On leaving Brussels

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Someone recently accused the writer of this blog (me) of showing little sign of having listened to those who had valid reasons to vote Leave. This post is based on notes I made on a trip last May (2018) which I never got around to typing up at the time. In it I try to relate to some of the anger directed at the EU from the left.

We’re about to depart from Brussels, but there’s a problem: the seat reservation system for the Eurostar has broken down. Fortunately, thanks to the efficiency of the effortlessly multilingual staff who quickly take to distributing the relevant cards by hand, the problem is resolved swiftly and we’re back in London within two hours. Les temps changent: when my father left his hometown in Northern Germany for good at the age of 17, it took him several days and reams of documents and stamps to get to the UK.

That’s not to suggest that the Eurostar is perfect or even unproblematic. The bins are full, not all the toilets work, and passengers are grumbling in a range of varieties of Europanto. Anyone inclined to welcome another uncritical paean to the wonders of the EU project and the freedom of movement it guarantees might want to consider a front-page article from Belgium’s leading Francophone daily about Mawda, a two year-old Kurdish girl who was shot dead last Thursday by the Belgian police. The officer claimed he was firing at the tyre of the van in which she was travelling, which is an insufficient explanation of how he came to shoot a toddler sitting on her mother’s lap in the front seat in the face. Her parents came from Ranya in Iraqi Kurdistan, a country devastated by Isis, and after several failed applications for asylum were trying to reach the UK.

Mawda’s parents would probably be astounded to be told by British liberals that the EU is the best possible guarantor of free movement. Unlike our journey, their trip involved tens of thousands of pounds, took several months, and ended in death and failure. Some of the very best people campaigning for the rights of human beings to cross borders and find safety certainly don’t see the EU flag as a symbol of civilised values.

I’ve been spending a lot of time in the Forensic Architecture exhibition in the ICA. One of the focuses of the bewilderingly vast and complex projects on display regards the EU’s active neglect of its humanitarian responsibilities in the Mediterranean. They detail the causes of human misery with a mindbending level of meticulousness. Their approach, which uses a combination of cellphone metadata, videos, meteorology, eyewitness accounts, and reconstructions could tell us a lot about what really happened to Mawda, and also shed light what took place in Gaza last week. We don’t have to engage in ‘Minority Report’-style future criminology to predict the human rights abuses that will result from Theresa May signing arms deals with President Erdogan of Turkey. Last week I joined the anti-Erdogan protest outside Downing Street. Among the crowd were people who had been to fight for the YPG in Kurdistan, and who divided their time between there and the Turkish/Kurdish areas of North London, near where we live. While fascists from Italy to Rome spout their bile about the need to combat Isis by tormenting its victims, they risk their lives in order to protect them. And yet, as well as collaborating with Turkey to send back refugees from Syria, the EU has also been planning to set up refugee ‘processing camps‘ in Libya, similar to the concentration camps established by the Australian government in Nauru. If we see ourselves as citizens of the EU, we are responsible for the atrocities it commits and plans in our name.

At St Pancras in the Eurostar waiting hall there was a friendly robot for children to play with. If you tell it your name it won’t rip your head off. Fluffy Robocop. Hard power as well as soft.

*****

I lost a friend over Brexit. Not, as many have experienced, one who came out as a small-minded nationalist, but rather an anti-racist activist whose family had moved to the UK from Bangladesh in the 1970s. At the time I refused to accept that someone so opposed to racism could acquiesce in a cause led by xenophobes, but on sobre reflection it’s understandable that some of those who aren’t from a European background never felt part of the EU project. Europe has a particular value for British society – as Eduardo Lourenço wrote of Portugal’s economy and the EEC, it was ‘the perfect cure for the post-imperial hangover’. Similarly, it’s inevitable that not everyone is all that concerned about what’s ‘best for Britain’. If British people don’t want to get such terrible hangovers, on pourrait dire, maybe we shouldn’t have drunk so bloody much in the first place.

The friends we stay and meet with in Brussels mostly work for the Commission but come from Italy and divide their time between the two countries. The political situation in Rome (where we ourselves lived until the start of this year, and where actual fascists are angling to share power with a semi-cult of internet conspiracy-addled morons) is a reminder that EU membership may soon come to seem less attractive to those of us with a progressive mindset. Elections in May 2019 look set to be characterised by the victory of (ahem) “populists” from across the continent, and may result in a European Parliament dominated who both decry and embody the rebirth of fascism under the EU flag. Ukip won’t be there (not that their MEPs were ever the most assiduous of attenders, although apparently the owners of Irish bars near the Parliament were disappointed by Brexit) but others of their ilk will take their place. After all, those who ‘hate Brussels’ are still drawn to the place. Last week a proud ally of Farage was stalking the “no go” area of Molenbeek, sneering at the (mostly North African) locals because she, a white British woman in a hooded garment who hates the EU, nonetheless somehow regards Brussels as her own territory. The similarities in worldview between Islamic extremists and anti-Muslim bigots are striking. Hopkins is like a dog joyously sniffing out another of its species. Violence is a form of heat, canine libido set on fire. The mentality of Incels and other disciples of Jordan Peterson et al is so similar to Isis it can be no coincidence: psychopathic misanthropy and violent misogyny are impossible to disentangle. Isis’ principal victims are other Muslims, particularly female ones; thus do those who bully veiled women in the street continue their work in different forms. My compatriot once called (in a national newspaper owned by our nearest equivalent to Robert Mugabe) for boats to blow up those who manage to escape. Perhaps she knew what the EU’s up to the Med her attitude to Brexit might change. Meanwhile Salvini tells his followers and their fellow travellers that boats of newcomers may contain men bent on indiscriminate violence, while praising the far-right terrorist who shot randomly at groups of African women in Macerata.

My favourite citizen of nowhere, Momus, was also in Molenbeek recently, showing off some natty ethnic dreads snapped up in local shops which don’t generally cater for tourists. The area where we’re staying (Ixelles) is more upmarket, or at least it is now. Like Broadway Market, it’s lovely if you can afford it. Gentrification here is driven not by finance, like in London, or tech, as in San Francisco, but by EU personnel. Liberal values come at a high price, in more than one sense. All the perpetrators of the airport bombings in 2016 and those who murdered dozens on the streets of Paris grew up in Molenbeek; cultural relativism alone offers little in terms of addressing a very real problem. In the park where I read about Mawda we’re surrounded by Italians, making themselves at home. Brussels is an emblematic city for transnationals, those with a foot in each country. Is Brussels really Belgium? Is London really part of the UK? Arriving in Rome, we were too busy working and preparing to bring up a child to really engage with the struggle to welcome those whose trajectories were more tortured and who would have loved to be able to pop over to the UK whenever they wanted, just as we could. This blog was born not just out of rage but also out of privilege. There are so many stories to tell, why should mine matter to anyone else? I don’t have an adequate answer to that question.

Brussels’ melange of official identities reminds me of China Mieville’s sci-fi detective novel The City and the City, recently dramatised by the BBC. One senses that there are portals leading from one version of the city to the next. This is also where identities are imposed, prescribed, geannuleerd, where policies are enacted to determine who qualifies as European and who is to remain a non-person, pace Agamben. Is abjectification a word? Injustice is administered from here; but the same is true of London. To those who ‘hate Brussels’ for all it represents: what about Whitehall? Do the city or Canary Wharf, those torture centres ever devising new implements of debt, make you feel patriotic?

I read later in The Guardian (where else?) that Mawda’s family may be deported back to Germany. She was considered a German national, having been born there. My father wasn’t a German national, having held a UK passport from the age of 25 or so, when he applied for citizenship and was called up to do military service. Had he lived he wouldn’t have been among those who had to pay £65. He regularly declared himself to be a proud European, one who only felt he belonged here once the UK joined the EEC in 1973; he died in the early hours of May 1st 2018.

I’m sure Mawda’s parents would have been more than happy for her to take his place. Ukip-style anti-immigrant sentiment is so puerile and reductive that the idea of one-in-one-out might appeal. Of course European citizens in the UK should be allowed to stay and come and go as they please. Of course those who promote a basically far-right agenda by cynically instrumentalising the plight of non-Europeans denied the chance to live here are scum. But the EU routinely makes life and death exclusions on a racist basis. I dearly want the UK to remain part of the European Union – at this point, it feels like the only other option is some or other form of nationalist authoritarianism and a level of austerity which will make the Troika’s treatment of Greece look like rampant munificence – but I can’t say I’ll ever call myself a proud citizen of the EU.

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