A guest blog by Amita Mistry, a fourth year History and Spanish student at the University of Durham, who shadowed us today:
It was the referendum earlier this year that really got me interested in the work done by the European Union. Researching the benefits and drawbacks of the EU in the year leading up to the historic vote, I found myself both amazed by the vast reach and potential of the EU, but also slightly confused and embarrassed that I hadn’t realised to what extent the EU influences our lives. The referendum build-up made me a vocal supporter of the Remain campaign, therefore it was in a strange twist of fate that the day I was invited to spend the day with my local MEPs, a Q&A was being held to discuss the implications of the Brexit vote.
Curiously, in a discussion about Brexit, not one speaker stood up in defence of the vote to leave the EU, offering a vision for the future of Britain. I asked myself why that was. Perhaps it is because they don’t have a vision; they simply have no idea what they want to happen next. That wouldn’t be surprising, considering those leading the Leave campaign failed to offer a coherent plan of what would follow if they won. However that seemed like too harsh a judgement on the intelligence and deliberation of 60% of voters in the North East. There had to be another reason; perhaps the event had failed to connect with those that voted leave. The Q&A was advertised openly and publicly, yet it failed to attract many Brexit voters. One speaker summarised the issue perfectly, talking about the voters in her local council estate. She said these people had been somehow forgotten. After 8 years of austerity they were frustrated and tired. The young people there were not those that benefitted from exchange programmes to Germany or Belgium, rather they were grounded in their home estates, with no plans to move away either within or outside the UK. We need to reach these people. This isn’t just about getting their opinion in consultations, this is about policy proposals later on as Brexit proceedings unfold, giving them an insight and influence in policies that affect them, and giving them opportunities that allow them to benefit from European and global partnerships.
The discussion also raised the question of what it means to be British. We are leaving the European Union. But that does not in any way mean that we have to become a xenophobic nation that is inward-looking and alienates immigrants. The most poignant speech of the event was made by a woman who had spent 28 years in the UK. She had settled here and pursued a successful career as an academic at Newcastle University, yet the atmosphere surrounding the vote had left her feeling unwelcome. She no longer wanted to be British, because for her being British was no longer something to be proud of; and that really hurt. The view of Britain as a diverse, inclusive nation has changed; it’s my view that we need to change that back. Britain is going to leave the European Union, but it will continue to be part of Europe. We therefore need to rebuild relationships, not on an economic level just yet, but rather on a human level. It is clear that the UK has for some time felt itself to be disconnected from the rest of the Continent, disconnected from its culture. I believe that separate from the economic debate, we must also look to build bridges with our European neighbours, so that we see cooperation not as a chore but as a welcome norm.
Overall I have thoroughly enjoyed my day with Jude, Paul and their team. It has really raised some interesting questions on the Brexit debate that went beyond all of the incoherent shouting that characterised much of the referendum build-up. I admire our MEPs greatly for accepting the resounding result, and working incredibly hard to get the best they can for the North East. They were thoroughly informed today, and answered all of the questions put to them honestly and openly. While I didn’t vote to leave the European Union, today has assured me that there are many people debating and working to ensure that we get the best possible settlement for both the North East and the UK as a whole. So while there’s clearly a lot more to work on, and of course this period of uncertainty will continue to be difficult, I believe that there is good reason to be positive about our future.