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Should we remain silent?: an EU referendum opinion piece

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02 June 2016
Should we remain silent?: an EU referendum opinion piece

An opinion piece on the forthcoming EU referendum by Ian Wollington

Ian is Skills for Life Curriculum Leader at the Mary Ward Centre, London

To say the mainstream public debate about the European Union referendum has largely occupied the gutter risks defaming our drainage system. Leave campaigners have strived to out-xenophobe one another whether by relating the EU to the Third Reich or by issuing hissing videos associating migrants with snakes in the grass. Exposure to the get out voices leaves oneself open to a flood of anti-immigrant invective, with the campaign focused almost entirely on those with whom the ESOL sector work every day. And yet. Should you have hitherto confined yourself solely to our ESOL world, would you know? Would you know June 23rd has the means to dramatically change the ESOL landscape? Would you know that anti-immigrant racism has become so mainstream?

Why this silence?

Has it to do with post-withdrawal uncertainty? As Ferdinand Mount recently wrote in the London Review of Books: "The Leavers don’t seem to have much clue about what is to happen afterwards. Their approach appears to be a version of Napoleon’s battle strategy: ‘On se dégage, et puis on voit.’ What exactly is Out supposed to entail? How do they picture Britain’s relationship with the EU, and with the rest of the world, after they’ve secured a vote for Exit on 23 June? That’s far from clear".   Spokespersons have flip-flopped (not least he of the vacillating hair) on what activating Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty would mean for the status of Britain. Is it to be like Norway, Iceland or Switzerland, not in the EU but with full access to the Single Market? If that is still too EU-y, perhaps Canada-like status awaits. After a decade or more of shilly-shallying. Can't wait that long? Still too close a union? Then how about the BBC option, joining  Bosnia, Serbia and Albania in the British-Balkan Confederation? Like its better known acronym, though, this arrangement might have a limited future. The other members want to get out and get in the EU. But at least then Britain would have its glorious isolation. 

So, this lack of clarity on the part of the Brexit advocates perhaps makes the reserve of the ESOL world understandable. However, amidst the vagaries, surely there is one certainty. The future for ESOL, its students and tutors, is not going to be any better and is very likely to be a lot worse should there be a leave vote on June 23rd. Britain's remaining within the single market would probably produce the least discernible difference in the sector's day to day life, but as outlined above, that option has little credence with the Exiters. Rather, saying goodbye to the single market will mean bidding au revoir, auf wiedersehen, adios (you get the picture) to the current free movement of labour with obvious consequences for European workers, including those originally from outside the area, coming to live and work here. Fewer students will mean fewer classes. Those students who are in Britain are unlikely to be entitled to three year residency fees. In addition, it is hard to imagine how European Social Fund money, a hidden source of so much funding, will continue to be distributed to UK providers. Even if some of these effects can be avoided, the racist and anti-immigration character of the Leave campaign suggests there will be no political will for this. 

Such eventualities provide strong motives for the ESOL sector to have voiced its concerns in the debate. Perhaps then there is another reason for its shyness? Is this to do with a generalised if not overtly expressed political opposition to the EU. Such an antagonism would not necessarily be misplaced. The democratic deficit within the Union is well-documented. Attempts to increase the role and power of the European Parliament have floundered. The project of completing the single market has taken precedence over visions of a Social Europe, often at the UK's behest. However, does anyone seriously think this referendum is about the European Union? As Jan-Werner Müller commented recently the very fact that the Brexit debate is almost exclusively about Britain indicates the extent to which the UK has become removed from the project of determining the Union’s future as a whole . Is a leave vote likely to provoke an upswell in Europe-wide democratic tendencies? Would lives for migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers change for the better? Would the southern states suddenly find themselves able to challenge the hegemony of their northern counterparts? The answers are surely no and the inverse rather more likely as populist forces feel further empowered whether in France, Austria, Poland or Hungary.

So, why the silence?

Perhaps there is a third reason, one voiced to me a few days ago. Maybe ESOL practitioners are not too bothered by the referendum: ESOL is not for Europeans, but for the 'traditional' learners of the settled communities. Perhaps the Spanish, Italians, Greeks and Poles are undeserving, intruders from that otherworld of EFL?

Let us hope no such sentiments exist. For herein lies why we in ESOL should not remain quiet or sit on the sidelines watching the referendum unfurl. For what is ESOL in the 21st century, if not an endeavour wedded without waver to the non-identified, the displaced, the un-rooted, wherever they come from, for whatever reason they are here? From war. From persecution. From poverty. For work. The world envisaged by the Brexiters, of isolation, untouched by others, of a nation-state, in its place, side by side with its replicas is a fantasy destined to become history. Let us not go down that path, but instead promote and be bold about the ethos that holds us together: a world of difference, of free exchange, of encounters and of solidarity. Let us be a voice in the debate before we have left it too late. 

Ian Wollington

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