A Local Perspective on the British EU Referendum
In October 2016, Cities of Migration talked to Michal Siewniak who works as the Community Development Manager, CVS (Community Voluntary Services) Broxbourne and East Herts and who is a local ‘community activist’ about local responses to BREXIT, Britain’s recent referendum and decision to exit the EU, including a negative public narrative and worrisome backlash against immigrants.
Cities of Migration (CoM): Last time we spoke, you shared the success of your work with the Welwyn-Hatfield Polish Forum when, in 2011, they used the facilities of the Hatfield Fire Station to organize a voting day for parliamentary elections in Poland, with the active support of the local council, the Polish embassy and Broxbourne and East Herts CVS.
Widely reported in local media, with impressive voter turn-out (93%), Hatfield’s Polish elections day gave local Polish residents a chance to exercise their civic rights, increased the visibility of the Polish community, improved its connections with the council and the voluntary sector and offered an exemplary model of civic action to all city residents.
Fast forward to October 2016, and a very different scenario: As a community leader in Hertfordshire, England, can you describe the impact that Brexit has had on social cohesion at the local level? What’s changed?
Michal Siewniak: It is almost 4 months since the EU referendum. The British people have voted. It was close however the message was clear – ‘we want our country back, we want to control our borders, we will be better off outside the EU’.
I found out about the result on sunny morning in Rome where I was attending an interesting meeting of people who are involved in public and civic life. As you can imagine, I was inundated with questions from people from Italy, Spain, Argentina, Slovenia or even South Korea.
As an EU migrant from Poland, someone who doesn’t hold British citizenship, I have been part of the referendum debate for quite some time. I couldn’t vote, but I was very keen to get the reasons for ‘staying’ across.
I have lived in a number of European countries but I don’t remember seeing anything like this. Hatred. A complete lack of ability to have a proper and mature debate on issues which affect us all, like globalization, migration, the refugee crisis. I thought that the situation would gradually improve however it seems like it is deteriorating. The most recent High Court ruling means that the government and the Prime Minister can’t trigger Article 50 (which will formally start the process of leaving the EU) and the whole Parliament must be allowed to vote on this issue. This clearly demonstrated a country which is deeply divided. Media, newspapers don’t help. Headlines like ‘Enemies of the people’, ‘Judges against people’, are examples in my opinion of cheap sensationalism rather than a pragmatic and open approach to dialogue and problem solving.
It is probably worth noticing that racist or religious abuse incidents recorded by police in England and Wales jumped 41% in the month after the UK voted to quit the EU, figures show. There were 3,886 such crimes logged in July 2015, rising to 5,468 in July 2016, according to the Home Office.
Hate crime has many shapes and forms. It has to addressed quickly (e.g. in primary schools). I know that currently the British Values subject is being taught in our schools [which includes the following: “Pupils must be encouraged to regard people of all faiths, races and cultures with respect and tolerance.“] I think it is really important to embed these values as early as possible so that our young generation can be brought up in a society which respects people from all walks of life. I also know that when you live in a very diverse society, this is not always possible — but if problems arise, I am always up for discussion and dialogue rather than heated confrontation.
I am worried that many EU citizens, who come here legally and for good reasons, will be seen as “`intruders” and treated as ‘second class citizens’ in all walks of life just because of where they come from and irrespective of what they bring.
In my case, as is the case for other EU nationals, living in the UK enabled me to improve my life chances and my language skills. It has also helped me to break down various barriers and recognize the importance of diversity. Settling in the UK, trying to be part of the local community, encouraged me to get to know other cultures and people of other faith groups. The whole experience has broadened my horizons and it made me more tolerant and rounded person.
I am sad that British voters decided to walk away from the European project which overall produced so many positive outcomes. I worry that the UK’s status a modern, forward thinking society where people from all walks of life are treated equally may be affected.
I am upset that liberal Britain which cherishes every opportunity to build bridges and fosters integration has decided, essentially, to take a step back. I am worried that Britain has chosen the ‘isolation path’ when we are stronger together.
CoM: How do you, as a local community leader, address these issues? What is your biggest challenge?
Michal Siewniak: I will start by saying that I was brought up under communism in Poland. The freedom of my parents in communist Poland was very limited. I remember very well times when I had to queue to get basic products and cooking ingredients. I remember rationing, being taught Russian instead of English. Despite so many difficulties, I had a lovely childhood!
I watched the collapse of the Berlin Wall  and never dreamt that Europe and Poland could change so much in such a relatively short period of time.
I don’t want to see Europe divided again. My experience has taught me that we must work together to address the global issues. I don’t want us to take a step back. I would like us all to recognize and champion diversity and challenge prejudice.
Challenges? Rebuilding trust, so damaged during this campaign, may take time. I hope Brexit won’t affect building the cohesive society which I want to be part of. Cheap journalism, cheap sensationalism, doesn’t help. It creates huge walls when we need time to recover from the current mess.
Today in Britain we face the challenge of listening to and building peace with those we disagree with. There are many organisations, including mine, who choose not to turn away from suffering, but to look for ways that we can rebuild our society together with others.
Although we have heard a lot of hateful words in these days, it has also become acceptable to talk about love in the context of politics, particularly as the legacy of Jo Cox (Labour politician who was murdered few weeks before the elections).
A friend sent us this text: “To all my European friends, sorry about the vote. I still love you. You are welcome to my country. I will continue to cheer for your football teams.”
Thank you to all people who stay strong in building bridges among people.
CoM: What advice and practical solutions can you share with city and community leaders facing similar challenges? Can you share a positive anecdote, or example?
We must encourage people listen to each other. We must create an environment and a platform for a mature debate.
We are each asked to decide whether we live for ourselves or for others. Answering that question honestly could bring about the shift in mentality that could start to rebuild (on rock, and not on sand) what the referendum brought crashing down.
I have a very proactive approach to life. If you want to change something, even a small thing locally, you need to act on it and bring other similarly minded people to join your ‘team’. Changing perception, using role models as a way to break down barriers, championing what is good in our society is so important!
Examples? There are so many! I will share with you one.
I will be running an event in Hatfield in 10 days’ time which will focus of civic activism. Parliament Week is one of my favourite campaigns in the UK. Parliament Week is a UK-wide programme of events and activities that inspire, engage and connect people with parliamentary democracy and processes.
Our event in Welwyn Hatfield will focus mainly on democracy and young people. We hope that the project will enhance youth’s sense of belonging to the local and wider community. We hope that it will help to increase their confidence in terms of engaging with government and statutory institutions. Understanding democracy will enable attendees to build a sense of ownership over their circumstances, and become proactive members of their community.
We don’t want this event to be politically motivated but we do hope to engage students from a local school to talk about how democracy impacts their lives. The aim of the event is to increase civic participation within young people (Sixth Form) living in Welwyn Hatfield. This initiative, which will be delivered at the Onslow St Audrey’s Secondary School will help to enthuse young people to get involved in democratic processes and intensify the dialogue between institutions and their young citizens. Our joint project will enhance youth’s sense of belonging to the local and wider community.
CoM: Last time we spoke (2013) you said: “I passionately believe that societies who are recognizing the existence and contribution of migrants benefit enormously from their regular input – socially, culturally and economically.” Has anything changed?
Michal Siewniak: I agree with it 200%! I would like to finish by saying something about ‘togetherness’.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and the Archbishop of York John Sentamu said in a joint statement:
“As citizens of the United Kingdom, whatever our views during the referendum campaign, we must now unite in a common task to build generous and forward thinking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world. We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers.”
This statement in such a simple and powerful way describes the society which I want to help create and be part of.
This piece was originally published in Cities of Migration and is reproduced here with the kind permission of Michal Siewniak