From Disbelief to Determination: Getting Over Brexit and Trump

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Photo by Matt Brown

Jessica Sofizade

If I could sum up 2016 with one question, it would be: “How did this happen?”

My question is one which has been on the minds of many others these past several months. It is probably clear that, amongst other things, I am referring to both the British vote to leave the European Union and – as if that was not bad enough – the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States. I have realised, however, that asking this question is itself the very root of the problem, and the reason for both Brexit and Trump. But let me begin with the initial responses to these events. 

On November 9th, I asked my American friend, “How would you feel if you met a Trump supporter? Would you be angry?”

I asked myself the same question after Brexit. How would I react if I spoke with someone who contributed their vote to the British exit of the EU, and therefore to the unwelcome change in my own status, “stripping me” of my EU citizenship? Would I shout, pouring out my frustrations and objections? Would I refuse to engage with them, or alternatively, would I accept that their views were equally valid?

In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, I was in a stage of disbelief. I could not believe that this had happened, and I was convinced that something would change the outcome. I thought, only 51.9% of the vote was pro-leave? That’s not enough of a majority for such a tremendous decision. I, along with millions of others, signed a petition for a second referendum, in the hope that this huge mistake could be rectified.

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Photo by David Holt

I now see that I was, in a sense, grieving. I was grieving for a loss of citizenship, of identity, of a belief system that I thought was solid and shared by those around me. I more or less experienced the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The first four stages combined into one challenging period of time. Not only did I deny the result, but I was angry at those who voted leave, and the ignorance that I blamed for their decision. I started to bargain with myself, thinking that even if we really had to leave (not in the near future, I hoped), perhaps we could still keep our rights as EU citizens? Most of all, I was depressed by the whole situation, and again asked myself, how did this happen?

So when, you may wonder, did I arrive at acceptance? It is an ongoing process. However, it is a process that has a normative element to it – I should accept the Brexit decision, as well as the election of Trump. This does not in any way mean that I need to agree with these decisions, but rather that they must be accepted as legitimate outcomes, even if they came as a shock to such a large part of the population. This leads back to the main question that I have been asking myself for months: “How did this happen?” The question in itself demonstrates the problem at hand: there were enormous rifts silently bubbling under the surface of our society of which many were apparently unaware. Why were these results such a shock for so many of us? Was it the fault of the polls?

A consequence of both Brexit and Trump’s election has been the unveiling of problems which many had misjudged or were even unaware of. There are divisions in Western demographics which were severely underestimated. In the UK, many of these have now become abundantly clear: the old and the young, those with university degrees and those without, the countryside and the cities. The reasons for such diverging voting patterns are diverse and debateable. Slavoj Žižek has argued that Trump supporters have arisen from a desire for change which comes from a deep-rooted dissatisfaction in the current system, a system which was not challenged by Clinton’s candidacy. This reading could analogously be extended to the case of Brexit.  Another argument is that the blindness towards divisions in populations could be due to “the Facebook bubble” which has arisen in the age of social media. Others say that Brexit was due to a misleading (or just outright untruthful) media campaign, or biased media representation.

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Map of the UK showing the urban and rural voting divide. Image by Mirrorme22

A recurrent theme in these explanations is a lack of communication between different sectors of society. This is where I feel that change is needed: accepting the surprising outcomes of Brexit and the US elections (even if we do not agree with them) will enable us to begin a dialogue in which we should try to understand each other’s views. The dialogue I am advocating could be with friends and family, or on a larger scale, through organisations which are calling for public participation in critical discourse regarding current affairs, such as DIEM25.

We cannot remain in denial; there will be no fruitful discussion whilst those of us who feel we have lost something are still in the first four stages of grieving. The fact that we can even ask ourselves “how did this happen?” illustrates the lack of communication and understanding between different sections of our society, and this is precisely what we now need to work to change. We need to get over our 2016 blues and move on.

Jessica Sofizade was born in London, UK, and did her undergraduate degree in Philosophy. She has studied in the UK, Canada, France and The Netherlands, and will soon move to The Czech Republic for her 2nd semester in the Euroculture programme.

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And Then There Was One: Angela Merkel and the 2017 German Elections

 

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Merkel. Photo by Kleinschmidt.

Lauren Rogers

At the German conservative party’s annual meeting in Essen on December 4, Chancellor Merkel was elected head of her party for the ninth consecutive time. The show of support comes only a few weeks after Merkel announcing her willingness to stand for reelection in 2017. For those fearing the populist wave in Europe, driven in Germany with the Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) party, Merkel’s candidature comes as a sigh of relief. However, her last term has not done her any favors on the left or the right and she was selected by only 89.5 percent of the 1,000 CDU delegates at the meeting. This marks her second worst result ever.

For the next ten months, Merkel will be forced to walk a fine line between hard-line anti-immigration policies proposed by her own party and taking care of the 1.1 million refugees that she herself welcomed in late 2015. After serving for over ten years, many question whether the Chancellor still understands the German electorate. Meanwhile, others are exalting her as the last stalwart of liberal democracy in the face of worrying populism.

Is she right for the job?

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Merkel’s famous stance. Photo by Armin Linnartz.

Were this a normal election cycle, pundits would be questioning whether Chancellor Merkel is good for Germany at all. After serving has the head of government for over a decade, Merkel has earned a reputation as the ultimate politician. Her speeches are measured, her policies are rarely radical, and her standard hand position, dubbed the Chancellor’s rhombus, has become iconic.

Nevertheless, Merkel’s third term has been wrought with crisis. After a narrow victory in the 2013 general election, Merkel’s CDU was forced to form a grand coalition – nicknamed the “GroKo” – with the SPD, Germany’s center-left party. Reaching consensus in a coalition government can be tricky in the best of times, but as crisis after crisis unfolded in Europe, consensus seemed impossible. Chancellor Merkel’s attempts to navigate smoothly through these crises, as she did during the eurocrisis of her second term, proved impossible.

Merkel’s migration policies in particular have drawn sharp criticism from all sides. In 2015, when the flood of refugees from the Middle East and Northern Africa hit its peak, Merkel famously touted Germany’s so-called “Willkommenskultur,” and insisted that Europe could manage the refugee crisis with compassion and solidarity. In a speech following an attack on a asylum center in Heidenau, Germany in 2015, Merkel stood by her decision, calling the attacks on refugees “shameful” and declaring, “I have to honestly say that if we now have to start apologizing for showing a friendly face in the presence of need, then this is not my country.”

While Merkel’s generosity was initially met with domestic and international support, the mood quickly soured as thousands more asylum-seekers poured into Germany. Many have commented that the Chancellor’s initial reaction, so unlike her usual measured decisions, marked a clear disconnect between the Chancellor and her constituents. In 2016, when Merkel’s party only managed a third place victory behind the populist AfD and the SPD in her own district, it became all the more clear how out of touch she has become.

Is she our only hope?

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Cameron, Obama, Merkel, Hollande and Renzi. Three resignations and one end of term later- Merkel is the last of the old guard.

Out of touch she may be, but with the threat of populist parties taking charge across Europe, Chancellor Merkel’s shortcomings become easier to swallow. The AfD, led by the startlingly Merkel-esque Frauke Petry, lists as its priorities curtailing further immigration; putting participation in the Euro up to a referendum; halting further negotiations on CETA and TTIP; and limiting Germany’s commitment to Europe with the motto “Germany first”. In other words, it is yet another iteration of the standard populist ticket seen around Europe and in the US in 2016.

Following the Brexit vote, which was driven by the populist UK Independent Party, and the US election of Donald J. Trump, the self-proclaimed “ultimate outsider,” moderates in Europe are understandably terrified. Less than a week ago, the Italian constitutional referendum prompted the resignation of Matteo Renzi. A week before that, French President François Hollande announced his intention to step down in 2017. Cameron, Renzi, Hollande, and Merkel – four of Europe’s most powerful leaders, and only one will remain in 2017.

To characterize Merkel as Europe’s “last hope” or as the “last defender” of liberal democracy, as some in the media have, seems a bit hyperbolic. The AfD did have a surprising turnout in 2016, but the likelihood that it will garner enough support to form – or even be a part of – the next coalition is slim. As of now, the party does not have any seats in the national parliament, though it does have 143 of the 1855 state parliamentary seats. Still, the rise in populism cannot be ignored and the CDU and other parties may have to cater to ideas that would have, in any other election year, seemed too far right. That was clear during the annual party meeting when delegates debated the merits of banning face veils for Muslim women and doing away with dual citizenship. The tone of the nation has shifted, and the Chancellor will have to consider this in order to run a successful campaign.

Can she win?

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Frauke Petry is seeking to upset the German establishment with the AfD. Will she succeed? Photo by Olaf Kosinsky

It may not be clear if she is the right person for the job, or if she has the full weight of the CDU behind her, but Chancellor Merkel has been in power for almost 12 years. For many Germans, she seems almost like a permanent fixture atop the governmental pyramid. Not the most effective leader, or the most likeable, but the best option for right now.

Still, Merkel’s approval ratings have seen constant fluctuation in the past year. Over the summer, she reached new lows – in an August 2016 poll published by Zeit Online, only 42% of Germans wanted to see her run again. However, immediately following the US election of Donald Trump, Merkel’s approval rating rebounded. According to a Stern Magazine poll, 59% of Germans signaled their wish for her to run again on Nov 9, perhaps a reactionary poll driven by a glimpse of real populism in the US. However, as the dust settles Merkel must find a way to make these ratings sustainable, otherwise she faces an uphill battle in September. ”You have to help me,” Chancellor Merkel told CDU members gathered in Essen last week. Someone has to.

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Scotland – are you ready for more? Scotland on course for second independence vote after Brexit: Notes from a Lonely Island #4

 

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Scottish protesors

Emily Burt

As jars of Marmite auctioned online for £10,000, following a price dispute between Tesco and Unilever, and parliament locked horns over the right to a  debate of Brexit negotiation terms; the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon announced she would instigate another Scottish Independence referendum if the UK was forced to leave the single market, at the Scottish National Party conference.

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Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP

This would be the second referendum in two years. Scotland voted to remain part of the UK by a 10 per cent margin in September 2014, after a prolonged and intense referendum campaign that ended with the removal of long-time leader of the SNP Alec Salmond. Many UK politicians, Theresa May included, are describing Sturgeon’s announcement of a second referendum draft as a temper tantrum over Brexit.

But – and here’s the thing – this is not the United Kingdom that Scotland signed up for. A core condition that pushed the Scottish vote to reject independence was the security of remaining in the EU. This year, 62 per cent of Scottish voters cast their ballots again to remain an EU member. Now the entire country is faced with the prospect of a hard Brexit: a future that, as they have demonstrated on multiple occasions, they are entirely opposed to.

But despite the blinding frustration of these circumstances, a second referendum is not something Sturgeon is simply pushing out of spite.

“I don’t want Scotland taken out of the single market,” she said in a BBC Radio 4 interview. “The single market is so important to our economy and my worry – and many moderate Tories have this worry – is that by making [Brexit] all about control of borders, Theresa May is making it inevitable that the UK leaves the single market.

“I think the UK would be taking a step off the edge of a cliff to leave the single market and I don’t want Scotland to have to do that too.”

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Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city

With no time frame on the decision, a second referendum could be slow to arrive, and in many ways those advocating for Scottish independence could be inviting disaster. The crash in global oil prices have caused a Scottish deficit of almost £15bn, almost twice that of the UK last year, so the economy is in no position to break away from the UK. Devolving could mean the creation of tariffs and fixed borders, and a significant degree of political instability while the terms of independence are clarified.

But for all people talk about the uncertainty of the country’s future, and accuse the SNP of fearmongering at a time when we should be pulling together and ‘making the best of it’, the proposal of a second independence referendum makes perfect sense to me. With our sagging pounds, dysfunctional politics, and frankly racist appearance, today’s Britain has become the kind of loser any sensible person would want to break up with.

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James O’Brien, presenter on LBC

Sidenote: This week it’s worth taking the time to watch this clip of James O’Brien’s excruciating exchange with a Brexiteer who says he voted to leave so Britain could ‘take control of our laws’ back from the EU – but was then unable to name a single EU law he was looking forward to reclaiming. Painful.

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Five terrifying takeaways from the British Conservative Party Conference: Notes from a Lonely Island #3

Buckle in for more Brexit misery

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Theresa May has promised immigration controls and access to the single market. Can she deliver?

Emily Burt

There were a few weeks where it looked as though the Brexit dust was settling. The markets had remained surprisingly robust, defying immediate post-referendum expectations, and aside from Labour party infighting, the political landscape was relatively calm. Then the Conservative party conference arrived, to crush our dreams. Here are five moments of fresh misery the government delivered to the UK electorate:

A Hard Brexit will begin March 2017, with the UK potentially exiting the European Union by 2019

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British Conservative Party Conference, Birmingham

Finally we have a date – Theresa May has announced that she will trigger Article 50 in the Spring of 2017, which means that once negotiations begin we could be looking at a UK exit from the European Union by March of 2019. Her announcement sent sterling into a freefall, plunging the pound to a 31-year low, signifying that the markets, along with a significant chunk of the British public, had been secretly hoping that Brexit did not actually mean Brexit.

 Border controls will be prioritised over the UK remaining in the single market

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A soon to be obsolete border system

One of the first announcements heralding Hard Brexit, is that May’s EU negotiations will be prioritising heightened border controls over the single market.

“Let me be clear,” the prime minister said in her first conference address. “We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again. And we are not leaving only to return to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice”

Wave goodbye to freedom of movement and the European Court of Justice, everybody. If there’s one thing you can say about the conference, it’s that it was brutally revealing: after a muddy and reality-defying campaign, it turns out this referendum really was about immigration all along.

Jeremy Hunt is going to stop foreign doctors entering the country, and prevent British ones from leaving

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A strike lead by junior doctors with the National Health Service of the UK

I have a deep, personal hatred of Jeremy Hunt, and his steady dismantling of the NHS. He used his conference spotlight to announce measures that will prevent foreign doctors from coming to the UK to work (cited as ‘reducing British reliance on overseas workers’), and fine medical students who go to work overseas after training in the UK. As of yet, Hunt has shown no signs of confronting the underlying reasons for doctors moving abroad.

Businesses will be asked to list their foreign workers, to prove migrants aren’t stealing jobs

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Amber Rudd, Home Secretary

Competition was stiff for the most backward and bigoted policy of the conference, but a special prize must go to Home Secretary Amber Rudd, who announced that UK companies would be required to report the number of “international” employees in their workforce, to “prevent migrants from taking jobs [that] British people can do.”

…I don’t even know where to start with this one. The only silver lining is that the backlash from UK organisations has been so severe it looks as though the cabinet will be forced to backpedal.

It’s going to get a lot harder for foreign students to study in the UK

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Rudd would like only students studying at universities such as Cambridge (pictured above) to be able to seek a job in the UK after completing their studies 

Not content with flushing international diversity out of British business, Rudd additionally announced she would be clamping down on the rights of foreign students to come and study in the UK; introducing two-tier visa rules that will tie the rights of international students to work in the UK, bring their families to the country, and go on to post-study jobs to the quality of their course and university.

“A student immigration system that treats every student and university as equal only punishes those we should want to help,” she said, in one of many spectacularly ill-informed comments. “So our consultation will ask what more can we do to support our best universities – and those that stick to the rules – to attract the best talent … while looking at tougher rules for students on lower quality courses.”

 

IN SUMMARY: What a small, sad, lonely place this future Britain is going to be.

 

SIDENOTE:

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Steven Woolfe, contender for the UKIP throne, recovers after the mysterious altercation with fellow UKIPper Mike Hookem

The UK Independence Party (UKIP) experienced a week of utter disarray after leader Diane James resigned, following only 18 days at the helm of the party, and the favourite to replace her was punched in the head by a colleague so hard it left him with bleeding to the brain. Fellow UKIPper and MEP Mike Hookem denies punching Steven Woolfe during an ‘altercation’ at an MEP meeting in Strasbourg, saying instead they were ‘hugging each other like a pair of tarts.’ Another glorious week for British politics.

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