Witnessing History

The decision to leave the EU has been the second most important historical event I have witnessed. I have not felt so shaken since I watched 9/11 unfold on live television almost 15 years ago. I remember everything about that day ; I believe I’ll remember everything about last night, this morning and the rest of the day. Yesterday I posted a short piece about antisemitism in the Second World War and the anti-immigration, anti-Europe discourse of the Brexit campaign ; I never, ever, actually believed we might leave the EU. The sense of history in the making compels me to put pen to paper again this morning. Also it is really hard to do actual work when you are so upset.

I came to the UK in 2002 to study History. I felt that by staying in France, where I am originally from, studying history at university would have limited rather than expanded my options. The British university system, for all of its flaws, offers young people real promise and potential, not least in comparison to the French one.

I was able to study history at Royal Holloway because, as an EU citizen, I paid home fees. I fell in love with history thanks to RHUL’s thriving and passionate history department. After having gone to an International Lycée in Paris I already had a strong sense of the importance of international communities. By studying the history of the twentieth century, and the movement of people, ideas and materials before, during and after the Second World War, I became even more convinced that breaking down national(ist) borders was essential for the future of a peaceful and tolerant society.

I was able to continue my studies at postgraduate level at Oxford because I was an EU citizen. At Oxford, I met a boy. One of the first things we talked about was how he had gone to live and study in France for one year during his undergrad degree – a year he described as being the best time of his life. He is now my husband, and we have a son.

I obtained a doctorate from a UK university ; I was a postdoctoral fellow at various British universities as well as the European University Institute ; I now have a permanent job in a British university ; I own my home in North London ; I teach dozens of students each year about the history of Europe in the twentieth century. The opportunities to live, work and settle in the UK allowed me to build a life here. My home, husband and baby are the living proof, as are the many wonderful friends I have made here. These opportunities also allowed me to develop intellectually and politically, to live a life based on tolerance and exchange and openness. The idea that many of my colleagues, and my own son, will not be able to enjoy these opportunities breaks my heart.

The discourse on immigration is tragic, and the idea of British ‘independence’ reeks of insularity and a dated nationalism. I feel unwelcome ; I would not be surprised that many young Europeans planning to study in Britain feel unwelcome, too. The idea that they might not come to Britain as a result of Brexit makes me fear that the rich social diversity that makes the British university system so attractive to European and international students alike is at risk.

I try to make sense of a Leave win. (1) People feel disempowered, and a referendum gives them the illusion of taking back that power. The idea that people think that exiting the EU means pay rise and better healthcare makes me think that they feel isolated from the opportunities that I was able to benefit from. It is a tragedy they could not see that low salaries and an ineffective NHS have nothing to do with EU membership. It is a tragedy that they could not see that the exchange of languages, cultures and ideas is not only deeply enriching but also fundamental for our future. (2) We should have done more. There should have been hardened, dedicated campaigns across the country, and not just London. There should have been more emphasis on languages and European, transnational history in school. There should have been more efforts to show the fundamental benefits of the flow of goods and peoples and ideas.

I do not identify with the rhetoric that Britain can be ‘Great’ again. I find this a chilling and dangerous refrain. I only feel reassured by the fact that this decision is the tyranny of a small majority ; that so many of my friends and colleagues on social media share the sense of desperation and tragedy I feel today.

WSJ_BrexitI’m going to sit on my couch for a while. Then I’m going to apply for British citizenship because I need to get a fucking vote in this country. And I’m going to finalise the paperwork for my son’s French passport so that he can hopefully have a future in the EU.


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