Guest post is by Dr Anna Notaro, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee
Britain’s conflicting relationship with the European Union is nothing new; however over the past few months the prospect of ‘Brexit’ – shorthand for British exit from the EU – has become an increasingly realistic possibility. Cataclysmic change might be a longue durée historical process, and yet sometimes the unthinkable turns into the inevitable at such a fast pace that one is left with a sense of incredulity mixed with self-reproach and impotence. However, it is exactly at times like this that the case must be put with the greatest decisiveness: Britain’s place is in the EU.
One has to acknowledge of course that the EU has been a source of frustration even for those most favourably disposed towards it – and I’m not alluding to a certain unhealthy interest in the shape of cucumbers, or a more justifiable interference with our household appliances. The EU has long been perceived as a detached and bureaucratic entity whose inner workings are based on treaties (see the Maastricht Treaty of 1992) signed when the internet had not yet changed the world. For national governments to divert internal political disquiet towards EU inefficiencies was an open goal not to be missed. This is clearly the case with immigration at times of economic difficulties. In terms of popular support, the political drive to leave the EU is largely based on stirring up public concerns about immigrants abusing social benefits, ‘swamping the country’ and driving down wages. Over the past year we have witnessed an escalation of UK government’s rhetoric, from the disgraceful ‘returns’ pilot scheme for illegal immigrants, to threats of curbing freedom of movement within the EU.
On the face of it one might have expected a formidable reaction on the part of UK universities, one which would have explained to the general public the reasons why the European project and immigration are in the nation’s best interests. Unfortunately universities, somewhat weakened by the efforts to justify their own existence in a context of fierce (inter)national competition, have responded by taking the balance sheet approach alone. They have correctly pointed out that the immigration crackdown could badly affect the international student vibrant market. The President of Universities UK and members of the Universities UK board have written an open letter published in The Times – a 194 word reminder that ‘universities are national assets which contribute £73 billion to the economy’. Similar economic arguments have been further expanded in the Universities UK blog. Most recently a study by UCL migration economists Dustmann and Frattini (ironically non-British themselves), which concluded that between 2001 and 2011 EU migrants made a net positive contribution of £20bn was negatively reported in the media.
Perhaps unsurprisingly the universities’ reaction has been typical of the way the EU is seen from London (the perspective is slightly different from Scotland), where few understand the driving force behind ‘Europe’ and most think only in terms of free trade and practical, commercial results. No letter to The Times (such a quintessentially British, ‘olden days’ manner to address a 21st century problem) can fix this; what is required is a reminder of the ideal value of transnational knowledge, such as the excellent work carried out at CERN, the recent landing of a European spacecraft on a comet, and the framework that allows thousands of students on the Erasmus programme to acquire memories and experiences which last a lifetime. Universities cannot expect to capture the public’s imagination by listing crude figures alone; the economic evidence is not sufficient, they should be tapping into the more spiritual, idealistic aspects which lie behind any human endeavour. They should articulate a collective vision which puts a premium on collaboration and solidarity. The risks of pulling out of Europe are far greater than establishing a ‘relationship with Brussels on the same level as Botswana’s'; rather Brexit would be a sad example of cognitive dissonance for a country proudly keen to remember the sacrifice of the fallen in the two world wars.
For all its faults in its current form, the ‘European project’ stems from a desire for reconciliation between European nations, shaped and defended by people from very different backgrounds who had experienced the horrors of nationalism. What we are confronted with in Europe today is no military war of course, but a resurgence of nationalist sentiments and emotions (see Marine Le Pen’s defence of the nation state in this recent interview, or UKIP’s ‘Little England’ pronouncements. This is a battle of ideas and it is incumbent upon universities to expose past delusions as well as the pitfalls of new ideological siren songs.