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Cosmopolitanism After Brexit

July 05, 2016

In a hotly contested referendum a few weeks ago, the UK voted with a slim margin to leave the European Union. The referendum results generated mixed emotions in the UK, causing economic and political uneasiness in that country and beyond. Once it became clear that the Brexit supporters were going to win in the referendum, global markets dipped, diplomacy froze, and the British pound took its worst beating in years against the US dollar. None of these outcomes, however, completely capture the blows dealt to the cosmopolitan idea that propelled EU in the first place.

 In essence, cosmopolitanism implies that human beings share a common moral attribute, belong to the same human family, and that their geographical, cultural, social and political differences should not be allowed to defeat their common future together. As a regulative ideal, we find the manifestations of cosmopolitanism in various ethical and political traditions of the world.

 In Hinduism, for instance, there is a verse that says “the whole world is one family” and that one must act in the spirit of generosity and compassion towards one’s fellow-beings. When Mahatma Gandhi’s family objected to his selfless community service and aspirations to help others, discarding the interests of his own family, he replied that if the meaning of family was widened a bit, his actions would start making more sense (An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments with Truth, 245).

 In Stoicism too we find similar threads of humanism, brotherhood and social solidarity. According to Stoics, the true happiness that most people desire cannot be achieved through material prosperity or political success. It can only be achieved with the cultivation of virtue, goodness, and fellowship with others. Epictetus writes: “Our human contract is not with the few people with whom our affairs are most immediately intertwined, nor to the prominent, rich, or well educated, but to all our human brethren” (Art of Living: Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness, 95).  

 As a political project, however, cosmopolitanism found its most eloquent expression in the Enlightenment era, particularly in the writings of Immanuel Kant. Taking a specific view of the Enlightenment, Kant used cosmopolitanism 1) to describe a state of affairs when the public use of reason would prevail over all dogmas and prejudices and 2) to reinforce the priority of an individual’s moral agency over all political and geographical constraints, empowering her with a capacity to present herself in an unimpeded way and “be heard within and across political communities”. In a sense, the EU has given a strong expression to the Kantian ideal. Let me explain.

 The EU not only allows the citizens of member states to move freely within its geographical area but also provides them with many social, economic and political rights. These rights include, among others, a right to live and work in any EU country, and engage in the political processes of European Parliament in Brussels. As a result of these provisions, millions of Europeans have migrated to the UK in search of a better life for themselves and their families, and hundreds of thousands of British citizens reside in different parts of Europe.

In addition, the EU has lifted numerous trade and tariff barriers on its member states and bargains with non-member countries as a single entity, securing the best trade deals and practices. Furthermore, the Europeans have also opened their hearts and minds in a turbulent age, welcoming millions of immigrants, refugees, and migrants from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. That is why Brexit seems so consequential to the cosmopolitan dream.

 One of the main arguments propelling the Brexit campaign in the final days of referendum was that the Brits were tired of an open door immigration policy and EU’s failure to guard its borders and that they wanted to “take their country back”. Moreover, in the terminology of Brexit leaders ‘taking one’s country back’ became synonymous with 1) stricter immigration rules and tighter border control so that migrants and refugees could not crossover in the UK without proper legal authority and documentation, and 2) some form of anti-immigrant rhetoric, casting aspersions on minority religious and ethnic groups and their commitment to British nationalism and identity.

In the aftermath of referendum, there was a spike in hate crimes in the UK, leading the Prime Minister David Cameron to condemn the violence against minorities. The expression of hate, following a divisive referendum, undermines not only the core principles of cosmopolitanism but also of a civil society and was quickly repudiated by the British.

It may be a mistake though to dismiss the supporters of Brexit as anti-immigrants, isolationist, and nationalist (and in some cases even worse). There is something more to the political aspirations and narratives of Brexit than its opponents admit; and the cosmopolitans would be better served in interrogating that ideology rather than dismissing it. The large flow of migrants to the UK in recent years, along with shrinking economic opportunities in the age of globalization, has generated a negative political perception that the EU is not serving the interests of common public in Britain and that it has become more like a commercial corporation controlled by a few powerful leaders and wealthy countries in Europe.

In the eyes of Brexit supporters then cosmopolitan idealism has lost its persuasiveness due to the political arrogance in Brussels, resulting in an inefficient managing of European political and economic institutions and borders.

There may be some truth in the contentions of Brexit supporters, nevermind the political posturing of Mr. Nigel Farage.


# Dear Reader: Your comments on my blog post are very welcome. I will respond to them as soon as I can. I thank you in advance for sharing your thoughts and ideas with me ----Dr. Rajesh C. Shukla

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