Humanizing UK-EU relations in the face of Brexit

Yesterday the UK government announced plans to prorogue (suspend) Parliament in the run up to the 31 October Brexit leaving date. The Prime Minister claims the timing decision was about making progress in other policy areas (fighting crime, funding the NHS & education, etc.) but that doesn’t fit with what he’s said in the past. During the recent leadership contest, he considered using it as a means to get Brexit through:

At Conservative hustings in Bournemouth on 27 June

Overnight, there’s been a huge backlash from politicians of all parties and members of the public. House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said, “However it is dressed up, it is blindingly obvious that the purpose of prorogation now would be to stop parliament debating Brexit and performing its duty in shaping a course for the country.” A petition started just yesterday evening has already gathered 1.3 million signatures, and counting–far surpassing the 100,000 signature threshold needed to get the petition debated in Parliament.

Brexit has been 3 years of crazy so far, and I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I know one thing–on a human level, the people of the UK and the people of the rest of the EU are fine with each other. Even the most ardent Brexiteers actually love Europe. They drink champagne and vacation in Italy and Spain, they love the German Christmas markets and shop at Ikea. They drive Audis, BMWs, Volvos, Fiats, Renaults, Citroens, Peugeots, Dacias, Skodas, etc. They eat huge amounts of food imported from the continent–the UK imports nearly 40% of its food, and 79% of that comes from the EU. At grammar school, they learn European languages like French, Spanish, Italian, German–they’re not learning Chinese or Arabic (although Brits are well-below the EU average when it comes to languages: only 38% of Brits speak at least one foreign language, versus an EU average of 56%).

At the end of the day, Britain and the EU are neighbours and friends, colleagues and family members. They were before Britain joined the EU, and they will still be if/when Britain leaves the EU.

The Short-Sightedness of “Unshackling” British Diplomacy from Brussels

Once again I’m finding news to be very distracting–between Trump and Brexit, it’s hard to focus (I feel like I’ve been saying that since 2016, though…). But I noticed something in the news today that actually is relevant to public diplomacy scholars–British diplomats are leaving Brussels now, before Brexit even happens.

British diplomats will pull out from the EU’s institutional structures of power in Brussels within days, under plans being drawn up by Downing Street.

In an attempt to reinforce the message that the UK is leaving the EU by 31 October, “do or die”, the UK will stop attending the day-to-day meetings that inform the bloc’s decision-making.

The move under discussion is said by UK officials to be in line with Boris Johnson’s first statement in the House of Commons, in which he said he would “unshackle” British diplomacy from EU affairs.

British diplomats to pull out from EU decision-making meetings within days, The Guardian, 12 August 2019

Admittedly, I didn’t watch Boris Johnson’s statement, but it’s not surprising and it sounds just like him. It’s a symbolic move, as the article says, and would just end up hurting UK interests in the end because we’re removing ourselves from discussions that impact us. “Do or die” is the most undiplomatic language to describe foreign affairs–but Boris is a very undiplomatic figure, too.

In dealing with this hot mess of foreign policy, one expert was quoted as saying that the UK would need to invest heavily in public diplomacy, including involvement from the private sector:

Paul Adamson, a visiting professor at the Policy Institute, King’s College London, said the UK government would need to build up its embassy in Brussels after Brexit.

He said: “One of the many ironies of Brexit is that the UK government will have to significantly increase its diplomatic presence in Brussels – as well as in key EU capitals – both to find out what is going on in meetings from which it will be excluded but also to try to influence the direction of EU policy making. Brussels decisions will continue to impact the UK.

“[The government] and its agencies will have to invest heavily in public diplomacy to repair alliances and to forge new ones. The private sector, whether its business, civil society, the think-tank world and the like, will very much need to be part of this exercise”.

British diplomats to pull out from EU decision-making meetings within days, The Guardian, 12 August 2019

Although it definitely makes some good points, this statement reminded me of a key takeaway from Phil Taylor’s Masters class in public diplomacy:

No amount of public diplomacy can make up for bad policy.

It is not a solution for the inevitable problems that will arise if the UK crashes out of the EU without a deal on 31 October. It’s not an alternative form of international relations, or a consolation prize. Public diplomacy works best as an adjunct, supporting traditional diplomatic relations between states by offering additional (not alternative) forms of engagement. It also includes listening, something that the current UK government doesn’t seem interested in, given this premature disengagement in Brussels.

To illustrate the concept of PD not being a cure-all, Phil Taylor used to use the example of Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Charlotte Beers’ failed efforts in the Middle East during the Iraq War. The “Shared Values” campaign was a particularly memorable disaster–a commercial-length TV program showing Muslim Americans talking about their life in America.

“Actors in the program talked of tolerance and religious freedom in lines including, ‘In my neighborhood all the non-Muslims, I see that they care a lot about family values just as much as I do. I didn’t quite see any prejudice anywhere in my neighborhood after September 11.’ Several countries in the Middle East refused to air the programs entirely.”

Anna Tiedeman, p. 22

Phil used to point out a major flaw in the “Shared Values” strategy: Middle East audiences didn’t want to hear “how good life was for Muslim Americans” while at the same time their country was being invaded by US and coalition troops, homes were being bombed, and innocent civilians were dying. “Good for them,” he’d shrug, “but what about us?”

These international broadcasting and information campaigns weren’t the only efforts–the US also re-established the Iraq Fulbright Program in 2003, and included other exchange initiatives in its public diplomacy efforts. Teresa Brawner Bevis’s book on post-9/11 US-Middle East educational exchange noted a dramatic rise in Americans studying Arabic and Middle East area studies, as well as studying abroad in the region–but this may have been too little, too late:

“The increase in numbers of Americans studying abroad was good news for policy makers, who for decades had lamented how few people in the United States studied the Middle East, a situation that created shortages of expertise in the military, intelligence services, and diplomatic corps.”

Bevis, 2016, Higher Education Exchange between America and the Middle East in the Twenty-First Century, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, p. 87

The long-standing, systemic problems in US-Middle East relations, combined with the context of the Iraq War, meant that public diplomacy efforts could never repair Middle Eastern audiences’ negative perception of America. US foreign policy would always nullify any amount of public diplomacy.

Boris Johnson doesn’t care about that, of course, but it’s something the British people and officials should take notice of–crashing out of the EU with a “do or die” attitude will be remembered, and it will matter far more to global perceptions of the UK than any version of a British ‘Shared Values’ campaign.

ERASMUS on the eve of Brexit

Today in the Guardian, there was a story about the uncertainty that UK students are facing as they prepare to participate in ERASMUS exchange programmes in the EU. It gives a great, concise summary of the situation that universities on both sides of the English Channel are facing.

Last Wednesday the European parliament voted to guarantee funding for UK students already studying abroad on the Erasmus+ student exchange programme, in the event of a no-deal Brexit on 29 March. It also promised to continue supporting European students already in the UK on the scheme.

But uncertainty hangs over the 17,000 British students who had planned to study in Europe under Erasmus+ from this September. A technical note, published by the government at the end of January, failed to guarantee any funding for the scheme if Britain leaves the EU with no deal.

In recent weeks both Spain and Norway have advised their students planning to study in the UK to go elsewhere.

from: The Guardian

We’re 10 days away from the 29 March 2019 leaving date, and it’s all feeling quite chaotic. Every day there seems to be more non-story news coming out of Westminster, with the House of Commons soundly rejecting both Theresa May’s deal and the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. Meanwhile, as the Guardian piece points out, UK and EU students and universities are left with no idea of what’s going to happen next. The EU’s ERASMUS+ website has a page on potential post-Brexit changes that may or may not happen…

For many students, particularly foreign language and area studies majors, the ERASMUS exchange programme is an affordable and practical way of fulfilling study abroad requirements, as well as gaining valuable professional and personal skills.

Since its establishment in 1987, the ERASMUS programme has had over 9 million participants. Its original aim was to create a sense of European identity and cooperation amongst the youth of European Union member states. Given the massive age gap in remain-leave Brexit voting patterns, it seems that young people in the UK really have adopted this supranational European identity.

If the UK really does leave the European Union, whenever and under what circumstances that may be, I hope it can continue to participate in ERASMUS+ in some form…

Further reading:

Christopher J. Grinbergs & Hilary Jones (2013) Erasmus Mundus SEN: the inclusive scholarship programme?, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 17:4, 349-363, DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2011.651824

Mitchell, K. 2012. Student mobility and European Identity: Erasmus Study as a civic experience? Journal of Contemporary European Research, 8(4), pp. 490-518.

Papatsiba, V. 2005. Political and Individual Rationales of Student Mobility: a case-study of ERASMUS and a French regional scheme for studies abroad. European Journal of Education, 40(2), pp. 173-188.

BRACHT O., ENGEL C., JANSON K., OVER A., SCHOMBURG H. and TEICHLER U. (2006), The professional value of Erasmus mobility. Final report presented to the European Commission – DG Education and Culture, retrieved from https://www.eumonitor.nl/9353210/d/belang%20erasmus%20onder%20professionals.pdf

Reason #1 for not writing: News

I should be writing, but there’s too much crazy political news happening and I feel compelled to follow it all…

Here in the UK, the cabinet is being reshuffled after the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson and I’m curious to know why they left (not just why they said they did, but why they really did…) and to see what’s going to happen next. Is Theresa May going to face a vote of no confidence? (Apparently she warned her fellow Tories that not supporting her could mean Jeremy Corbyn could become Prime Minister, as if that’s a scary enough threat to keep the shaky status quo). Is the economy going to tank? (Even more than it already did after the Brexit vote?)

And in the US, Trump’s announced his Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh. He’s as conservative as we’d expect, pro-gun, anti-choice, etc. but with the added little twist that he believes presidents are above the law (“Mr Kavanaugh argued in 2009 article that presidents should be shielded from criminal investigations and civil lawsuits while in office.”) –the perfect nominee for a president currently under investigation.

And America’s putting the interests of formula companies above public health (but backing down when Russia supports it…), and thousands of children are still separated from their parents and being detained in cages/”summer camps” (estimates vary from 1,425 to “under 3,000” which isn’t very reassuring)

And Trump’s visiting the UK on Thursday, so I can’t even get away from him over here…

news

How am I supposed to focus and get any work done under these conditions? How is anybody getting anything done? I need to become a hermit until I get a few publications finished…