Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Destroying the bridge

The Bridge at Mostar - after destruction

I have been reading my friend David Wilson’s autobiographical book Left Field.  For some years David, who founded the charity War Child, was Director of the Pavarotti Music Centre in Mostar – and a significant portion of the book revolves around his extraordinary work in the war-torn city.  During the conflict, the ancient bridge at Mostar became a symbol of all that went wrong – it had been built by the Ottoman Turks, and was destroyed by Croat forces. Andras Riedlmayer has termed the destruction an act of "killing memory", in which evidence of a shared cultural heritage and peaceful co-existence were deliberately destroyed.

It’s a timely moment to recall the terror that resulted from the break-up of the Yugoslavian Federation in the 1990s.  Massacres, ethnic cleansing, a land laid waste, a refugee crisis that gave a foretaste of today’s. Neighbour turning on neighbour and friend on friend because of perceived differences in ethnicity, religion or culture.  No-one would call Tito’s Yugoslavia an ideal polity – but the nationalist mayhem that resulted from its dissolution showed humanity at its worst. Refugees from that time tell us that things started to go wrong when people began to say “Let’s segregate all the Muslims”.  Right here - in modern Europe. 

I am, of course, offering all this as a warning against June 23rd.  If, as now appears very possible, Britain votes to leave the EU, that will signal the triumph of a dangerous fiction, called the nation state, over the undeniable truth of common humanity.  Britain’s retreat into splendid isolation would almost certainly spell the end of the European project: Marine Le Pen would demand a copycat referendum in France, and all across the continent the forces of the radical right, already roused in their paranoid, xenophobic response to the refugee crisis, would continue to assert “national” identities and to close their borders against perceived “outsiders” – desperate people who have already fled violence, persecution and the devastation of their lands.   I don’t believe Donald Tusk was exaggerating when he said that this thing called Brexit could lead in time to the collapse of Western civilization. 

Much of the rhetoric of the Leave campaign has been about how “we” need to assert control over “our” borders.  Setting aside the fact that recent visits to airports and stations suggest the UK borders are now more tightly controlled than they have ever been – allow me to pose a more basic question here.  Who are “we”?  Just what group of people is it that is supposed to be asserting some fundamental right to deny others access to a particular territory and the cultural and social life that takes place within it?  Just what is the identity that the curb on immigration is supposed to protect?  What is the Britishness that will somehow be rejuvenated by the abandonment of Europe, the retreat into splendid isolation?

Isolationist positions tend to be the prerogative of imperial nations.  Spain was a closed society from the time of Philip II onwards, even though it also ruled vast swathes of the globe.  China didn’t just become an isolated state under Mao Zedong – it had another five centuries of it prior to that.  Today, an isolationist stance is also key to Donald Trump’s idea of foreign policy: build a wall at your border, ban all Muslims, and make America great again.  Of course, such isolation only goes in one direction – imperial powers isolate their “homelands” from immigrants and foreign influences, at the same time as they regard other territories as theirs to plunder for natural resources, cheap labour, and holidays in the sun.  Perhaps this is why Boris Johnson and his coterie are so fond of evoking the spirits of Churchill and Thatcher: what they are in fact attempting to do is to place themselves in Britain’s imperialist tradition. Perhaps this is also why, astonishingly, so many Black and Asian Britons, the descendants of immigrants, appear to be flirting with a Leave vote: in a Fanonian style, they have taken on the perceived identity of what was once the imperial ruler of their ancestral homelands.  They don’t seem to have noticed that the age of Empire is long over. 

Or is it?  There are, after all, territories within the United Kingdom that retain their links to Westminster because of the imperial project.  There’s been much speculation about the direction Scotland might take in the event of a Leave vote: if Scotland votes overwhelmingly Remain and England votes Leave, that will be yet further proof that these are now two distinct countries.  But the bigger question is probably Northern Ireland.  For some time now, the uneasy peace of the province has been secured by an easing of the border with the Republic – a “United Kingdom” outside the EU would not be able to sustain this.  I remember very clearly John Hume, the great, unsung architect of the current peace process, comparing his vision for the future of the whole island of Ireland to the European model: a space in which it was still perfectly possible for the French still to be French and the Germans German – but impossible for them to be at war.  He was emphatically right: no state of war has every existed between EU members.  Brexit is a sure-fire way to overturn the comparative stability that has been achieved in the Irish question.  Who are “we” – defending our “Britishness” – if the result of “our” action is to set in motion a violent conflict on what is still legally “our” territory?

It could be like Bosnia.  It really could.

I write this at the end of two intense, stimulating and energising days in Brussels, where I have been part of the EU’s Structured Dialogue process around the role of Culture in the Refugee Crisis.  People who have read this blog in the past may recall that Border Crossings has also worked on EU policy before, as part of the Platform for Intercultural Europe.  The EU is often accused of being undemocratic – but never in Britain have I encountered processes of consultation like these.  In Britain, policy is made on the hoof to suit the needs of the next sound-bite.  And this has to stop.  It is turning our democracy into an idiot’s circus.  The referendum itself was a knee-jerk response to a few electoral successes for UKIP – and what a sorry mess it has turned our to be. 

The EU is not perfect – of course it isn’t.  I have, in my time, sat in a Brussels office with a German accountant attempting to make sense of invoices in Chinese, as a result of onerous accounting processes around EU funding.  But Britain seems to have decided that how well or badly something is managed is all that matters – to the point where it matters more than the thing itself.  For some time now, Arts Council England has privileged the cult of management over artistic vision – and a similar myopia is now filtering the gaze we cast upon the EU.  If something has management failings, those can be sorted out – what we should be judging is the idea itself.  And the idea of the EU is something humanitarian, welcoming, enabling, and peace-making.  It is one of the hopes of humanity.  We would be insane to throw it away. 

Insane, insane, insane.