21st Mar 2018


Albania references mark new low in Brexit debate

The way the EU referendum campaign has been unfolding, leaving apart the wisdom of holding such a referendum at all, reveals trouble in the state of British politics.

The political elite is handling the question of Britain’s place in Europe with nonchalance and recklessness.

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Instead of substance and pragmatism, we are getting hyperbole and empty slogans. Instead of focusing attention on the real issues and options, we get digressions and diversions and a healthy dose of xenophobia – especially towards Albania.

The strange appropriation of Albania, both by the Leave and Remain campaigns, exemplifies the sorry state of the debate.

It came to the fore when Leave campaigner Michael Gove spoke about Britain’s trade options after quitting the EU. He envisaged a free-trade zone that would include Balkan countries such as Albania.

In response, the Remain Campaign wasted no time in jumping on Albania to ridicule Gove’s plans.

It ran a mobile billboard depicting the Albanian flag flying from Buckingham Palace, with the sneering caption: “The Leave campaign want us to quit the Single Market and be like ‘Albania’. Seriously.”

For days it became the headline and hallmark of the Remain campaign’s presence on the social media.

It is fairly obvious that the message this slogan conveys is not meant for people who would have moral concerns about doing business with Albania. Quite the opposite. It targets those who would not like to be associated with Albania at all.

Hence, voting to leave Europe would not be just bad economics but also an affront to the British self-image and identity.

The irony is that Gove has also discovered the potential of using Albania as identity blackmail. He is telling people to get out of Europe precisely because one day Albania might become a member.

Reductionist approach

Beyond such gratuitous exploitation of xenophobia to stir up the mob and nudge it in two opposing directions, the derogatory portrayal of Albania demonstrates the poverty of the debate and a failure of both camps to make their case on merit or substance.

The disarray and hollowness of the Leave Campaign could hardly be any greater. Its capacity to come up with an alternative to Europe has not amounted to more than a list of countries ranked in no particular order, including Norway and Switzerland, Albania and Mexico or Canada, whose example Britain could follow and flourish outside Europe. They leave it to people’s imagination to figure out the details.

The Remain Campaign has not fared much better. Rather than offering a holistic and positive vision about the value of remaining in Europe, it has expended a great deal of energy reacting to flimsy proposals from the Leave Campaign or concentrating on the dire economic consequences of leaving Europe.

Its reductionist approach is a hallmark of poor imagination in capturing the manifold greatness of the European project as well as in addressing the multiple reasons of why some people fear and want to abandon it.

Most importantly, by having both sides rely on similar arguments and tactics, they deprive the voter of real alternatives. This defeats the purpose of having two “camps” in the debate in the first place.

This is not the sober, rational debate we should be having on whether Britain should stay in or leave Europe.

In such a momentous vote for both Britain and Europe, we need Britain to show us how a mature democracy can deliberate and decide.

Above all, we need to see the Britain of Magna Carta and of parliamentary sovereignty, and not of the mob, roused by vacuous or xenophobic slogans. Britain can do better than this; it owes it to itself and the world.

Gjovalin Macaj is a tutor and researcher in International Relations at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford.

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