Sarah Kay on What Brexit Means to Her

Sarah Kay on What Brexit Means to Her

My brilliant friend Sarah Kay, a prominent UK/EU human-rights lawyer who was born in Dublin and raised in Belfast, posted the following statement on Facebook about what Brexit means to her. We’ve had some legal and political analysis of Brexit on the blog, but Brexit is also, and perhaps fundamentally, personal — if it happens, it will have a lasting effect on people’s lives and, as Sarah explains, sense of identity. My thanks to Sarah for letting me re-post her statement.

I am a Cold War kid. I still refer to anything east of Bremen as “the east”; I still have to blink rapidly when the u-Bahn in Berlin stops at friedrichstrasse; I have a vivid memory of sirens howling at noon on an overcast day of primary school for an exercise in surviving a nuclear bomb attack.

I am a Troubles kid; anything east of Belfast Central is foreign to me. Taking the train from Dublin, I inform friends of my arrival by letting them know I have crossed the Border. My phones have all capitalised the fault line, and so does my brain. When exiting Europa station, I always look up and am surprised for a second to see the hotel still standing.

I am a Yugoslavia kid. I always need a map to remember the exact frontier between Bosnia and Serbia; every deployment of blue helmets dries my mouth, as if helplessness was rooted in that very despair. I have never used the phrase “brick and mortar” because mortar has a much different meaning for me.

In a way, I am also a WW2 kid. My grandfather was an Operation Dragoon veteran; I keep a photo of my grandmother with my infant uncle in her arms, after she birthed and nursed him on her own in a military base in Tunisia. My mother told stories of food ration tickets in the mid-1960s. I have kept my grandfather’s uniform and ceremonial sword.

I was too young to vote for the Maastricht referendum; but I came along to the polling booths, and was allowed to place the “yes” bulletin in the envelope, and then ceremonially place it in the box. Exiting the polling place, I was handed a tiny EU flag. I ran around with it all day, and waived it as I watch the results be announced.

I was in law school during the switch to the common currency. I remember my first 2 euro coin, looking at which flag was on the flip side, wondering who used it first, which country it had been forged in. I still do it with all my Euro change. I remember being small in Italy and paying for bread in thousands of lira. The euro changed that; I remember I loved that wherever I went, I could use it.

I also remember Ireland’s No to Lisbon in 2009. I remember wondering why, where my country had it so wrong. I read about Luxembourg, I read about Frankfurt, I read about austerity, I read about Ireland’s lone highway and how we were “the third world of Europe”. I remember reading about opt-outs; I remember thinking that our economically weak but politically strong identity had to fit in somewhere.

I also remember how Kiev renamed its main square “Euromaidan”. I remember the EU flags hung from windows of Stalin-era buildings. They reminded me of the tiny EU flag I was waiving as a child. I saw white flowers at Tymoshenko’s feet, my eyes open wide, my mouth in a silent scream, and how I ran. I didn’t stop running for four months. The war had come next door. The war is next door.

Every airport I land at, every visible border I cross, I clutch one of my passports in my hand, with the golden circle of stars, above “European Union”. I am European. I was born European, the daughter of immigrants. My European identity is undetachable from my Irish identity, my lawyer identity, my female identity. Being European is not a question of territory. It is why I waived a flag while running around that day.

Brexit shattered all that. It shattered all that for many people. It’s difficult to explain the depression and horror UK citizens felt, because first and foremost they were EU citizens. It’s difficult to explain why the rise of nationalism is scarier here than it is in other countries with no transnational or supranational institutions. The stench of death has never left Europe.

I am a child of war. It may be directly linked to that curly haired girl exiting a polling booth during a referendum. As lower working class, the EU paid for my education; it subsidised my college education. It chaperoned the peace process in my country to ensure our safety and prosperity. It provides me with universal health care. My civil rights are protected by EU directives. My human rights, some of them still fought for, are guaranteed or will be guaranteed by courts. They do not just protect citizens; they protect national, residents and asylum seekers. I want those rights and those protections extended to as many as possible, and it includes those who flee wars and poverty and seek them here. It includes everyone who wants to achieve more and participate in a collective society. I do not want a fortress. We aren’t a fortress.

I am not the Commission; I am not the Council. Those are institutions, not ideas; they are a temporary representation of a certain political will. As such, they can change. The European project means more; to many of us it means survival. Greece, despite its economy, never voted to leave. Spain, despite its criticism, never voted to leave. Ireland, despite being stubborn, never voted to leave. Being European means not being confined, not being restricted, the end of nationalist claustrophobia, the end of incestuous politics, the extension of a horizon for aspiration, professions, education, family life. It means accessing to rights we would never have known otherwise.

I have spent a considerable amount of time in faraway wars, distant wars, wars different from our own. I have spent crucial time looking at how European states contributed to those wars, sometimes facilitating them. The war back home is still on our minds – its legacy ever so present. I will continue to work against that as I always have; I will continue to help those seeking protection from horror, as I always have. It is possible for us to shelter the vulnerable (despite what you’re told); it is in no way the end of who we are, but in fact very much the essence of who we are (despite what you’re told). The golden circle of stars on my passports has saved me; it should save more, too. It’s only been 70-some years, a lot is left to be done. A lot is left to be changed.

I am not going to alienate Brexiters because they deserve those rights and those protections. They belong to us as much as we belong to them. My commitment to Europe is difficult to understand for those younger than I, who haven’t known separation walls, who haven’t known bullet impact on civilian residences, who never heard the high whistle of a missile through the air, who struggle to understand the fear of the current political fight in Austria. The reason why many aspire to those golden stars is because without it, only the dead would indeed see the end of war. Leaving Europe is and will remain a selfish display of privilege. For us, it’s survival.

We have created safety, we have manufactured peace through co-dependency. We have built, through a collective, a way to signal the end of conflicting empires. We have written entire bodies of law to restrict the power of those post-imperialistic governments over us. We have enshrined the collective through votes, some wobbly in their standards, some worthy of utopia in their enforcement. We have created a fragile economy based on the presumption we would all thrive. But we’ve built. We’ve built with brick, not mortar.

I will be with you against the excesses of the Commission and the self-serving motives of the Council. I will be with you in the demand for the end of back channel diplomacy on wars next door. I will be with you to promote a more accessible parliament. But I will oppose you if you want to dismantle our internationalism; I will oppose you if you believe borders make you safer. I will oppose you with the counter terrorism command for all the nationalism-based security argument and I will most certainly oppose you vigorously if you believe those seeking protection from war run opposite to a religious, tribal-based idea of what our “culture” and “civilisation” is. Because the European project goes directly against that. We are, all of us, this idea.

While Brexiters had legitimate concerns, we need to place our collectivism and socialist foundation back at the core of our negotiations, because racism and nationalism can’t stand. We must reform our economic and financial policies as they leave too many behind and don’t ensure the protection of the poor, or the regulation of trade. We must accept our institutions have become too opaque for us to make informed decisions. But most importantly we have to remember where we come from and what we’ve seen, what we’ve experienced and witnessed, and how far we’ve come. We need to realise we are standing on the dead bodies from the wars of blood and iron, but still standing. We have to commit. We have to reform.

May the franco-German border never be raised ever again. May the one in Northern Ireland be allowed to one day disappear from our consciousness.

Stunning. That’s all there is to say.

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random commenter
random commenter

This is a very interesting piece, but what stuck out the most to me is that (as far as I can tell) basically no one in the UK made these kind of arguments against Brexit. I didn’t read about any serious UK political figure argue that the UK should stay in the EU because of a commitment to European values or something along those lines. From what I know, that argument has never had any real purchase in the UK.

As an American, I don’t have very strong views about Brexit, but the fact that so few people seemed to have any enthusiasm at all for remaining in the EU, even those who voted to stay,

Ruvi Ziegler

To the ‘random commenter’ above: Your characterisation is quite fair in terms of the ‘official’ remain campaign, the former Prime Minister and those surrounding him. There were other voices emphasising the points the article makes – the Liberal Democrats and the Greens throughout the UK, and the SNP in Scotland. They were sidelined, based on the false premise that the economic arguments alone can win this referendum for Remain. Very depressing indeed.

Iheke Ndukwe
Iheke Ndukwe

I blame Bill Clinton. No, honestly. His famous “its the economy stupid” has made every subsequent election about facts, evidence and mostly how any change will hit your “pocket book” rather than visceral and emotional things that can’t be described but can be felt.