Today is Brexit day — the much-anticipated moment when voters in the United Kingdom will go to the polls to answer one question: Should Britain stay in the European Union?
The European Union experiment emerged in the post-war era as an attempt to bind the continent together via currency, trade and politics. For those on the Leave side, it has become too much of a hindrance. These voters say that Britain, which was always on the outside looking in given their rejection of the Euro, is paying more to the Union than they’re getting back in return.
For those supporting Remain, the European Union is a pinnacle of diplomatic achievement, a bulwark against war and toward progress after years of conflict, in addition to the minor fact that a separate England would have to negotiate its own trade deals with the rest of the continent and perhaps be plunged into a recession.
It’s an existential argument about the current and future culture of the UK, not unlike our own secession movements in NYC.
Make Britain great again
The most vitriolic portions of the Brexit campaign have been waged over what proponents see as a lax immigration system enabled by EU membership.
A recent NBC News poll indicates that voters to whom immigration is the primary concern overwhelmingly support the Leave campaign.
The prejudiced edges of that support can be seen in the now-infamous poster picturing a crowd of refugees at the Slovenian border and captioned “Breaking Point: The EU has failed us all.” For Leave supporters, immigration is the tangible manifestation of a world becoming more complicated.
One of the founding principles of the European Union is its open borders concept, which allows relatively unhindered movement between member states, although the Brits still require screening and border control. The new faces that this concept has brought to the green hills of England play into a long history of apprehension at outsiders.
Brexit opponents like to remind the leave-happy many that immigration has always fueled growth. In terms of security, a globalized world means that cooperation with other countries and law enforcement agencies is the best way to keep each other safe.
So, about that time Staten Island tried to secede. . .
America’s last and most serious flirtation with secessionist impulses ended at Appomattox. Here in NYC, however, we’ve had more recent experience with those trying to pull away.
Complaints and gripes from Staten Island about the union with the other four boroughs began not long after consolidation of the city itself, when Staten Islanders got “buyer’s remorse,” according to Kenneth Gold, dean of education at the College of Staten Island.
Pressure to leave built in the ’80s and ’90s, after a change in NYC’s system of government led to less power being wielded by the so-called Forgotten Borough — the Board of Estimate, in which Staten Island had an equal voice as other boroughs, was replaced by an empowered City Council, where representation was decided by population.
In the old system they’d had “about two or three times the influence in legislative affairs” compared to the new one, says Richard Flanagan, a professor of political science and global affairs at the College of Staten Island.
Furthermore, Staten Island was by that time populated by “refugees from Brooklyn,” says Flanagan, who felt the city was too liberal and too permissive on crime.
They wanted to keep the city at bay, a city that wanted to place halfway houses and prisons on its pristine confines, a city that refused to close the Fresh Kills landfill which had become so symbolic of how SI residents felt they were being treated by fellow New Yorkers.
So they voted to leave in a 1993 referendum. Ultimately, however, the decision died in the State Legislature.
Flanagan says that on the whole, secession would probably have been more trouble than it was worth. But he says he’s sympathetic to the idea of feeling neglected by City Hall.
On that front he says he understands some of the Brexit movement, which rails against “the impersonal forces of globalization, which are so vast.”
In Staten Island, secession was “probably a misguided attempt, but an attempt to grab control of one’s life.”
With or without that control, the outside world and modernity won’t be denied. Though Staten Island remains an island apart, it is slowly becoming a more multicultural part of New York, says Gold.
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