The Brexit generation must fight for a tolerant, open Britain.
Recently I was asked to judge at a prestigious private school debating competition in the wealthy suburbs of Delhi. The topic? The effects of Brexit on Europe and India. The school’s logic: this recently-graduated Brit working in India must know a thing or two.
With the typical panache of the Indian elite, sixth-formers lined up to argue the pros and cons of Brexit. One particularly erudite girl stood out. Acknowledging Brexit’s immediate negative economic impact, she argued forcibly that Britain had always been a global, cosmopolitan country, and that it always would be. For her, Brexit presented an opportunity for a golden era of cooperation between young Indians and Brits.
Like many of my generation I must confess that I felt a genuine sense of loss on the 24 of June. I felt that umpteen opportunities to live, work and study abroad had been stolen from me, that British cosmopolitanism had suffered a terrible blow. But somehow the optimism of a well-educated teenager on the far side of the world bolstered my spirits.
Of course, she was right. As a generation, we can’t afford to be shrill or hysterical. Young Brits’ potential for an international, cosmopolitan life did not die with the Brexit vote.
For those already living in Europe, the practical outcome of any negotiations, be they “hard” or “soft”, will most probably be a simple EU visa application. The vast majority of which will be accepted without the bat of a continental eyelid. Put simply, Europe cannot afford to expunge young Brits from the continent. There will be no iron curtain; it won’t suddenly become impossible to do a Masters in Amsterdam, live in Berlin and retire to Spain. There may be some punishment for Britain exiting the EU. But for all their hard talk, no one, least of all the French, can afford to use the guillotine.
Yes, young people will lose their automatic right to live and work in Europe. But the option will still be there for anyone with the drive and desire to do so – something which the UK government must work hard to ensure.
Meanwhile, there are many other countries we will be “forced” to consider once the comfort of absolute free movement around the EU is removed. Indeed, we must look forward. The world is on the move with or without us. Cities are booming with growth rates barely comprehensible to European minds so used to near-stagnation. Vast swathes of the world’s population are tumbling head over heel into a thriving global middle-class.
From Cape Town to Buenos Aires, from Mumbai to Hong Kong and Ho Chi Minh, never before has the world been so rich and accessible. Never before have young Brits been so well placed to engage and learn from it.
A British passport will remain a powerful asset to any young person wishing to live and work abroad. With their natural fluency in the world’s international language, English, and a high degree of education and skills, young Brits will remain highly desirable for immigration departments everywhere.
Of course, in a time when we run the risk of closing ourselves off, the government must do everything in its power to prevent isolationism and give the youth international experience. More funding must be made available for international internships and for small businesses looking to expand overseas. Where possible, travel and working visa applications must be streamlined.
Organisations like the International Citizens’ Service and the British Council are more important now than ever before and must be strengthened. Erasmus – which gives UK students opportunities to study across Europe – must be safeguarded. These schemes are a drop in the ocean for the Treasury, but of immense cultural importance.
We must not fool ourselves. As a society there are some incredibly serious issues we need to face up to. The recent spate of xenophobic attacks represents the worst elements of British culture. It is right to be cautious. But the bile emitted in the face of several haggard-looking child refugees is poisonous at best; we cannot let our great culture of liberalism and tolerance be replaced by primitive atavism and ignorance.
Whether it be in online, on the bus, or down the pub, if we are to remain a free, liberal and open society these elements must be fought with every fibre of our being. We must open ourselves up to a brave new world.
Photo Credit: Matt Cardy/ 2016 Getty Images