“They say immigrants steal the hubcaps
Of respected gentlemen
They say it would be wine an’ roses
If England were for Englishmen again”
(The Clash, “Something About England”)
The United Kingdom consistently ranks as one the most inclusive member states of the European Union when it comes to LGBTI rights (with a whopping 81 point score on the ILGA-Europe index). Despite the local discrepancies (Northern Ireland still lags significantly behind), the UK undeniably remains a force for progress on these issues inside the European spectrum.
Living in Paris, where I co-chair Centre LGBT Paris Ile-de-France, I know for instance we yearn to have the same degree of respect from public institutions and policymakers as LGBTI groups receive in the UK.
But I am also a British citizen, and fairly involved in the British community in France. As such, I’ve seen the referendum campaign unfurl, and the subsequent debacle. And I am worried.
The in-or-out debate does not appear, at first glance, to have much to do with LGBTI rights: The EU does not directly intervene in family matters, for instance. And there have been LGBTI groups on both sides of the debate, be it through organizations such as LGBT Labour or Out and Proud, or through the interventions of various LGBT MPs in the media.
But the referendum on membership of the EU ceased to be about rights and progress some time ago, devolving instead into a heated argument about immigration and the reinforcement of national borders: Grassroots Out, one of the pro-Brexit campaigns, even came up with a poster showing huddled masses of refugees lining at the border within days of the vote (and not lining properly like only the British can).
The general context in Europe explains to a certain extent why the anti-immigration, law-and-order agenda became so prominent: refugees and dead bodies have been washing on the shores of Fortress Europe in an unprecedented way since early 2015. News reports are full of heartbreaking images of children and families trying to make their way to our shores, and of the accompanying talks and summits at European level to try to find a solution. At the same time, terrorist attacks in France and Belgium have triggered apocalyptic visions of the future.
Fear of the future, worry over the UK’s economy and place on the world stage, are key elements to explain the Leave vote. And this vote was predominantly cast by those who feel left aside by recent social and economic evolutions: white, middle-aged, English voters with secondary-level formal education or lower, unemployed or retired, and with little to no interest in politics.
EU member states are currently plagued by the explosive consequences of the unequal social and political progress of the past 30 years. Overlooked areas where public services and equipments have become swamped or obsolete, and whose jobs have left with local shops and services, are prime breeding grounds for resentment. All it takes for the mix to become explosive is for a number of political entrepreneurs to designate scapegoats.
In the space of a few weeks, Sadiq Khan got elected mayor of London, and the United Kingdom chose to leave the EU, in spite of overwhelming expert consensus that this would be a catastrophe, and just a few days after the brutal murder of Jo Cox.
As of June 27, more than 100 incidents of racial abuse and hate crime have been reported since the June 23 vote in the UK. Not only should this level of xenophobia be worrying to us all as LGBTI persons (since we frequently face the same hatred), but there is reason to think LGBTI rights, like the EU that has consistently promoted them for many years — even when Clause 28 was still in place in the UK — could very well end up next on the list of scapegoats. Not only have Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson held anti-equality positions, but Leave voters have almost equal contempt for social liberalism as they do for multiculturalism. And the hate speech may have already begun.
The beauty of scapegoating is that the game never ends. Targeting one population as a cure-all for social ills is never good; and we should bear that in mind when European populists, in France, in Netherlands, in the UK, try to push forward the argument that we LGBTI persons would be better off without migrants (seen as rabid fanatics). Many similar arguments were put forth during this nightmare of a campaign, not least when the Defence minister came to an Out and Proud rally to explain how controlling immigration would defend our way of life.
Europe today is a complex political entity, with many misgivings, but one that has defended and promoted our rights and for human rights overall. More generally, the populist drive across Europe to do away with political complexity and to target populations as scapegoats, has become an imminent danger that we must counter.
Flora Bolter is co-chair of the Centre LGBT Paris Ile-de-France.