28. June 2016

Without Captain, Course, Destination: Sailing Away

Several months ago, I concluded a post about the EU referendum with “Sail away. A thought abroad”. I am thoroughly disappointed that the UK actually did. Or half of it? The ship has left the harbour, without captain, without course, without destination, and most disturbingly with a deeply divided crew.

This article is a set of loosely connected thoughts. Thoughts abroad.

Emotions running high. A lot has been written in the meantime on the “Brexit”. Newspapers, television, social media, and discussions have been covering the topic. The emotions are running high, and there is a wide gap between the remain voters and the leave voters. There is disappointment on both sides. The political parties are struggling in internal fights. All while we are losing the opportunity to tackle bigger problems, together. It is disheartening.

No compass. In this post, I want to point out the absurdity of the current situation in the UK. And the absurdity goes far. The ship has left the harbour after a mutiny. But who is the captain now? And which course to take? What is the destination? Where is the promised land? Will the crew unite, divide, or decide to participate in another mutiny? Not that I could predict the weather, but I think it is likely that storm is coming. And the questions are, among others: Where is the compass? Where is the map? Where are we sailing to? Hopefully, it will provide you with food for thought. Because all of us live on the same planet, after all.

A EU citizen’s view. In order to give you some context about the perspective from which this post is written, let me start with a few sentences about myself. I have lived in many places, and nearly all of my time in Europe and in the European Union – near Munich, Germany; in Stuttgart, Germany; in Hong Kong, China; in Stockholm, Sweden, and now in London, United Kingdom. As written in a previous post in the context of the EU referendum, I have greatly benefited from the European Union in my studies, and now also in my work after university. That alone should be sufficient to make it obvious whether I would have voted remain or leave (there are many potentially even important reasons beyond direct financial incentives, which I will touch upon later). But then, unlike in the London mayoral election, I was not eligible to vote.

Goals are paramount. In any negotiation, and more generally in lfe, it is vital to stay focused on your goals. For example, in this post, I have the goal of giving my disappointment a voice. I have the goal of showing some absurdities in the current situation. I have the goal to make you think. I have the goal to use my words to influence what you do in the future. I have the goal to make you doubt if you voted leave. But I am definitely not going to insult you for your decision. First, I have a growth mindset and hence openly admit to the many mistakes I have made and will make in my life – always working hard to learn from them. And second, offending you will not bring me any closer to my goal.

Birthday wist list. I had a problem with the referendum. It provided a canvas for everyone. A canvas on which you could paint your favourite problem. No problem was spared: education, health care, economy, immigration, policy making, roadworks, housing, food prices, etcetera. And then on the other side of the room was another canvas. Here, you could paint your wishes. And the painting started. Particularly the false claim that £350 mio are being spent weekly on the EU was source of inspiration (plus the omission that there might actually be some benefits in return). The wish list grew: Schools. Rescue the NHS. A new hospital to be built every week. Fix the 35 million potholes in the UK (notice how nicely this number is chosen: you could fix all potholes in the UK ten times in a week). Cheaper food. Whatever, the point is that everybody can add to that wish list, and everyone can wish for something else. In my vanity, let me quote what I wrote on social media prior to the referendum:

“For those outside of the UK, one of the common arguments by the Leave campaign is a claim of 350 million pounds being paid to the EU every week. Depending on which poster you are looking at, once the UK is ‘independent’, this money will be available for the NHS, the education system, and housing. And potholes. How many times has this money been allocated over the past months?”

A recipe for disappointment. The birthday wish list is a recipe for disappointment. First, aside from £350 mio being wildly inaccurate, this amount of money amounts to far less than £1 per day per inhabitant in the UK. Second, if many people (campaigners, politicians, citizens) make independent, hard-to-believe promises on where that money could be spent, it should come as no surprise that the money (if there is any; whatever the sum is) can’t be spent on all of the items on the wish list. Let us keep in mind that the actual referendum question was only about whether the UK should leave or remain in the EU. Political priorities on public spending, though connected, are in principle a separate discussion. Nevertheless, by interleaving the question of priorities in public spending with the question on whether to leave the EU, it is very easy to jump to conclusions.


Appalling leaflet by supporters of leaving the EU.

Alternatives. Some of the hopes of Leave supporters were along the lines of being able to negotiate better deals once outside of the EU. I am very doubtful that will ever happen. The reason is that the power in a negotiation position is defined by your alternative; this is also called the BATNA – the best alternative to a negotiated agreement. A problem with the EU referendum in the UK is that it lacked a goal. Leaving the EU is hardly a goal, it is a means to some end. However, there is another problem. By committing already before starting to negotiate, the UK has given up its alternatives prior to the negotiation: staying in the EU or leaving the EU. Furthermore, any negotiation will likely be affected by the large divide in the UK that continues to exist post-referendum.

Battle of the Somme. I am writing this article on July 1, 2016. A hundred years ago, the Battle of the Somme started on July 1. In less than five months, more than 1.3 million men lost their lives in a pointless slaughter of a pointless war. On average, this corresponds to all passengers in 170 coaches (55 seats per coach) being killed – on every single day. The equivalent of the population of my hometown would have been wiped out in two days. More than 400,000 British soldiers lost their lives in that stage of World War I alone.

“I wish to speak to you about the tragedy of Europe.”

This is how Winston Churchill started his speech in Zurich, 1946 after yet another bloody war in Europe. In that speech, he also spoke about a remedy, a way to prevent conflict from turning violent again:

“It is to re-create the European Family, or as much of it as we can, and provide it with a structure under which it can dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom.”

And leaving a lot of room for interpretation, and vaguely (I bet this sentence has led to many, many discussions):

“We must build a kind of United States of Europe.”

I don’t want to make my arguments by nourishing fear. Fear rarely leads to good decisions. And the conclusion might not be the same. But awareness and alertness are indispensable. Who knows in which form racism and nationalism surface, and how they might turn into violence. I cannot predict the future. Nor can you. But we need to be vigilant, and the form such violence might take must not necessarily follow the pattern of the past!

Not the only problem child. Unfortunately, the UK is not the only country with disconcerting tendencies to look inwards, to increased nationalism, and even nativism. In Denmark, the Danish People’s Party got a significant share of votes in the 2015 election. Quoting their position on education:

“Dansk Folkeparti vil kæmpe imod, at dansk underprioriteres med den følge, som sprogforskere har advaret om, at dansk bliver uanvendeligt som videnskabeligt sprog, fordi det ikke bruges. Danskernes modersmål må ikke fortsat lide domænetab ved at blive hægtet af det ene videnskabelige domæne efter det andet.”

In its essence, they are saying that the “Danish People’s Party will fight against Danish will becoming unusable as a scientific language because it is not used”. The same party suggested to put a tax on advertisements which used English words. This sounds very similar to the Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland), which claims:

“Die Alternative für Deutschland bekennt sich zur deutschen Leitkultur. Die Ideologie des Multikulturalismus betrachtet die AfD als ernste Bedrohung für den sozialen Frieden und für den Fortbestand der Nation als kulturelle Einheit.”

In its essence, they are claiming that “The Alternative for Germany commits to the German ‘Leitkultur’. The ideology of multi-culturalism is regarded by AfD as a serious threat to the social piece and the continuity of the nation as a cultural unit”. The common motive across the right wing parties such as UKIP in the UK, DF in Denmark, and AfD in Germany is seeing multi-culturalism as a threat in itself.

Root cause analysis. Let us move on to a related topic that has been showing up frequently in the past months: immigration. “Out-of-control” immigration, immigration policy “dictated by the EU” – these were common arguments by some parts of the Leave campaign for leaving the EU. Then, on the left wing, there are some voices that are very quick to come up with the simple equation “concerns about immigration = racism”. Both sides are somewhat missing the point, and missing an opportunity: to learn what the actual problem is. What is the root cause for some parts of the population being concerned about immigration? Chances are that it turns out that some parts of the population were simply misled by poisonous propaganda, other parts of the population were having serious concerns about their personal outlook into the future, about their own economic situation, about not getting a fair share of the benefits of globalisation. Clearly, if remote parts of Wales see little immigration at all are worried about immigration, then immigration is not the actual concern.

Zero tolerance for racism. Let me say it clearly: Racism must not be tolerated! This is imperative. But we should be listening to understand the concerns about immigration. Otherwise, we will not be able to address the actual root cause for these feelings, and leave the stage to those who put fuel into the fire, and exploit people to their own benefit.

Cherry-picking. Now back to the EU referendum. So far I have not talked about what I consider more legitimate reasons for voting to leave the EU. The problem however, in a referendum about a question of such scope, is that one cannot buy the cherries on the cake alone. By voting out, one gets the full package, including all of the stuff one had not ordered. Which is why “I don’t like regulation X” seems to be a very weak and shallow basis to a make decision. And which might explain that some voters hoped for the cherries, but instead got buyer’s remorse without any option to get a refund.

Mind the long term. It is sometimes tricky to think ahead for a long time, be it days, months, years, or decades. And it depends on time perspective, as described book “The Time Paradox” by Philip Zimbardo. It is true that sometimes, when marginal improvements cannot be achieved, or when marginal improvements are insufficient, temporary regression is necessary to gain significantly. This is an interesting discussion, and particularly interesting once you look at who has to pay for the regression and who makes the gains. However, it is also very difficult because the future is difficult to predict. However, we have fairly good data on population growth, citing the UN report:

“During this period [2015 – 2050], the populations of 28 African countries are projected to more than double, and by 2100, ten African countries are projected to have increased by at least a factor of five: Angola, Burundi, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mali, Niger, Somalia, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia.”

Concretely, this means for example that

“The population of Nigeria is projected to surpass that of the United States by about 2050, at which point it would become the third largest country in the world.”

As opposed to

“A significant ageing of the population in the next several decades is projected for most regions of the world, starting with Europe where 34 % of the population is projected to be over 60 years old by 2050.”

Careless destructiveness. Europe’s population is about to stagnate. With that background, it sounds ludicrous to work hard on the disintegration of Europe into ever smaller, and less significant parts. Surely, one does not need to automatically assume that the European Union was the only ever means to unite Europe’s population in face of such challenges. But looking at the politicians supporting the Leave campaign and now struggling for gaining the lead in the vacuum left after David Cameron had resigned, it is clear that they do not have any plan, or any answer to that question. Unfortunately, I have little faith in their time perspective to look beyond the next election. All that has been accomplished so far is a destruction of what has been built over decades with the vague promise of something better. With no plan, no unity, and a lot of internal confusion to deal with. Careless, I might say. Unnecessary. Absurd. Costly. And frustrating, too.

Disruption. It is clear that the EU is far from perfect (like so many other things in life). It is difficult to understand (like so many other things in life). In the history lessons in my school, modulo my memory, we only got to about 1950 when we ran out of time. Unfortunate. 50 years of European history not covered. Before leaving the EU, however, might it not be worth to spend time to understand it prior to putting a cross into one of two checkboxes? It remains to hope – and it is also up to us to contribute to this – that the shake up turns into a positive disruption of the status quo in the EU. While there’s life, there’s hope.

Did not vote. The voter turnout was high (72%) as compared to general election in 2015, but then this also means that 28% did not vote at all. I joined the Remain campaign by distributing leaflets prior to the referendum. To be honest, I was not so excited by either the job itself nor by the leaflets (sorry, fellow campaigners) because I think they were overly simplistic (though far less appalling than the leaflets by the Leave campaign). But my calculation was that my only chance of influencing the referendum is to remind people in my neighbourhood to vote. Well, it was not enough.

The emotional axis. The EU referendum in the UK had and will continue to have emotional impact on everyone living in the UK. The highly visible campaigning and media coverage on the topic of immigration being out of control is likely to have alienated many EU citizens working in the UK, and has increased insecurity. Then there are UK citizens who are now split into two camps – at least. All that has been voted upon is to leave the EU, but what that entails, nobody knows because the next question is how do we continue to do business together? And so there will be uncertainty among everyone. For what? Nobody knows … yet.

To be welcome. When I came to London I feel welcome. I still do, and I am welcome by those who matter most to me. While I called for awareness and alertness for extremism on the rise, I also want to make sure the moderate voices are heard, and the stories of good things happening are told as well. Like the lady who helped me out on last weekend by giving me a lift to the nearest train station to help me get back from a remote place in Dorset to London. It is those small gestures that I remember, and I definitely should remember to return the favour to someone else.

Think globally, act locally. Among the fallout of the referendum, let’s not forget our common goals that go beyond borders, beyond institutions, beyond continents. Goals are paramount.

[1] http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/news/population/2015-report.html
[2] https://www.gapminder.org/videos/dont-panic-the-facts-about-population/
[3] http://www.radikale.net/claus-madsen/indlaeg/2016/06/22/brexit-break-it