I was around ten-years-old when my family found itself in a difficult economic situation. I had to go to work to help earn cash. One day, as I was carrying some heavy items, a father and his son were passing by, both clearly of some means. Glancing at me the father addressed his son with more or less these words: “Listen to what I’m saying. If you don’t study, you’ll end up like him.” I felt awful that the father was using my difficult situation to scare his own son. Besides, it was inaccurate. He assumed that I was poor because I was not in school, which was not the case. I was poor because I was unfortunate and no matter how much I (and my parents) tried, some things could not change that easily. However, not understanding the context did not stop him from jumping to conclusions. Neither did he consider how his words would make me feel.
This story has been running through my mind recently since the Brexit campaigners from both sides started using Albania, my country, to attack the other camp. It all began with the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, who pointed to Albania’s relations with the EU as an example of the possible agreement that the UK might have in the event of leaving the EU. Later, it was used by british MP Chuka Umunna and other leaders of the Remain campaign to attack Leave, by claiming that the latter are aiming to turn the UK into a second Albania. They even produced an advert with an Albanian flag flying on top of the Buckingham Palace.
Billboards were promoted around London, portraying Albania as “the other”, the end of the world, a journey back to the middle ages, or the end of civilisation for Britain. The Leave campaigners did not tail far behind. They accused Remain that by staying in the EU they will force the UK to live in a common union with ‘countries filled with smugglers, drug, and crime’, like Albania (in their view). Ironically, this time it was Gove himself who was using Albania as a scary picture.
This of dog-whistle politics has encouraged comments that vary from the unpleasant, such as how poor Albania is, to remarks on the level of education and skills of Albanians, qualifying them as ‘poorly educated and unskilled Eastern European workers’, as John O’Farrell would poke fun about it, in his online portal. It has also encouraged media reports, which warn that when Albania joins the EU the British political realm will “sound like a John la Carre novel…with political intrigue, huge sums of money going astray, criminality and double dealing.” Illustrating this great threat—which presumably is coming from a population four times smaller than that of London—with pictures of Albania taken 25 years ago.
As an Albanian, I do not know how should I feel about all of this. I find it unethical to make fun of another country, just because it is poorer. It is even more painful when one focuses solely on a particular aspect of Albania, picking sound bites from the news, taking pictures of a poor neighbourhood, or from crisis of the past century, and claiming to grasp how Albanian society is and how it is to live in Albania. I believe that every Briton who does not like their country being mocked by others on particular political, economic or social aspects can understand how it feels for Albanians when their home country is portrayed as little short of a nightmare.
It is worrying that this is not the first time, not even the first for this year, that British politicians have mocked Albania. It is even more disconcerting when such attacks come from the Remain campaign, a camp that allegedly is in support of a large European family. You would expect that those who are in favour of a UK within the EU would embrace values of a European brotherhood. However, although Albania belongs to the continental Europe, one gets comments that encourage and reinforce stereotypes of the Eastern European countries who are aspiring to join the EU.
I doubt that this kind of discourse is going to make it any easier for countries like Albania (which currently holds a candidate status) to join the EU, especially if we consider the role that national parliaments play in admitting any new European member.
We have to admit that Albania is small—due to the role played by the big powers during the London Peace Conference where its borders were decided. And yes, Albania is poor, and this is also due to the decision to leave it under Stalin’s influence while he and Churchill divided Europe. Yes, many people are now leaving the country, and this is also due to the reforms undertaken by a government whose top consultant is Former British PM, Tony Blair.
But is Albania small and poor and facing high rates of emigration because it refused to join the EU? No. it has nothing to do with it. Furthermore, it is clear that whatever decision Britons take on the 23rd of June, there is not a single chance that the UK will end up being a country of nearly three million inhabitants with a GDP of less than ten billion GBP.
By acting like the posh father in the above story, the both parts of the Brexit campaign seem to aim to scare voters into voting to stay in the EU. Either they are running out of sound arguments to support their campaign, or they think it is cheaper and easier to simply tap into people’s fears.
Ironically, the Brexit campaign run by some British politicians reminds one of Enver Hoxha, the communist dictator who ruled Albania for fifty years from the end of the World War II. While in power he heavily relied on fear and manipulation. His main political strategy was to induce fear and to employ a discourse of comparing Albania with other countries.
Hoxha tried to make the people believe that they were living in the happiest country of the world. He would never stop reminding them that there were other people who were not as lucky to have such a great government to look after their needs. It seemed easier for him not to deal with problems of the country, but instead to scare people and manipulate them by offering a binary vision: we and the other. The end of his politics is already known.
To the leaders on either side of the debate, I say, have some empathy for people who live in Albania. Albania might be poor, but they deserve your respect like any other member of the European family. If you knew how much they have had to endure all these years, you would agree with me.