On EU Ref, Brexit and my Polish taxi driver.
Choosing sides during the death of an idea
“You supporting Brexit, I know.”
That was the particularly awkward start of a conversation with the Polish driver of the taxi I took home from the University library, next to my department. I had had a stressful morning with my thesis annual review, which mercifully went smoothly, and I thought I would afford myself this quick luxury. I had plans to order pizza and watch a movie on my laptop; I had downloaded one the evening before, for a little classic “me time” after a few months of academic hell. My taxi was on time, and as it is customary to exchange pleasantries even for someone as notoriously reserved as me, I was obliged, out of courtesy and in the face of affable enquiry, to tell my soon-to-be debate sparring partner that I am indeed a researcher in the Politics department. That perhaps gave him the impression that I was a heaven-sent opportunity for him to display his knowledge of the political machinations of the British EU Referendum. I think he meant to say that I am logically inclined to support Brexit, being a Non-EU citizen with the highest level of qualification and an extremely narrow and specific expertise and skill set of foreign policy analysis; someone who will possibly benefit from the point based immigration system proposed by Blondie Johnson. Instead, his linguistically challenged endeavour produced the short, pithy five words quoted above. Not the best start to a conversation on one’s way home, in a relaxed and sunbathed English afternoon, but it got me curious.
“I am indifferent, honestly, whether Britain stays or leaves, it won’t directly matter to me, or affect my situation.” I persevered.
With the benefit of hindsight, it was clearly the wrong strategy. Bartek, as I came to know him (actually Bartolomej, and his mother was Austrian apparently), was agitated. He was angry that decent, God-fearing, Christian Europeans like him would be victimized if Britain leaves the EU. A recurring theme which I noticed came about quite often in the next half hour or so as we got stuck in traffic. So, who’s to blame? Well of course the Greeks, to the Pakistanis and the sub-Saharan Africans, to the Tories, and for some reason, economists and experts. Greeks (and I am heavily paraphrasing here), because they are giving Europeans a bad name as they don’t work, a myth I did (vainly) try to protest, but my voice was drowned out. Pakistanis and Africans, who are coming to Europe as war refugees claiming to be from the Middle East, and “bringing terrorists” that are giving rise to rape, terror attacks, border controls and further Euroscepticism, as though in a linear chain of causality. And obviously the British Tories, who are the biggest villains, to have called for the referendum that is instigating and energizing Euroscepticism across the continent because they they didn’t realize they would start and unintentional, uncontrollable forest fire. And finally, the economic experts because they don’t understand the political aspirations of common people and they instigate fear. I tried again to make him understand that the majority of experts are against Brexit, not to mention the fact that there is an inherent contradiction in someone dismissing experts and their contributions to any political debate as negligible, but simultaneously claiming that experts control the hive mentality and steer the masses toward a decision.
An Aristotelian perspectivist he was not.
Nothing to blame him for, obviously. Unfortunately, he is like the majority of “commoners” in this ever-increasing debate about the EU as an institution, a Byzantine behemoth meant to promote something that morphed into something completely different. Initially humanity’s greatest anti-war liberal institutional project, the EU was almost a living and breathing organism, which like growing larvae started to swallow every country that approached it regardless of culture, language, norms, values or more prosaic economic considerations like labour mobility, efficiency, or comparative advantage. Everyone and everything was welcome, which, while a noble idea, was bound to fall flat on its face due to the inherent contradictions. You don’t have to be a Waltzian Neorealist to understand this simple truth. With the early nineties euphoric “end of history” in sight, the EU was heralded as the next stage of human communal evolution wherein states and individuals could live with their differences.
There were arguments to made against this from every side, but none were made as such. The Euro social-democrats stopped questioning how this liberal institution, throwing its military might around, dictating economic policies to smaller governments, policies formulated by unelected bureaucracy in an ever growing super-state, can still be termed be pro-people. The Euro conservatives on the other hand, too divided and baffled by the onslaught of globalization and their instinctive opposition to any economic ideas the social-democrats propose, didn’t foresee the inevitable backlash that was lurking on the far horizon, the backlash when the animus dominandi unites with the basest of narratives, forming a deadly combination of aggressive nationalism and siege mentality.
Was Europe ever too liberal? That seemed to be the primary miscalculation. Burkean, nationalist Euro conservatism, as opposed to more modern libertarian American conservatism, is not based on the idea of economic emancipation and integration. It is much more traditional, insular, and pitchfork-wielding. There is a reason why the rhetorical convergence between the ultra-left and far right in Europe is so striking; because it is tribalistic and clannish. Barring elites, son-of-the-soil Europeans were never multicultural, nor liberal, neither in the West nor in the East. Nationalism and autarky, no matter how deeply flawed and dangerous, is therefore an instinctive and understandable reaction.
The entire European project was fundamentally built on two differing ideas. One promotes economic welfare based on borderless free trade and free market and social individualism, and therefore encourages people to choose their destiny. The other, surprisingly, promotes a centralized hierarchy, an elite loco parentis which decides how many calories one should consume, what plastic one should import, and what gross, invidious, emetic picture of shredded lungs one should see on a cigarette packet. It interprets modern sovereignty as a systemic rule by democracy and human rights, unless of course the countries and the citizens decide to deport criminals, stop migrants, control borders and their individual monetary and economic policies, or God forbid, want to leave; the equivalent of mythical Greek states, where every city state was independent to pursue individual policy, but had to go to war under the command of Agamemnon.
Over time, defending the EU started to sound like defending an indefensible, unjustifiable, contradictory set of principles.
The Brexiter Leave campaign’s message therefore is resonating with the people in UK (and with broader Eurosceptics across the EU) even when it is deeply flawed, and built on the back of naked ambition of some of its Oxford educated leaders, who now champion the working class causes. Rhetorically on the Leave side, there’s no robust, orotund, loquacious circumlocutions, no polysyllabic pleonasm, no archaic schoolboy debating prolixity, no “we’re British, we don’t quit” slogans, which could immediately be cut down by a debater who’s quick enough to think of the parallel with not quitting and going down with the Titanic. It cannot possibly get more British than drowning with a sinking ship, debating with oneself the advisability of an action when considering what others might think.
The Leavers on the other hand, contrary to what journalists and experts expected, are calm and on point; almost boringly hammering in their dumbed-down, three word message. The fundamental debate is the contradiction of the EU as an idea, and the survivability of European democracy and values, and the only way forward is to “take back control”, a phrase I am tired of hearing but I also cannot forget as it rings in my subconscious. And in perhaps the greatest irony, the rhetoric of saving European values and democracy is resonating among a section of common Europeans, disillusioned by their politicians, their bankers, and their local governments, fearful of the helpless paralysis while facing greatest mass movement in recorded modern history and the inevitable social, cultural and demographic changes that brings, forgetting that barely seventy years back, the tables were turned.
Sometimes, the masses don’t want to understand the prudence of economic benefits, they don’t want to think rationally, when the survival of a tribe they identify with is perceived to be at risk, rightly or wrongly. The EU battle is not about prudence, not about common sense, not between social classes or economic points of view, but a fundamentally more ignoble instinct of tribalistic, clannish survival against perceived elite-driven social restructuring. And, it is exactly in this context that I, being a misfit in all the categories and identities, a non-European scholar, upwardly mobile middle class outsider with a comparatively secured future, was uncomfortably being dragged into a battle that for all practical purposes won’t stop with this referendum, and was constantly being prodded to take a side, which I had thus far avoided.
“You have a wife?” my driver asked, as I was paying him the fare. I said no, I broke off with my ex recently. His solution to this conundrum was that I should marry a Polish girl. That way, she and I can both stay in the UK whether Britain leaves the EU or not. Also, apparently I am thin by Polish standards, and I could do with some fattening Polish home cooked food. Satisfied with his erudition, and his solution of inter-continental matrimony, he drove off.
One of my seniors from my early career days as a journalist once told me that one can get invaluable insight on human nature from barbers and cab drivers. I am inclined to agree; I learnt a lesson.
Next time I think of rushing back home after a grueling day, and though I love a banter with Polish taxi drivers, I might take a bus.
- Sumantra Maitra is a freelance journalist and writer, former conflict and political correspondent, and currently a doctoral researcher on foreign policy and neorealism, at the University of Nottingham, UK. He likes to talk about coffee and classics. He also wastes a considerable part of his life on Twitter, where you can find him @MrMaitra.