Spring had sprung for the first and only time all winter. Term had just finished, the sun had been shining all day and all deadlines had either been hurtled past or were hurdles too far into next month to be anxious about. All had spent the weekend anaesthetised by alcohol to drown out remembrances of the recent assignment, and only three were left standing to carry on drinking by Monday. So, a Leftie, a Eurosceptic and an Angry European walked into a bar…
Two pints in, and preliminary discussions about the latest Tarantino had been left satisfactorily unresolved when the topic of Brexit somehow flopped into conversation like an ugly critter darting out of its burrow for fresh air but soon to be strewn asunder as roadkill. Of course, all parties involved – as university students – were naturally predisposed to being self-righteously well-informed and unequivocal in their positions. However, for once, I was happy not to be the one sitting at the polar end of what quickly became a very heated discussion to which I was but an observer.
Both combatants entered the ring with a certain degree of wariness. A few blows in, and only a few dismissive, Eurosceptic remarks about ceding sovereignty and Europe’s democratic deficit had been exchanged for equally tentative comments on Britain’s lingering loss-of-empire-complex and potential irrelevance on the world stage. Soon our Eurosceptic turned, inevitably, towards immigration and border control. This proved to be inflammatory and our European pounced on her quintessentially English counterpart with all the combined ferocity of the entire, blood-soaked continent.
If the UK turned its back on collaborating with Europe on addressing the influx of Middle Eastern refugees, she argued, it would be turning its back on one of the direst humanitarian crises – at least – of our generation. Europe’s union is fragile, she went on, with factors like Greece and austerity as well as the cross-country unease of dealing with the refugee crisis threatening to tear it apart. If Brexit goes ahead, then the economic and political ramifications could well be the final straw for the EU. Then all would suffer, Britain included, as economic and social unrest destabilised the continent.
Pfft, our Eurosceptic responded, Britain doesn’t have the infrastructure to cope with housing more migrants, there are growth economies besides Europe that we could be engaging with and what difference anyway does it make to us in the long-run if everything on the continent just goes to shit? Isn’t that what the Channel is for – to keep apart us and them?
By this point, our European had transformed into Cate Blanchett’s towering Galadriel from The Lord of the Rings – green-faced and eerie in rage, with storm clouds and brimstone singeing the pub table. I tried to wade in and steer us towards safer territory, but was quickly engulfed in the maelstrom – only to scuttle away in terror, back towards the bar. When I returned, fresh pint in hand, our Eurosceptic had clearly already been beaten down to the level of a meek, bumbling hobbit. Fortunately, it was soon last orders and he was saved by the bell.
What did I, the simpler and uninvolved Leftie in this situation, learn from the whole ordeal? Well, I don’t have any truck with arguments about sovereignty – the bread and butter of conservative, anti-EU sentiment. There are far more all-encompassing threats to British democracy than the EU – like the pernicious effects of global capitalism and inequality, which pretty much make the whole system defunct anyway. Hearing our Galadriel Euro-Elf address the debate from an ‘outsider’s perspective’ was, I think, useful to hear. For those who care about being citizens of the world, it is important to think hard about what Brexit could mean for Europe and beyond as well as just for Britain. For those that I encounter in the months to come that are more nationalistic, I might well say to them that continental stability is something worth preserving simply for Britain’s sake out of pragmatism if for nothing else.
Does that mean I would readily revert to Galadriel’s arguments when next confronted with supporters of Brexit? Well, I hope not – but I suppose it depends on how heated the discussion gets. The one thing this chance pub encounter reminded me, is that British Euroscepticism is real and pervasive. Was it amusing to watch a European intellectually bludgeon our friend and curse all Brits for our insular island attitude? Yes, absolutely. Did our friend stumble home any more enlightened or receptive to staying in the EU? Somehow, I doubt it. For those more heartily in favour of staying in the EU, the debate has to – I think – be built around a more positive vision, reminding people of the benefits that come with sticking together in an uncertain world, celebrating with our neighbours our shared cultural heritage as well as praising the peace and civil liberties that the EU has increasingly secured for the continent at large.
Meeting Euroscepticism with a gentler Europeanism may well be the best way to go, and so may keeping my friends off too much beer…