Friday 5 October 2018

It's our freedom too

Perhaps the previous incumbent did something to the water in the Foreign Office which means that all future occupants of the post are doomed to suffer from some strange inability to understand the rest of the world, but Hunt’s comments comparing the EU to the Soviet Union were deeply insensitive to say the least.  For people who lived much of their lives under Soviet domination (a list which includes both the German Chancellor and the current president of the European Council), it was a comparison which betrayed an ignorant and arrogant attitude to their reality.  For most of the former Eastern Europe, the EU has been a force which has promoted liberalisation, democracy and freedom.  That’s not to say that all of the countries have perfect democracies yet; there are troubling events occurring in some of them.  But then politicians from a state where over half the legislators are appointees, bishops, or hereditaries are hardly in a position to lecture anyone else on democracy.
Back in 1970, I travelled to what was then Czechoslovakia with a group of other members of youth clubs from Glamorgan, and we stayed in a youth camp along with young people from a whole range of Eastern European countries.  One theme was common; they all complained about their lack of freedom to travel.  In many cases, even travel within their own countries was restricted; travel outside the Soviet bloc was a near impossibility.  They understood – better than Hunt ever will – what lack of freedom meant.  For the young people of those countries today, membership of the EU has brought them unprecedented freedom to travel, live and work across the continent.  Here in the UK, we have also benefitted enormously from the freedom of movement which membership of the EU has given us, as barriers have been torn down and rights harmonised, even though the UK has insisted on maintaining more barriers than other countries.  It just hasn’t always been so obvious to us because the restrictions which previously applied were not so tight in the first place (although some of us can still remember needing visas for some countries).
From the point of view of those who have enjoyed such a dramatic increase in their freedom of movement, there is something very strange indeed about the extent to which people in the UK are actually celebrating the fact that their government is planning to remove that freedom from its citizens.  I can’t help but wonder whether that sense of British exceptionalism isn’t at work here underpinning attitudes; perhaps people really do believe that it’s only other people’s freedom of movement which is being constrained, and that ‘Brits’ will still have all their existing rights protected.  From such a perspective, it’s only the freedom of ‘migrants’ which is being restricted, ‘ex-pats’ will be able to carry on as before.  But calling something by a different name doesn’t change what it is.  How long can it be before people realise that what they’ve been demanding amounts to restricting their own freedom?

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