Sociology students cross the Channel for ‘Brexit field trip’

News Page 4th April 2019

Sociology students from the University of Northampton spent two weeks touring five countries for an international ‘Brexit field trip’.

Here, Associate Lecturer Maria Monaghan, blogs about their European experience.

The University of Northampton’s Sociology International Field Trip module in the second year was designed to give students a valuable opportunity to prepare and conduct sociological research in the field. As we boarded the Eurostar, both the timing and the overall theme hit me – it was March #FarewellToEurope #Brexit2019. On the train, the lyrics to a song (If you see what’s behind, these are mysterious times) coming through my headphones stuck me as particularly poignant in relation to Brexit – mysterious as in having an atmosphere of strangeness; of peculiarity; baffling and incomprehensible – where do we go from here? If we ‘see what’s behind’ us can we then move forward? And what does forward look like –is this really the end of Europe?

I was transported back to studying Bauman (1975-2017) a prominent Sociologist who had emphasised uncertainty and conflict in modern times during elections for the European Parliament in 2014. Back then not so many turned out to vote for MEPs, ‘How important is it anyway?’ some would say, the turnout to vote that year was 34 per cent. I reflected on that as I heard comments about how we are under or misrepresented in Europe. I question how a nation can go from having only 34 per cent who turn up to vote on who will represent them in the EU to actually voting to leave in the referendum. In May that year (2014), UKIP had topped the European parliament polls – the first time the national vote was not won by Labour or the Tories for a century.

We had decided on a ‘Brexit’ tour with the students just 12 months after the referendum and the political landscape was then, as it is now, in constant flux. Their objective was to explore the European perspectives on Brexit. Of course, we have been hearing nothing but Brexit for over two years on TV, radio, social media platforms, and in almost every coffee shop. In January 2019, the television drama, Brexit: The Uncivil War, had untangled many issues surrounding the Vote Leave campaign’s success. Capitalising on what Bauman would have called ‘votes of protest’. Rather than being politically aligned he described the voters and the general population as ‘unhappy’. The main point here is that nobody took responsibility for ensuring that the right information got to the right people at the right time.

While efforts have been placed on dealing with the immediate situation at hand, politicians have placed less emphasis on dealing with the underlying grievances that arguably led to Brexit in the first place. But with all this discussion going on, have we become so Brexit focussed that we cannot see the wood for the trees? One academic at the University of Northampton cited Brexit as ‘insignificant’.  Is this the case? Well, I guess that depends on where you are situated – for sure many small business owners in Europe we spoke to did not even know what we meant when we said ‘Brexit’.

During their two-week trip, the students visited five different countries: Germany, Denmark, the Czech Republic, France and Belgium. Their itinerary included a meeting with Brexit Party MEP, Johnathon Bullock. Our students asked what do our European citizens think of the Brexit situation? They used many different methods to explore the topic, including semi-structured interviews, focus groups and visual observations. We visited universities in Potsdam in Germany, Brno in the Czech Republic and the French capital, with some students focussing on particular groups like small business owners. Their results are currently being processed, but I am sure they would agree that the experience itself was a highlight of their degree programme – we look forward to reading their research results.

I read earlier this week that chief whip, Julian Smith, called the cabinet the ‘worst example of ill-discipline in British political history’. I hope that those watching what is, arguably, the worst politics in our times, are inspired to take action to be something more. As speculation mounts that the Prime Minster may call a General Election if MPs force her to negotiate a softer Brexit. The term ‘interregnum’ used by Bauman in 2014 describes the current state of affairs well; he claimed to have ‘borrowed’ it from Gramscian ideas, referring to a gap or a discontinuity in organisation, governance or social order. For sure “the old ways don’t work anymore… new ways are not yet formed” and it seems that uncertainty is here to stay.

One of the interesting things for me about the field trip was the ‘emotional’ experience. Aside from sociological, political and economic debates that had been prominent I felt a deep sense of sadness, of loss. As I heard first hand young people both here and abroad on buses, in hostels, in universities, in bars and restaurants talking of feeling let down by the generations that went before. There was a feeling that this was a decision that had been taken out of their hands. Expressing anger at what they labelled ‘populism’, ‘misinformation’ and ‘irresponsibility of the media and politicians’. I wondered if we have let my children’s generation down. I was comforted by the fact that if this is the case then surely, they will rise. They will rise to stand for whatever it is that they believe in, they are a generation that are now arming themselves fully with the facts and creating their own unions via social media and other means regardless of borders. The level of political chit-chat here and in Europe has risen for sure and with generations that are younger than ever – perhaps one of the best things about this whole fiasco.

EU leaders should not forget that even though 28 nations are culturally close to each other there are still thick boundaries between them including language, history, culture, habits – which sometimes cannot be easily overcome. However, its premise is to connect nations and enable closer ties to build a better future. This is an idea that, in my opinion, our younger generation are not willing to let go of. Is this the end of Europe? Well, it’s certainly the end of it as we know it.

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