British voters narrowly decided last night, in a 52 to 48 vote, to leave the European Union.
The British exit, or “Brexit” as it’s been called, has already reverberated throughout the financial markets. Liberals across the EU attempted to curtail the exit, anticipating that a decision to leave the open market of the EU could destabilize the United Kingdom, at least temporarily. Indeed, David Cameron shockingly resigned from his position as Prime Minister just hours after the referendum went to pass, and Scotland and Northern Ireland are contemplating independence from Great Britain.
But while morning-after analysis has focused on macro level policy and economic consequences for investors, the catalyzing force driving the movement – whether among the “Leave” or “Remain” camps – has been immigration. Less restrictive immigration laws encouraged the EU’s free market economy. However, the increasing anti-immigrant sentiments in Great Britain, which culminated dramatically in the assassination of a pro-European Union British Parliament member last week, pressured Cameron to announce plans for a referendum earlier this spring.
Immigrants already residing in Great Britain, marginalized people of color, and workers seeking employment opportunities in the country can only expect, at least in the short-term, to face a bitter struggle against the nationalist hatred underlying the far-right’s Leave campaigns and a fight for inclusion and economic opportunities not unlike what we experience in the United States. For some people of color in the UK, as expressed by Ore Agbaje-Williams in the UK-based magazine gal-dem, they must now confront a “country deaf to reason, to understanding, and home to controversy, hatred and the type of scaremongering that was reminiscent of the beginning of indoctrination we would all rather forget.”
Thus, the masses of people of color and working class immigrants in Great Britain had no reasonable choice but to support remaining in the EU, particularly when the alternative is living in a regime where nationalist rhetoric fosters hatred of anyone reminiscent of an “other.” Further, it is possible that Brexit will calcify right-wing rhetoric beyond Great Britain, with the tentacles of bigotry possibly spreading throughout the West. And with racist fear-mongerer Donald Trump inexplicably rising to the top of the Republican Party, this edification of hatred has probably only just begun.
Still, it is important to consider the context out of which the European Union was created. Though Remain advocates have couched their arguments in liberal identity politics – which, to be fair, is necessary when faced with the xenophobic, far-right rhetoric of Britain’s Leave proponents – “right-wing forces are leading both sides of the Brexit debate, and thus the debate’s terms pivot on a largely neoliberal terrain: economic issues, like trade and investment, situated almost entirely in terms of what’s best for big capital.”
While the labor movements historically played a hand in convincing the EU that workers’ rights improved multinationals’ bottom lines and the left gained some social measures, the sole purpose of the European Union was to strengthen a market economy. Though it has provided some material comforts, however precarious, for some people of color and immigrants, the European Union is an “uncompromising vehicle of neoliberalism” that has prioritized the corporate elite, historically undermined leftist policies, cut social services, and practiced internationalism for the rich while everyone else has to fend for themselves.
Thus, as is often the case, many of us are ultimately stuck between a rock and a hard place. There are some groups who think a weaker neoliberal system can lay the ground for stronger social policies. Others believe it is better to work from within the European Union in order to change it. We can only speculate as to which is more effective for those who care about global justice, though a regime with a foundation built on racism is not one most people of color have the luxury of riding out. What the Brexit does make clear, however, is that those who identify with leftist policies must continue fighting for alternatives, because neither option serves marginalized people of color or the masses of working-class immigrants in the long run.
Malaika Jabali is a writer and activist from Atlanta who, being from Atlanta, always has to talk about it. Her work has been featured or referenced in Cosmopolitan, Very Smart Brothas, Sports Illustrated, and The Root, among others. She’s also a Columbia Law grad and practicing attorney.