On June 23 U.K. citizens will vote on whether to stay or leave the European Union. While there is a lot of talk on potential impact for Europe and the U.K. for either decision, relatively little debate takes place on what Brexit would mean for Europe’s and U.K.’s role globally. The vote comes at a time when governments around the world have just agreed to the ambitious 2030 agenda for sustainable development. No doubt, the U.K. leaving the European Union would undermine Europe’s ability to take an ambitious role in tackling current and future global challenges, and successfully contributing to fight poverty, injustice and inequality — both in Europe and globally.
The referendum highlights the debate on whether Europe is better off by “‘re-nationalizing”’ decision-making and returning to the primacy of the nation-state as the best way to address the current challenges we face. This is the narrative successfully fueled by nationalist politicians, parties and voices across the continent from Scandinavia to central Europe. European and U.K. political leaders — together with their citizens — have failed to develop an alternative narrative responding adequately to people’s aspirations, needs and fears faced with an ever more globalized and interconnected world. The focus on the financial crisis from 2008 onwards, prescriptions of the same “‘remedies”’ that have caused the crisis, and ignoring other crises that hit people’s lives across the world, have made a “‘Social Europa” nearly disappear. But how can Europe then play a positive role toward a world free of poverty, inequality and injustice?
Europe still has the potential to jointly implement the transformative agenda of the Sustainable Development Goals to leave no one behind, a promise we need to keep. For those of us fighting for more global solidarity — for less poverty and more equality — the global challenges we face and will increasingly face in the future need coherent policies of countries working in concert, not each country fighting for itself. To face the challenges of climate change, involuntary migration and of income, gender, intergenerational and other injustices, Europe needs to act coherently internally while seeking alliances and partnerships globally. If we cannot work together in Europe how can we achieve the cooperation needed to meet the global challenges faced by all of Europe?
CONCORD is a European network of sustainable development NGOs, and like the EU, each part of our constituency brings its own perspectives, strengths and competencies. I acknowledge, it is not easy to organize a discourse in this diversity that results in a common ambition for the future. But it is possible. When one of our members disengages, we find that the whole suffers. It is the democratic right of U.K. citizens to decide on their country’s membership of the EU. No one knows what the exact impact of a Brexit vote will be, but it seems obvious that European sustainable development policy will lose the capacity, expertise, financial and political backing of the U.K.
The U.K.’s ability to influence, participate in and benefit from EU policy and programs would also undoubtedly suffer. I cannot imagine that a return to a national approach to sustainable development and other policies coherent with sustainable development — such as trade, migration, and agriculture — will be welcomed by poor, disadvantaged, disenfranchised and discriminated-against people in developing countries, the very people we should be aiming to inspire with a Europe that is consistent and values-based. I cannot imagine either that it will be in the interest of European citizens.
In case of a Brexit, there might be a lot of uncertainties about funding mechanisms and arrangements, contributions to overall European framework development programs, all to be dealt with in negotiations over time. This will consume a lot of resources — but it is not my major concern. My concern would be the failure of Europe to lead by example, including by showing how to promote progressive policies by building positions among diverse members. My concern is that European leaders are still not linking their internal political decisions with global politics, and that development cooperation far too often remains charity mitigating the damage done by incoherent policies.
My call to Europe’s and U.K.’s leaders is to re-engage with its citizens to work on a fair and just Europe, engaging for a world we want. This no doubt can be achieved better together.
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Johannes Trimmel is president of CONCORD The European Confederation of Relief and Development NGOs, representing 2.600 European development NGOs vis-à-vis the European Institutions. During the last 15 years of his engagement in development cooperation he has been focusing on the rights of persons with disabilities and their inclusion, as well as access to eye health and health systems strengthening. Currently he is director of policy and advocacy at the International Agency of Prevention of Blindness.
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