Brexit: Literature knows no boundaries

ALCS News, July 2016

Literature knows no boundaries. Among the contemporary authors I admire most are Kate Atkinson, Arnaldur Indridason and Orhan Pamuk – English, Icelandic and Turkish respectively. I’ve always been aware of the debt my own culture owes to other civilisations, especially the Greeks and Romans, and I think of myself as European as well as British. So I make no apology for saying that the result of the EU referendum felt to me – and still feels, a month later – like a bereavement.

For most of my life, the UK has played a leading role in one of the great peacetime projects, challenging the poisonous nationalisms that spawned two world wars in the 20th century. Only four years ago, the EU was awarded the Nobel peace prize for contributing to ‘the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe’. At least three generations have grown up without having to deal with the day-by-day fear and loss experienced by my parents and grandparents. Now some of my fellow-citizens have decided, by the most slender of majorities, to turn their backs on everything the EU has achieved.


For most of my life, the UK has played a leading role in one of the great peacetime projects, challenging the poisonous nationalisms that spawned two world wars in the 20th century.

In the wake of this momentous decision, given that we’ve already seen the disastrous impact on the pound and the UK’s financial prospects, I want to focus on ideas and values rather than economics. But first I want to highlight the potential impact on authors and creators of being shut out of future discussions about copyright and the digital economy across Europe.

Most Members of ALCS will be aware that the European Commission is currently in the process of modernising copyright rules as part of its digital market strategy. It is looking at issues that may appear technical at first sight – cross-border portability of films, music and e-books, for instance – but are of vital importance to creators. None of us knows when the British Government will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the mechanism to begin our withdrawal from the EU. The UK could go its own way but it’s far more likely that we will have to go along with decisions in which we’ve had no say. But let’s get back to ideas.


It’s often forgotten that EU membership is dependent on abolition of capital punishment, putting pressure on would-be members to get rid of this barbarous practice.

We all have multiple identities, which are not always easy to reconcile, and part of the trick of peaceful co-existence is recognising what we have in common rather than the things that divide us. The UK was never in Schengen but I love being able to travel across most of Europe without encountering border posts or having to show a passport, offering a reminder of how national barriers have come down. A union of 500 million people, sharing common values after centuries of discord, is a powerful example to the world. For all its faults – and they include a hesitant and confused response to the international refugee crisis – the EU has been at the forefront of supporting human rights in countries where they are not recognised or respected.

It’s often forgotten that EU membership is dependent on abolition of capital punishment, putting pressure on would-be members to get rid of this barbarous practice. Turkey is not likely to become a member of the EU for decades, but it abolished the death penalty in 2004 when the country’s accession did not seem quite as remote a prospect as it does now. That’s only one example of the way in which the EU has been a progressive alliance. Member states have to sign up to a raft of social policies that promote ‘respect for and protection of minorities’, prohibiting discrimination on grounds of race, religion, age, sex or sexual orientation. Governments which might otherwise have resisted change have been willing to get rid of repressive laws in return for the economic benefits of EU membership. Homosexuality is legal throughout the EU, even in countries such as Poland where public attitudes lag behind the law.


The greater loss, as far as I’m concerned, is the prospect of being shut out of a European community I still feel connected to and love.

Contrast that with the dire situation of LGBT people in the Commonwealth, where many member states – 39 at the most recent count – retain laws criminalising homosexuality. We didn’t hear enough of these arguments during the feverish and frequently unpleasant referendum campaign. Some Members of ALCS will be pleased with the result but I’m sure that many woke up the next morning in as profound a state of shock and despondency as I did.

Make no mistake, the effects are already being felt: I am a patron of a human rights NGO which spent months trying to get a meeting with Franz Timmermans, Vice-president of the EU Commission. Following the referendum decision, that meeting has now been cancelled. Even when I try to be optimistic, it’s hard to see many benefits in the pipeline for writers. But the greater loss, as far as I’m concerned, is the prospect of being shut out of a European community I still feel connected to and love.

 

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