Roxana Willis is a third year DPhil student, writing about her home town's experience of the EU and why attention must be paid to the cultural needs of individuals and towns and cities in not just the UK but Europe too.
I voted remain. Two thirds of people in my hometown, Corby, voted leave. Despite being an EU supporter, I understand where my community is coming from. They are not stupid or racist, as some remarks on social media have been claiming. In fact, they have recognised something important that many others have not. The EU neglected Europe’s most disadvantaged members: the working classes.
In a town where few people leave for university, and from an estate where even fewer do, I bucked the trend. But I was no better than anyone else on my estate; my situation was unique and I got lucky (or unlucky if we compare my earnings with those of my friends who took industrial routes!).
In the beginning, I hated university. I didn’t see the point. But in my second year, someone on my degree course asked if I was doing Erasmus. Erasmus is an EU initiative that provides grants for students to study abroad for up to a year in another EU member state. I had never considered leaving England before: why would I? To me, England was the best county in the world. My university friend convinced me to give the opportunity a shot, and I did.
I spent a year studying law at Charles University, Prague. In the early days, the experience mostly consisted of sampling a range of Czech beers and spirits. Then a French friend asked if I had finished the readings for our next class. I laughed, “No, this year doesn’t count towards my degree.” He looked shocked and said, “But don’t you want to know about the Czech secret police during communism?”
That question changed my life. Yes, I did want to know about the secret police, and politics, and a whole lot more. In an instant, I finally understood the purpose of education. It wasn’t only about a grade or a degree, it was about learning. It was then I knew what I wanted in life: to learn and learn and learn.
Today, I am a very different person to the girl who wore her England shirt and insisted “my” country is the best. I am in the final stages of a doctorate in law at the University of Oxford, and I work there as a lecturer in criminal law, and an associate professor of crime policy in Barcelona. My friends are dotted all over Europe. I still think England is great, but so too are other places in Europe and beyond.
The EU provided me an opportunity to grow, but only because I chanced on going to university. Not enough was done to extend these opportunities for other people on my estate who took alternative employment routes. It is no coincidence that graduates were more likely to vote remain. Graduates benefited from the EU. The working class did not.
A legitimate working-class fear was played on during the Brexit campaign: people are worried about immigration. My hometown received among the highest rates of Eastern European migration, which, in such a short space of time, completely transformed the demographic of the town. As a town, incidentally, built on migration, Corby prides itself on being receptive to fellow migrant workers. Yet the volume and speed of recent EU migration frightened people, and their fears were dismissed.
Under the “Growing Corby” initiative, the EU spent some of its regional development funding on my hometown. As a "Regional Competitiveness and Employment" region, money was spent on such things as research and development, entrepreneurship, transport, and telecommunications. All of these things are good in themselves, but these are only economic and corporate aspects of the town. There is more to our community than this.
No effort was made to unite an increasingly divided population. No EU funding was given to support the cultural cohesion and harmony of the town. No exchange opportunities were offered to the people who felt uncertain by the changing estates around them. Unlike my Erasmus year, which enabled me to develop lifelong friendships, EU working-class migration was only about corporate economics.
For the EU not to completely corrode, attention must be paid to the cultural needs of Europe’s working classes. A one-tracked mind that focuses on economics will result in the devastating death of the EU in the not too distant future.