- Bayo Olupohunda
As an African nay Nigerian living in one of Britain’s former colonies, the toxic Brexit debate which at its anti-climatic frenzy had become so extremely controversial that it had divided Britons along vociferous eurosceptics and the stay campaigners and which had led to the stabbing to death of MP Jo Cox, an anti-Brexit campaigner) was an epic moment for me. Since the referendum debate opened in February, I had watched closely as events unfolded.
The referendum to decide whether the United Kingdom should quit or remain in the European Union was one moment in history that was incomparable to other epochs. But if there is one fact the debate and referendum confirmed about the British people, it is that the decision to quit the EU which they joined in 1973 through the European Economic Community, exposed a known trait from time immemorial– epic hypocrisy.
As someone who is interested in history and how it shapes our world, the only moment in contemporary history comparable to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU was the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – an event that has become an antithesis in the face of the UK’s exit of the EU.
As the Cold War began to thaw across Eastern Europe, East Berlin’s Communist Party had announced a change in its relations with the West. This eventually led to the integration of the communist East and West Germany.
The resultant effect the crumbled Wall had led to a more open Europe. The peoples of the eastern bloc who were mostly under communist rule had yearned for democracy like their western neighbours. The myth of the Iron Curtain was being dismantled. But the quest for Europe’s integration precedes the fall of Berlin Wall in 1989.
After World War II, European integration was seen as an antidote to the extreme nationalism which had devastated the continent. The rise of nationalism and xenophobia which an inclusive EU was meant to address has now been dealt a mortal blow. This is the reason I consider Brexit victory a sad moment in history. The Brexit success is antithetical to the EU’s founding principles. The effect will be profound as it will create a fortress Europe –a victory to the nationalist and right wing parties that will now push for more isolated societies. The timeline of the creation of the EU and the UK’s exit is hurtful to its founders.
The 1948 Hague Congress was a pivotal moment in European history, as it led to the creation of the European Movement International and of the College of Europe where the continent’s future leaders would live and study together. The year 1952 saw the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community which was declared to be “a first step in the federation of Europe.” In 1957, Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany signed the Treaty of Rome which created the European Economic Community and established a customs union. They also signed another pact creating the European Atomic Energy Community for co-operation in developing nuclear energy. Both treaties came into force in 1958. Many other Western European countries later joined the community. In 1985, the Schengen Agreement paved the way for the creation of open borders without passport controls between most member states and some non-member states. In 1986, the European flag began to be used by the Community and the Single European Act was signed. In 1990, after the fall of the Eastern Bloc, the former East Germany became part of the Community as part of a reunified Germany. With further enlargement planned to include the former communist states, as well as Cyprus and Malta, the Copenhagen Criteria for candidate members to join the EU were agreed upon in 1993.
The European Union as it is now called was formally established when the Maastricht Treaty—whose main architects were Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand—came into force on November 1, 1993 with a common currency as the Euro. That the UK would ever think of leaving the EU is one scenario that was never contemplated. This is given the history of the British themselves.
At its height, the British Empire was the largest in the history of the world. In 1922, the British Empire had colonised over one-fifth of the world’s population and owned nearly a quarter of the earth’s land. The British Empire officially dissolved in 1997, never quite recovering from the chaos of the World War II and losing territories to a wave of decolonisation and independence movements over decades.
The sheer weight of both momentous changes, recent and historical, invites comparison. “The only geopolitical shift that is comparable in my lifetime, and I was born just after the war, is the disposal of the British Empire,” said historian and constitutional expert, Lord Hennessy. “We’re going to take an awful long time to realise just the magnitude of those consequences.”
Perhaps, it was Britain’s history of dominating other cultures and peoples, however, that led to the xenophobic paranoia that invigorated the Brexit campaign. One of the more hotly contested aspects of the Leave camp was the fact that Britain’s membership in the EU allows European citizens to cross British borders and live in Britain without visas or extensive paperwork.
Brexiters scapegoated immigrants as the source of the country’s economic woes despite most experts agreeing that British immigration has substantially boosted its economy. The eerily Trump-like refrain of “getting our country back” was a common Brexiter refrain, and the Leave vote was largely motivated by a mixture of anti-immigration sentiments. Leading Brexit proponent and the UK Independence Party leader, Nigel Farage, has, according to the UK Independence Party’s own founder, Alan Sked, famously joked in the past, “There’s no need to worry about the ni**er vote.
Farage was quoted as saying ni**ers will never vote to leave but he denied the allegation outright. The British media also took part in the fear-mongering caricature of a Britain overloaded with an influx of immigrant freeloaders. The line between British exceptionalism and xenophobic hysteria has worn thin throughout the Brexit campaign, and it is tragically fitting that fears of a sort of “colonisation” from outside forces would convince a once great empire to make a potentially calamitous decision. As the Leave campaigners had their day, on social media has been a viscerally angry outcry over the success of the Brexit campaign, but of the thousands of posts from people venting their frustrations, nothing captures the truly tragic irony of an all-conquering once imperial British Empire now feeling emasculated about opening its borders for immigrants. At the turn of the 19th century, the British entered most of West African coast uninvited. The resultant colonisation ended 100 years later. During colonialism, the British through the Crown ruled territories across the Atlantic and lorded it over many countries which years later became commonwealth of nation under the Queen. How ironical that the UK who still maintains a neo-colonial egoistic control over its former colonies see the EU as an infringement on its territories?
A look back at history will reveal how hypocritical the British have been, the amalgamation that willed Nigeria into being in 1914 was done by fiat by Lord Lugard, the then governor-general, without the opportunity of a referendum. Now, our country is living with the consequences of the British hypocrisy which defined the relationship with the colonies. It is obvious that Brexit is a disaster which the British will regret in their reflective moment.
- Twitter: @bayoolupohunda