In order to get people to think through complex issues, one technique is to get them to envisage waking up the day after it has happened and imagining their feelings. Bizarrely, inexplicably, insanely, it seems that a British exit from Europe might actually be on the cards, so here is my attempt to imagine how I would feel on the morning of the 24th if that did occur. Note it is not an attempt to make reasoned argument (the Leave campaign seems largely post-rational and immune to any factual arguments anyway), but entirely a personal assessment. I think the emotions I would experience are as follows.
Anxiety – most observers seem agreed there will be a short to long term negative impact on the UK economy, with possibly an extra two years of austerity. After eight years of austerity, the thought of a deeper recession fills me with dread. In terms of universities we have just about accommodated the impact of fees, which has hit part-time study particularly hard. More uncertainty and lack of finance is unlikely to be a good thing. In addition a good deal of research funding comes from Europe, and although promises have been made to compensate for this, I feel the same money has been promised several times over, and in the end university research will be at the back of a long queue. I will also feel anxious about social cohesion – if we do enter a long, deep recession as a result of this national self-immolation, it will be difficult not to resent those who brought it upon us for no real gain.
Shame – I did my PhD as part of a European project and have been engaged with numerous research projects over the years. I collaborate and communicate with European colleagues on a regular basis. These interactions have been socially, culturally and intellectually enriching. I will feel a sense of shame that my country has chosen to abandon the European project.
Isolation – if you’re a large nation (the US, China) you don’t need to be part of a larger group. But generally it helps to be part of a collective social, economic, geographical group. Snubbing our local neighbours will make us more isolated in the world, as a nation. As an individual I feel that the campaign has not been one of project fear, but project anger. I’ve been dismayed by the casual racism, small minded mentality of many in the Leave camp (not all, there are justifiable reasons for being anti-EU). I will now feel trapped on a small island with angry people, grimly clutching their Tesco carrier bags and attempting to make a living by selling Royal Wedding souvenirs to each other. It doesn’t feel like a forward looking, progressive place to be.
Grief – like the end of a marriage there will be a sense of grief following the break-up. I am fully aware of the dubious history of Europe, but I do classify myself as a European. I like being with other Europeans. I appreciate that I am in a privileged position working in a university on joint research projects, so my experience is not the same as everyone else’s. Also I understand that the European Union isn’t devised for my entertainment. But in those European research projects is a microcosm of the grander European Project – people from different countries working on goals of joint interest, with shared values and celebrated differences. Whatever shape our relationships take with Europe following an exit, it will be much more difficult to realise this.
Of course Europe won’t disappear, I can still go on holiday there and attend conferences. But undeniably we will all wake up after a Brexit a lot less European. That is the point of it after all. And that fills me with sadness.