerable economic growth. The economic amnesia Brexit provoked led to a massive rejection of the national government and indeed political elites, even when undermining their economic interests, producing the increasing likelihood that many wish to leave Britain even among working class groups in England and Wales, and many voters more angry about the EU government than aware of the actual impact on trade relations to Europe or manufacturing and health standards. Although turnout was in general quite high, with 30 million expressing their opinion at the ballot box, or some 72%, the vote was predicted to be determined by turn-out, and the distribution of votes varied. If most in Scotland turned out, many in London and in northern Ireland voting less, and many of the regions who voted to “Leave” turned out to vote intensely–and turnout markedly lower in areas with greater numbers of younger voters–who tended to vote to Remain in reflection of their economic futures, especially in areas with greater student populations in relative to their size. But the appeal to the nation and national independence deeply obscured the issues on the table.
What was Cameron thinking in opening up this question to a plebiscite that gave greater voice to those with stronger opinions, and indeed in opening up a question of particular complexity to a public yea or nay vote that hinged on turn-out? Democratic “consent” to membership in the EU was long been “wafer thin” in much of Britain, and low turnout among the young gave a greater share of the vote to Brexit. But the opportunity that the vote offered many the chance to decamp from the EU in ways few intended. For during a refugee crisis, the cards were steeply stacked the party reduced to take “Remain” as its slogan, although the very passivity of whose construction suggested an absence of cogent arguments to respond to false promises of helping England’s shaky economy, persistent low wages, growing waiting times at National Health Service, and rising rents–all of which were represented as stretched thin by serving migrant workers and their families, and rising rents.
Partisans of “Leave” tapped such concerns so effectively that despite the value of data visualizations in anatomizing and describing the broad distribution of adherents mobilized behind a “Leave” mandate, the vote seems little understood or analyzed for its appeal as in its ramifications, and has created an ongoing puzzle about what place of England will now occupy in relation to the EU–or how the EU will look.