As I set off for my semester abroad in London, UK, last January, “Brexit” had been only a quiet rumbling in the American news cycle. I do my best to keep up on international affairs and understood the basics of the proposed referendum: as promised by David Cameron as part of his reelection campaign, the British people would be given a chance to vote on continued membership in the European Union in June 2016.
The roots of each argument were clear to me as well: the British government was struggling to justify its continued efforts at liberalization to a people whose parents and grandparents had been at the center of the manufacturing economy not long ago and who felt left behind by increasing globalism and off-shoring of production. At the same time, the project of the European Union—an organization which has made immense interconnection across the continent more possible than ever—had benefits of its own, even outside the free trade zone many in the “leave” campaign bemoaned. One of these benefits is the Erasmus program, which allows university students in EU member states to study abroad without accruing costs outside of the tuition they pay at their home institution. This program has increased access to study abroad opportunities across Europe, and bears a striking resemblance to the opportunity CGIS afforded me.
I remained in Britain until mid-June, departing a week before the referendum was held. Over the course of that time, I witnessed a deepening and darkening of rhetoric surrounding the decision the British people had been vested with. As the economic arguments for leaving the EU were more and more criticized by leading experts, UKIP, the party most strongly advocating for the Brexit, began to emphasize the need for control and self-determination over immigration and refugee resettlement issues in Britain, rather than remaining tied to EU recommendations and regulations. Late in May, a billboard that I walked past at least once a week was displayed outside Parliament, depicting vaguely-Middle Eastern refugees as an invading mass, an overwhelming burden. On June 10th, MP Michael Gove encouraged British voters to ignore the voices of experts and other elites when considering the referendum question. On June 16th, the same day I flew out of London, a young MP named Jo Cox—who had spent her short parliamentary tenure advocating for the protection of civilians caught up in the Syrian Civil War—was shot and stabbed to death by a man shouting “Britain First,” the name of another right-wing party backing the campaign to leave the EU.
I watched the results of the referendum closely as they came in, and a the vote, which split 51%-49% to leave, messages from friends I had made in my time abroad began to surface. A lifelong friend of mine who is a British citizen currently attending Utrecht University in the Netherlands questioned whether she’d be permitted to complete her studies following the vote. Friends I had met at in London from elsewhere in Europe, many of whom were in the UK on the Erasmus program, questioned whether their siblings would have the same opportunity to travel across the continent that they had been given. A somber comment in the Financial Times went viral the morning after the vote: “We will never know the full extent of the lost opportunities, friendships, marriages and experiences we will be denied.”
The irony I believe, in all this, is that global education is one thing that could have mitigated the fear that gripped much of Britain and put the leave campaign over the top. To turn our backs on giving all students—and all people, for that matter—a chance to meet their neighbors and to learn about them in a meaningful way, only invites further resentment and rhetoric of the type seen at the end of the Brexit campaign. This tension between the direction of our politics and a desire to see peace and cooperation in the world is something I encountered again and again on my time abroad, and is something I’ll be exploring here in a couple future posts.
Click here to find more information about the Kings College London program.