Brexit is no victory, as much as it may upset EU elites

Illustration: Daryl Cagle Illustration: Daryl Cagle
Despina Biri

In the aftermath of the British referendum, we asked friends of AnalyzeGreece with links to the UK what they thought of the result. We will be publishing short interviews with them over the coming days. First up, it's Despina Biri, from AnalyzeGreece editorial board, who studied and worked in London between 2003-2015, and who continues to have very strong ties to the UK.
1. What is your assessment of the referendum result and its immediate aftermath?
Quite frankly I did not expect Leave to win. This may have to do with the fact that most of my social circle in the UK is in London. Before the referendum I thought that the fractured nature of the campaign would be to the detriment of the right and far right groups in favour of Leave. Of course, exactly the opposite turned out to be the case.
However, I think we can quite safely conclude that the Left played a marginal role in deciding the outcome of the vote, as, quite frankly, the balance of power in UK politics is not such, at least for the moment, that would permit the adoption of a “Lexit” agenda for leaving the European Union. While it could be argued that Leave managed to harness anti-austerity sentiment among the disenfranchised, it is by now quite clear that Brexit does not mean the end to austerity in the UK. Nigel Farage’s rebuttal of the claim that Brexit would mean an extra £350m could be spent on the NHS goes to show that the Leave campaign is nowhere near advocating even a moderately progressive agenda, as if that weren't obvious enough. The UK under Cameron was not compelled to implement austerity by the EU, as is the case in Greece and elsewhere, but instead had its own agenda for creating a “minimal state” as envisioned by Thatcher and Reagan. Austerity in the UK is therefore less related to Merkel’s flavor of neoliberalism than to its London counterpart. However, Remain’s reliance on “expert opinion” during the campaign was problematic, and allowed Leave to prevail largely on the strength of right wing populism and on a reaction against the realities of inequality, hijacked by anti-immigrant discourse.
One important aspect of the referendum is how it is linked to the “refugee crisis”. While much of the debate in the UK centered on migration between EU states, I think Brexit may have implications for refugees currently trapped in Greece and elsewhere as well. The shameful EU-Turkey deal, and EU member states’, including the UK’s,  refusal to take in larger numbers of refugees, contributed to the xenophobic climate leading to the referendum. This effect was of course augmented by Remain’s reluctance to put forward a strong pro-immigration, pro-refugee agenda, brought on by fragmentation in the Remain camp, similarly to Leave.Therefore, the Leave vote can be interpreted as not only an anti-migration vote, but as an anti-refugee vote as well. This is regrettable, not least because the UK has been one of the instigators of the “war on terror”, and  is expected to do even less to tackle climate change, both of which will cause even more people to flee their homes in future.
I can only speculate what the Leave result means for UK politics, looking beyond obvious things we already know much about, such as who the next prime minister will be, and the possible eventual secession of Scotland. I do think that David Cameron’s resignation was the right thing to do, but I will be sad to see Boris Johnson, whose terrible politics I am all too familiar with as a former Londoner, as his successor. It is perhaps more interesting to see what happens to Labour, the leadership of which adopted a more cautious stance visavis the referendum, perhaps contributing to the weaker than expected Remain vote. What's certain is that things cannot and will not continue as before.
2. How, if at all, do you think Brexit will affect you personally?

While I have not managed to return to the UK since I left last year, my family, friendly, professional, and academic ties to the country remain strong. At this point I am therefore worried about what will happen to those close to me who live in the UK. I'm also worried about my own future, seeing as finding a job in Greece is difficult (even, or especially, for a highly qualified person such as myself), and I have considered moving back to the UK, though this will likely be more difficult after Brexit. We are already seeing reports of racist comments and bullying taking place all over the UK, and it may be some time before they subside, if indeed they do.
Of course, I cannot help but think about British friends and former colleagues, who I am happy to say voted overwhelmingly in favor of Remain, as did London, where I spent nearly all of my adult life until last year. At this point, I am cautiously concerned about what a Leave vote entails for EU citizens living in the UK, and for UK citizens living in the EU.
3. What do you think are the implications of Brexit for the European project and for the European Left?
I have been feeling pessimistic about the future of the EU for a very long time now. Quite simply, I believe that the European institutional framework is such that states are unable to function as democracies. The issue of EU expertise, mentioned in my answer to the first question, is a parallel but distinct issue to that of experts in UK public policy. I am therefore convinced that the disintegration of the EU into other formations –a “small Eurozone”, for example, or a “Visegrad group”, or something else entirely– is already underway (not necessarily triggered by Brexit, but by other events such as those following the Greek referendum in July 2015, compounded by the “refugee crisis”).
As things currently stand, I think that the Left in Europe is trapped into a cycle of trying to come up with alternatives, but has not come up with concrete proposals that would allow it to put those alternatives into practice as government. In Greece,  Syriza’s about-face bears a lot of the blame for this state of affairs, as the Left is too fragmented and sore from the defeat to recover quickly. I think the case of Greece serves as a cautionary tale for other EU members as well, in that it goes to show that changing European institutions “from within”, as Syriza tried to do, is an impossible task.
With reference to Brexit, I think the Left played a marginal role in the UK referendum. I therefore think that, barring significant developments in the Labour Party, the state of affairs in the European Left as a whole will not be affected much. However, I must say that I am sad to see many from the Left interpreting the referendum result as being “a blow to the establishment” when it is quite clear that it is elites who led both the Leave and Remain campaigns, and it is the worst off in the UK who will be hardest hit regardless of outcome, seeing as austerity and anti-immigrant policies will continue to be in place, perhaps with even greater force than before (the expected amendment of the Human Rights Act is a notable example, but not the only one). Therefore, I cannot see any reason to be jubilant about the Leave win, seeing as it goes completely against the Left’s permanent demand for open borders and freedom of movement, extending from the symbolic to the far reaching implications for many people who call the UK home, and who on the whole enjoyed living in a relatively tolerant (especially compared to those in other European countries) and forward thinking society, which is among the first in Europe to recognise same sex marriage, and the rights of trans people, to name but two areas in which the UK has been pioneering as regards social rights. Put simply, I can foresee a regression of these freedoms following the Leave win, because, let us not forget, racism often goes hand in hand with other forms of discrimination. Frankly, this cannot be called a victory, as much of an upset it may be for EU elites.
PS. Can you really cough it up loud and strong?
The immigrants, they wanna sing all night long
It could be anywhere
Most likely could be any frontier any hemisphere
In no-man’s-land
There ain't no asylum here
King Solomon he never lived ‘round here
(The Clash, “ Straight to Hell”, from the album Combat Rock)

Despina Biri is a researcher and writer on health care issues. She blogs at and
  • Translated by: N/A
  • The original text was first published on: Written for AnalyzeGreece!