Brexit makes me feel sick. Perhaps because I know what disunity can do. I come from Lebanon, where we celebrate a “real” independence: one in remembrance of the ending of the French mandate in 1943 and another that marks the withdrawal of the Israeli Army from Southern Lebanon in 2000. The UK doesn’t have an independence day nor should it celebrate one in remembrance of Brexit. It reminded me of the battles my beloved Lebanon has been fighting since 1975 all fuelled by divisions and disagreements. I’m scared of what I see in Britain today. The catastrophic impact of Brexit on the economic, political and social life in the UK and in Europe are evident. Numbers do concern me. But what scares me the most is something different.
I think about the birth of sectarianism in Lebanon, a country of 4.5 million people divided into 18 different religious communities, with different religious and political motives. Over the course of Lebanese history, communities have slowly but steadily detached from one another. Every faction delineated its own territory, defined its own values, and shaped its own identity. Sadly, this was the beginning of an endless cycle of violence, poverty and instability. In reality, sectarianism was no more than dismantled branches with the illusion of being unshakable trees.
Brexit unveiled people’s thirst for an identity, their desire to be unique and be recognised as individuals who have a voice. Perhaps soon, people will start shaping their identities more strongly. Big pieces will disentangle even more, and the results could be daunting. The divisions between classes could be sharper. A hotchpotch of one or more sub-groups will form. There will be the elite, non-elite, pro-EU, leave-EU, pro-migrants, anti-migrants and others.
This is far from being a simplistic comparison between two drastically different nations. But it’s an attempt to say that when people rally to call for a more razor-sharp identity, this should not be underestimated or overlooked. It is what could, in the future, transform the social fabric of society, bring peace or conflict to one, drive change or maintain stagnation.
The leave campaign watered these very seeds. The seeds of nationalism and sovereignty. It reinforced the need to be singular. It did so by using a series of devious stratagems that went as far as distorting economic data to make it more convincing and more appealing. To me, this is the pinnacle of contrivance and dishonesty. But what matters is that people believed it. People took the risk to leave believing it will be OK. People took a stand. People proved who they want to be. But do people know what they did?
During a casual Bremain-Brexit talk over lunch, a colleague of mine said: “I think we’ll be OK either way”. I was startled by this comment, as the mere possibility of a precarious downfall was far from being an option. Perhaps British people take their country’s stability for granted. Something I would never dare doing in Lebanon. Perhaps the uncertain future (unnecessarily brought forward by Brexit), is not perceived as a more dangerous phenomenon than the acclaimed instability of the British weather. The weather changes are abrupt, yet amusing, and at the end the sun always shines again. But will it shine again now?
Some might argue that Brexit showed the exact opposite; that people are tired of stability and wanted a revolutionary change that snatches the astringent taste of their realities from a traditional longstanding status quo, to a disorderly chaotic sphere of life, the components of which should coalesce (almost instantly and luckily) to shape a much better reality. But will it be the case? Did people actually vote to leave the EU? I don’t think so.
What is the EU to the common real people, other than a giant tree whose sugar-coated fruits are only accessible to the birds? How is the EU, with all its grandeur, and fearful shadows laid across the global economies and markets, palpable to an average British family who is busy dealing with daily struggles and life worries? People didn’t really vote to leave the EU. People voted for an increase in jobs, for better jobs, for a better healthcare system, for affordable housing, and of course, against the establishment and to regain a special identity.
The 45% UK exports and 53% UK imports with the EU, the millions of pounds funding from the European Social Funds, Agricultural Fund for Rural Development and others, the 10.97% UK contribution to the EU budget, the 500 million customers in the EU single market, are all just numbers. Impersonal, strange, abstract figures. Meaningless information. People vote for the personal, the palpable. But “a good decision is based on knowledge and not on numbers”. Did people know enough about the consequences of such a vote? Perhaps not.
From where I come, people look up to the Europeans (British included up until June 24th) and wonder how could 28 European Nations come together to rebuild and restore their nations in the aftermath of World War II. If we as Arabs have failed to do the same, it’s first and foremost because we didn’t come together. Europeans did. Unity is power. You don’t recognise its vitality until it becomes fragmented and becomes fragile. Perhaps some, if not many, don’t see the appalling consequences of disunity. I do, because I suffered from it. We, Lebanese suffered for generations because of it.
The problem with Brexit is that it lured people into a nest with the promise to find a not-yet-laid golden egg. And while politicians will continue promoting this illusionary golden age with a shameless dexterity, people will be busy hunting for the egg. They will realise (sooner or later) that the tree where lies the nest is way too high and this is when climbers will fall.