I never gave much thought to the British referendum on whether or not the country would stay in the EU. To me it was almost a done deal, something David Cameron promised the people to appease them and secure votes. I found my head spinning the day after the referendum, when I realized that what we thought unthinkable actually was the conviction of 51% of Britain’s eligible voters. My eminent thought was “how could they have let this happen” and I started browsing my facebook news feed for comments of my friends in England. Relief flooded through me when the statuses of my friends mirrored my own shock of what had happened. When I was studying in England I perceived the British as an exceptionally friendly people, I never experienced any sort of hostility or hate against the EU. One of the first questions asked whenever I was out meeting other students for the first time was the question “where are you from?” Irrespective of who asked the question I always perceived it as genuine interest, just as I was always curious to hear other people’s story. Everybody had something unique to tell. Nobody passed judgment on their fellow students based on their nationality. Hence, it was surprising to read about the outcome of the British referendum in light of their seemingly open-minded culture. Granted, I left the UK in 2013, but surely the opinion of the majority of the country couldn’t have changed this rapidly on a matter of such great importance, or so I thought rather naively.
After the first shock subsided, I came to realize that maybe my perception of the British was not as accurate as I thought. I spend 3 years in the UK, during which I lived, studied and socialised in a very international and open-minded environment. The university I studied at welcomes about 3500 international students each year, and this does not even take into consideration all the students from the EU. While I don’t know whether this is at the upper or lower end as far as student diversity goes, it was enough for me to allow me to interact with all sort of interesting and different people from all over the world and make my stay one of the most worthwhile decisions of my life, mostly due to the warm welcoming of the British.
So what was the root of it all? How could so many people be convinced that the EU did not keep at heart the best interest of the British people just like that of all its other members? While I agree that this question is phrased rather naively and optimistically, considering the EU has it’s own issues and flaws, it still astonished me that so many people believed that the UK will stand stronger on its own than as an active member of the European Union.
Trying to look at what moved the British as a whole to vote “leave” makes it clear that there was considerable political miscommunication and politicians not taking seriously the fear of the majority of its people. For instance, why did none of the pro-EU politicians bother disproving claims such as that the UK is simply paying the EU millions of pound without getting anything back? Claims such as that could have easily been disproven and lay open the real monetary relationship between the EU and UK to dispel the people’s concern. The UK has a lot to gain from the EU, but for some reason people were fed
easy lies and while the pro-EU politicians failed to make a strong stand to convince people of the EU’s benefits. As scientists, we are trained to look past the surface of the problem at hand and keep an open mind to our surroundings; to consider different opinions and different approaches to solve the problems we encounter.
We are shown on a daily basis what fruitful projects can bring and what we can accomplish when we put our heads together and take advantage of coming from different scientific and cultural backgrounds. Therefore, to me, voting “leave” seems an illogical step. It seems a step towards decreasing growth and economic gain within the UK. But then again, is it fair topass judgment on those who voted “leave”? If you are in a situation where you have committed your whole life to a certain cause or business, which might seemingly be in danger and you are told by pro “Brexit” politicians and advocates, that this is due to immigrants flooding the country, what do you do? What do you do when you feel helpless, sad and angry? You find somebody to blame, however irrational that train of thought may be. Everybody does it; none of us is immune to blaming other people for things we cannot help.
In this case the consequence is leaving the EU, most likely for good. How this will affect economic growth and scientific exchange within the UK remains to be seen, but it still teaches us an important lesson. It is crucial to not disregard and belittle the fears people have when it comes to their future and subsequent political decisions. The price might be a broken society and when we look past our fears it is clear that we stand stronger together, with much more to gain than to lose. All of us have so much to learn from not only scientific exchange, but also cultural and socioeconomic exchange, that it should be available to each and every one, irrespective of their background. So that it is not fear driving political decisions and subsequently our future, but rather open-mindedness and the thirst for social and personal growth. Everyone who has been on an exchange of any kind irrespective of the country will most likely agree with me when I say that this experience most definitely enriches your life. The UK leaving the EU will make it much harder to foster this scientific and cultural exchange which is a shame (EU travel/research grants, Erasmus exchange programs, required visas), but nonetheless the UK will still have a tremendous value even as a non member.
(featured image from colourbox.com)