Brexiters want to dismantle Britain’s European identity

Ending the Erasmus programme and other initiatives that tie the UK to Europe will be detrimental to future generations.

Brexit pains
A woman wearing an Irish flag and a man wearing an EU flag demonstrate in front of the parliament at Westminster, in London on September 4, 2019 [Reuters/Hannah McKay]

When European educators started lobbying for the creation of a student exchange programme in the 1980s, they chose to name it after Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), a Dutch Renaissance humanist who promoted religious tolerance and progressive thought some 500 years ago.

Since its launch in 1987, this scheme has become one of the most progressive achievements of the European integration process, sending millions of European students and teachers to study, train, work and volunteer abroad. It helped build a peaceful environment, promote transnational values, and, above all, strengthen a sense of a shared European identity.

I was a beneficiary of the programme. In 1999, Erasmus gave me the chance to study European politics at the University of Bath, a magnificent city in southwestern England with a spectacular ancient Roman heritage.

This period of my life shaped my beliefs and perspective on Europe. Today, I am who I am – a convinced and committed European, believing in the existence of a collective European “soul” – not just because I was born in Europe and speak European languages, but also because I was part of the Erasmus programme. I am a member of the “Erasmus generation”.

I embraced the idea of Erasmus and later in my career I ended up overseeing many excellent Erasmus British students studying in Europe. I settled outside my country – in Britain, where I teach European history at Royal Holloway, University of London and enjoy the wonderful foreign artistic influences and the continental European flavour of its main building.

It was, therefore, with great pain that I heard the news earlier this month that the British Parliament had struck down a proposed clause in the Brexit bill that would have made negotiating to maintain UK membership of the Erasmus programme after Brexit a priority. Last week the queen signed the Brexit bill into law.

Although this still does not automatically mean that the Erasmus programme will be scrapped in the United Kingdom, it does demonstrate that the new Conservative government has no desire or motivation to do anything to preserve it.

This is hardly surprising. After all, the pan-European spirit and values of Erasmus contradict those of Brexit and the concerted effort by many conservatives and Eurosceptics to establish a divided and isolated ultra-nationalist society in the UK. They dismiss people like me, members of the Erasmus generation and believers in a united Europe as elitists who are unable to understand the lower classes and their concerns (although many of us hail from that social strata).

But it is not only transnational education that isolationists are trying to dismantle. The parliament also voted against granting an automatic residency status for European Union citizens living in the UK after Brexit and allowing unaccompanied refugee children to reunite with their families.

Erasmus, as well as the rights of EU migrants and child refugees, are now on the line and their fate will be determined by a Conservative government bent on exiting Europe at any cost.

There are people in the UK who still see the value of Erasmus and who have called for its preservation. Universities UK, the representative organisation for British academic institutions, launched a campaign called #SupportStudyAbroad, calling on the public to help pressure the government into keeping the membership of the programme. A petition started shortly after the parliamentary vote has already gotten more than 44,000 signatures.

These efforts are all welcome, but will they be enough to stand up to the isolationist fever that has swept the UK?

Perhaps not. The December national election gave the Conservatives a mandate to pull Brexit through. They will use it, however, to push the country into a new era of demagogic nationalism. 

This will cost the UK dearly and the Conservatives know it, but they carry on with their fantasies about a bright, post-EU future.

Conservative Member of the European Parliament, Daniel Hannan, for example, recently declared that “Britain is no longer a supplicant” under Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s leadership and it will be able to strike a good economic deal not just with the EU, but also with Washington, Wellington, Canberra, Singapore and Tokyo.

Hannan and his peers clearly dream of a return to the glorious colonial past through a reunited white Commonwealth. The problem is that neither the Commonwealth nor the EU is particularly keen on striking deals that favour British interests. Brussels has signalled that it may offer the British government a much worse deal than it did other trade partners, while Canberra recently snubbed London by ruling out a visa-free regime between the two countries.

Yet the Conservatives refuse to see the reality. They continue to whitewash the disturbing wave of xenophobia and racism sweeping through the nation. “Don’t believe the doom-mongers,” warned pundit Matthew Goodwin, “as Britain prepares to Brexit it is a happier, more positive and more welcoming place.”

Home Secretary Priti Patel conferred: “I think we live in a great country, a great society, full of opportunity, where people of any background can get on in life.”

The problem is that there are no clear indicators or concrete analyses suggesting the UK is heading for economic prosperity after leaving the EU or better social harmony. 

It is quite telling that the only cheerleader of what is happening right now in the UK is Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who thinks Brexit is a “fantastic opportunity” and Boris Johnson – “one of the bravest European politicians”.

But as activist Gina Miller has pointed out, one has to wonder how the British people will be able to “preserve Britain as a tolerant place” when they “don’t have Europe to blame for” their problems any more. 

The fallout of Brexit, however, will not be limited to the UK. This wave of isolationism, Euroscepticism and the continuous attacks on the EU can also undermine the very foundations of pluralism and democracy in Europe.

Although no other countries are realistically undertaking to leave the union, ultra-nationalist projects across the old continent are resurrecting the myth of the nation-state and distorting the values of national traditions and community. They encourage the toxic rhetoric of “us vs them”, the perceptions of pure nations threatened by the dangerous other.

For decades the idea of European unity, promoted through free movement, equal rights of EU citizens and initiatives like the Erasmus programme, worked to counter this language of hate and promote tolerance, understanding and common European values.

Dismantling such achievements comes with huge risks. The rejection of cultural mixing, cosmopolitanism and ethnic diversity led to nothing good in Europe’s past and it does not bode well for its future.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.