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20th September 2019

Remain vs Leave: Not as different as you’d think

Nimo Omer discusses the presence of Empire around the Brexit debate
Remain vs Leave: Not as different as you’d think
Photo: southpaw2305 @ Flickr

“The world of tomorrow is a world of empires in which we Europeans, and you British, can only defend your interests, your way of life, by doing it together, in a European framework and in the European Union.”

Those were the words of Guy Verhofstadt at the recent Liberal Democrat party conference, and they were met with rapturous applause. He talked wistfully and passionately about the future of a world of empires as though it never existed, and his voice filled with an inimitable fervour and a level of conviction that genuinely makes you wonder if he understands the implications of his words.

As an MEP from Belgium, you would assume that Verhofstadt would tread lightly when it comes to colonial imagery. Nothing, however, could stop his tone-deaf tirade. The barely concealed ambivalence to centuries of violence, looting, exploitation, and unimaginable human suffering, exposes levels of zealotry and arrogance that mirrors the people that Verhofstadt claims to stand in direct opposition to. This short clip not only exposes the gaping chasms that exist, and have existed, within the remain half of this whole fiasco, but shows the glaring similarities between the two, supposedly, disparate groups.

For three years ‘Europhile’ and ‘Eurosceptic’ have been the most important political identities in our nations politics. What this has concealed, however, is that ‘remain versus leave’ is perhaps the biggest false dichotomy there is. The discourse has shifted away from left versus right, and it is no secret that the Brexit debate has fragmented political allegiance and ruptured the structure of the political landscape as we have come to know it. There are communists declaring allegiance with the far right, MPs defecting from parties they’ve been in for decades, and the near implosion of both the Labour and Conservative parties.

This speech was a rude awakening for me; an awkward and painful realisation that those I have been aligning myself with have more in common with the Boris Johnsons of the world than they do with me. It is uncomfortable that the individuals advocating the loudest for remain seem to have the same expansionist and destructive ideals as the xenophobic and imperialist Brexiteers that they deride. It is uncomfortable that both sides actively seek to romanticise and revive an era that was solely dependent on the domination and brutalisation of people who look like me. Yet they masquerade as progressives, always maintaining a veneer of tolerance, never letting the mask slip until… well until they are speaking in front of hundreds of people and rallying them to calls of empire like it’s the 17th century.

His words echo across a continent and through an institution that currently allows the deaths of migrants and refugees on its borders; people who are fleeing from countries that are still reeling from the impacts of the Empire. He may not be wrong when he says that the world of tomorrow is a world of empires, but so is the world of today, and yesterday, and the day before that. His insistence that we remain in Europe to ensure it becomes the arbiter of an updated version of empire is not the future we should want to create.

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