On Thursday (23 June 2016) the citizens of the United Kingdom voted on whether or not they wish to be part of the European Union in a referendum (1). The results of the referendum, as well as the media portrayal of events leading up to and following it, have thrown up some interesting questions of identity and what it means to be united. Though much analysis of these questions focuses on the political aspects of the EU and the UK as a state, it could also be important to consider the wider implications when it comes to travelling in general, and what it actually means to be a citizen in today’s world.
Geographically, the referendum results have thrown into clear contrast the idea of the United Kingdom being one nation-state. Though most of England voted to leave the EU (1), the majority of Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to stay in (1), suggesting a lack of unity within the ‘United’ Kingdom. However, if Scotland and Northern Ireland become their own nation-states, independent of English law, the major English cities will probably wish to follow, having all voted to stay in the EU, so we could end up with six or seven new EU member states, including the country of London (which may raise some logistical questions of how the politics of England would function without the Houses of Parliament and all of the bureaucratic institutions which are based in London, but surely just a little re-organisation is needed).
Considering our movements
One issue which seems to have been central to the referendum is the idea of ‘immigrants’ coming into the EU (see for example 2). Those voting to leave the EU may well have been doing so in order to stop more people entering Britain as an immigrant. However, there are an estimated 1.2 million British-born people currently living in other EU states (3) whose right to reside in such countries could potentially be compromised by the referendum results. If those who voted ‘remain’ were hoping to limit the number of people entering the UK, they may wish to consider these 1.2 million.
The right to travel
It is difficult to tell what effect the referendum will have on a practical level for people who live in Britain or who have been officially designated British. However, in many ways the results seem to be throwing into clear relief the irrelevance of such official designations. How can we identify with England if we live in Italy or Spain, and England wishes to close its borders to these countries? Furthermore, in today’s increasingly connected and multicultural, multi-perspective world, what does it mean to identify with a nation-state? It is perhaps easier to feel an identity, for example, with a person who was born in a country on the other side of the globe, but who likes the same bands as you, than to your next-door neighbour who bangs on the wall every time you play their music too loud. Then there is the more holistic idea that we are all related and that a deep respect for the world around us- the trees, the mountains, the flowers, and all our fellow animals- is resonant wherever we are in the globe and whichever side of a political line we happen to be on.
The flowers, after all, do not need a passport to travel. As someone who has lived for extended periods in the mountains I was refreshingly amazed to find, on my first ever visit to the mountains of Abruzzo in central Italy, many of the same plant species as I experienced in the Sierra Nevada, thousands of kilometres away in a different so-called nation, as well as in my own native land. The plants flourish in an environment which is conducive to biodiversity, creating a resilient network of abundant life. Different from plants as we may be, it does not take too much of a leap of imagination to analogise this to humans.
International imports but no freedom to leave?
The idea that we have the right to roam and flourish on the earth while respecting it is an ancient one, and as an increasingly global society one which it may well be important to recognise. Many people are upset, angry or scared about the outcome of the referendum – which emotions do seem to be being encouraged by media outlets – but what the referendum perhaps is really showing is that it doesn’t matter which nation or group of nations you supposedly belong to. From this perspective it is not so important to join one or other identifying group but to identify yourself as a global citizen, someone who has every right to live in the world and to freely move around it. This is what I believe we are moving towards as an international society, whatever the so-called ruling governments may say.
Official recognition and doing it anyway
Yet how can we apply this holistic citizenship on a practical level? Maybe it is easier than you think. In Britain there already exist laws enshrining the rights of so-called ‘travellers’ (4), although not many of them are followed in practise. For example, the fact that ‘travellers’ are recognised as a distinct section of society is shown in the Caravan Sites and Control of Development Act 1960, under which councils can provide special traveller’s sites for caravans and mobile homes, although “not many public authorities do so” (4).
What appears to be clear is that if a group of people really believe that they have the right to do something, then this right exists, regardless of the law. This can be shown in many examples; one clear one of the law catching up to what the people had decided was right is with many indigenous tribes in what is now known as the USA, who have a deep cultural relationship to the ingestion of peyote cactus which has been developing over thousands of years, and whose right to use this sacred plant was recognised in 1965 by 28 different Federal governments even though they still currently ban all other people from eating peyote (5).
What does it mean for me?
What does this have to do with being a British or other citizen? Simply that it illustrates that if you really think something should be a certain way then it can be. If taking peyote in sacred rituals is recognised as an act of religious freedom, then why shouldn’t travelling around the world and finding a home wherever you feel comfortable, regardless of the lines on the map? The indigenous American tribes are respectful of the sacred nature of the peyote and this respect can extend out to the entire world. This is how we could approach the new global citizenship: we are not simply travellers but conscious movers; every step we take is careful and everywhere we go we can recognise the beauty and the goodness present, even in cultural gestures or landscapes which may at first appear ugly. We accept that everyone’s ideas are valid, which includes all the border games and everything they entail, just in the way that indigenous tribes may well respect the laws banning other people from using their sacred plant in disrespectful ways, though as citizens of a unified and sacred planet we are exempt from such games.
The previous statements are simply ideas; seeds which can be taken and planted if you have the right conditions to nurture them. Whatever effects the EU referendum ends up having, we can use it as a starting point for moving beyond mere simple ideas of nationalism or groups of nations. Wherever you travel, either virtually using your computer screen or physically sensing this wonderful planet around you, remember that the “lovers of ultimate beauty” (6) can be found everywhere. The more we realise this the more we can move forwards towards a recognition of travelling as a sacred right….
…Well it is, right?
- The Guardian, 2016. ‘EU Referendum: Results and Analysis’. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/ng-interactive/2016/jun/23/eu-referendum-live-results-and-analysis
- Asthana, A, 2016. ‘Immigration and the EU referendum: the angry, frustrated voice of the British public’. The Guardian, 20/6/16. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/jun/20/seven-towns-one-story-referendum-voters-say-too-many-foreigners
- Migration Watch UK, 2016. ‘The British in Europe – and vice versa’. http://www.migrationwatchuk.org/briefing-paper/354
- Law on the Web, 2016. ‘Rights of Travellers’. https://www.lawontheweb.co.uk/legal-help/rights-of-travellers
- Legal Information Institute, 2016. ’42 U.S. Code § 1996a – Traditional Indian religious use of peyote’. https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/42/1996a
- Gogol Bordello, 2007. ‘Wonderlust King’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K3SUPPeuRdU