Brexit debate yields unexpected potential for positive political change

Whether Britain chooses to remain in or opt out of the EU on 23 June, campaigners’ and experts’ awareness-raising efforts and ideas could signal a turning point for how politics addresses far-reaching issues

As Britain edges closer towards its EU referendum, the debate has yielded a colourful display of personalities and ideologies. But a number of groups have used the debate to campaign for a more democratic and progressive approach to European politics. Their collaboration and unity presents a new vision for the European Union and its institutions. Whether Britain decides to remain in or opt out of the EU when it gos to the polls on 23 June, the collaborations have the potential to reach further than the Brexit issue alone.

Luis Martin, a political scientist and journalist from Spain, has been campaigning with the Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25) since it was founded in February 2016. The movement is calling for a more democratic, transparent and accountable EU.

“Yanis Varoufakis [former Greek finance minister] and other concerned European democrats concluded that the platform for change in the EU could only be of pan-European nature to be effective. Hence DiEM25, the platform for a broad coalition of political forces, social agents, activists and European citizens across the union,” Martin says.

Martin believes that the Brexit debate has resulted in broader recognition that the nation state is increasingly irrelevant in solving problems across Europe. This recognition could inform political responses to issues such as escalating rates of migration, inequality and climate change.

“[The idea that the nation state can arrive at a solution] is not only a fallacy, but a dangerous move. In our discussions and collaborations with various [European] groups – for example, those preoccupied with labour and environmental standards – this has been the most prominent conclusion,” Martin says.

We Are Europe, a London-based youth movement encouraging Britons to vote to remain in the EU, was born out of a recognition that the pro-Brexit campaign is uninspiring and based on narrow arguments about the economy and immigration.

“As a generation, we want more from our politics. We don’t want to scaremonger or get into a slanging match,” says Harriet Kingaby, one of the movement’s co-founders. “There’s so much to celebrate about the EU. We’re trying to illustrate with our own content the history, connections and close relationship we have with the EU – and which are taken for granted.”

To see people ideologically opposed on the same platform has demonstrated that consensus-building on certain issues is possible in politics

One of the We Are Europe movement’s primary objectives is to spread the word about the positive contributions the EU makes to Britain by appealing to the cultural, emotional and human connections many people feel to the continent.

“It’s not perfect but the EU has shaped many of the opportunities we enjoy today, and this debate is providing an opportunity to make more British people aware of this. We need people to have a better understanding of everything that Europe does for us, from supporting our youth clubs; to ensuring that our seas aren’t overfished; to investing in our musical and scientific talent,” she says.

Lawrence Hardy, senior lecturer in European politics and international relations at the University of East Anglia, believes that cross-party campaigning has been an interesting byproduct of the referendum discussions.

“The debate has certainly brought people together from across the political spectrum – on the Eurosceptic side as well as the remain side – and that’s a good thing,” he says. “To see people diametrically and ideologically opposed on the same platform has demonstrated that consensus-building on certain issues is possible in politics.”

Hardy adds that one of the best ways to demonstrate the importance of European institutions is by engaging the public at a local level, a responsibility that lies with local representatives.

“In a globalising world, people are more comfortable with the local. They have a sense of identity, belonging and security in the local. [Members of the European Parliament] (MEPs) can make a difference by engaging more with local media and getting out there into their communities to express the importance of their work,” he says.

The key to progress for European relations and Britain’s perception of them seems to lie in a deeper understanding of the role EU institutions play in society and politics – whether it’s reassessing the importance of the nation state, highlighting the EU’s contributions to Britain, cross-party collaboration on issues, or encouraging MEPs to focus their work locally.

Regardless of whether the British public chooses to leave or remain in the EU, the awareness-raising efforts and ideas from campaigners and experts during the debate are signalling the potential for positive political change.

Photo: We Are Europe