CAMBRIDGE, England – As I listen to the stormy debates here in the run-up to Thursday’s vote on whether Britain should exit the European Union, my thoughts keep drifting to my friend Jo Cox, a member of Parliament assassinated last week.
Jo was a leader who fought for genocide victims in Darfur, for survivors of human trafficking, for women’s health, for Syrian refugees and, yes, for remaining in the European Union. She was also a proud mom of two small children: When she was pregnant, she used to sign her emails “Jo (and very large bump).”
Jo’s dedication to the voiceless may have cost her her life. At least one witness said that the man who stabbed and shot Jo shouted “Britain first!” and when he was asked to say his name at a court hearing he responded, “My name is death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
Yet from awful events bittersweet progress can emerge. In five days, a fund in Jo Cox’s memory has raised more than 1.3 million pounds (about $2 million) for causes she supported. Likewise, perhaps revulsion at the murder will leave voters wary of the xenophobic tone of some of the Leave campaigners in the “Brexit” referendum.
I hope so, for helping to save a united Europe would be a fitting legacy for a woman no longer able to influence the world in other ways – and also because the world needs Britain in Europe.
The British joke about their view of Europe, with a famous (and apparently apocryphal) headline declaring, “Fog in Channel, Continent Cut Off.” But it’s also true, as John Donne wrote, “if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less.” And if Britain were washed away, Europe and Britain would both be less.
An International Monetary Fund report this month concluded that a British pullout from the European Union would “permanently lower incomes.” But more important are the political costs to an unraveling.
Among those who first called for a “United States of Europe” was Sir Winston Churchill, in a 1946 speech, and the impetus for him and for Jean Monnet, “the father of Europe,” was primarily peace and security.
In many ways, that has been disappointing. The European Union has repeatedly failed political tests: It was paralyzed as genocide began in the former Yugoslavia, it adopted a common currency too soon, it mishandled the recent economic crisis and it has bungled the current refugee crisis. And that’s on top of the quotidian expense and wastefulness of a European bureaucracy translating in 24 official languages, including Maltese, Bulgarian, Slovak and Slovenian.
Immigration has also fed an anxiety about loss of control and about erosion of national identity, prompting a backlash not entirely dissimilar from the Donald Trump phenomenon in the United States. Jo Cox herself, in an article she wrote shortly before her death, acknowledged, “It’s fine to be concerned by immigration – many people are.” But her point was that practical concerns about immigration should be addressed with practical solutions, while Brexit would simply create new crises without solving old ones.
One risk is that if Britain leaves, others will follow, leading to a dismemberment of Europe and economic crisis. Donald Tusk, the European Council president, has warned that “Brexit could be the beginning of the destruction of not only the EU but also of Western political civilization in its entirety.”
That seems a little much. But we’ve seen the chaos in the Arab world since 2011, and the last thing the globe needs is another arc of instability.
One of the few triumphs of international cooperation in recent years was the joint effort by Britain, France and the United States to defeat Ebola in West Africa. That would have been more difficult if Britain and France were feuding and Europe were facing a deeper economic slump.
Likewise, a nightmare scenario is Russia overwhelming Estonia or its Baltic neighbors, testing NATO’s resolve (a test I’m not 100 percent sure NATO would pass or even survive). Such Russian adventurism is probably more likely if the European Union is disintegrating.
Even the debate about Brexit has been poisonous in Britain. After Jo’s murder, a far-right group called National Action wrote of her killer: “#VoteLeave, don’t let this man’s sacrifice go in vain. Jo Cox would have filled Yorkshire with more subhumans!”
This is a scary period, compounded by the risk of the European bloc’s unraveling. It’s time for Britons to remember that immigration and integration have enriched their country as well as challenged it.
Jo Cox never had a chance to respond when her killer reportedly shouted “Britain first.” But in a sense, she already had. In her maiden speech in Parliament, she boasted of her constituency’s traditional English fish and chips – but also of its outstanding curries, made by immigrants. She declared, “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
Rest in Peace, Jo. I hope Britain remembers your wisdom.
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.