June 23rd 2016, the day that the UK decided to leave the European Union: I was on a seminar on migration and refugees in Frankfurt, together with a group of other students who all lived across Germany and Europe, several of them in the UK. About to move to London for my master’s studies in September myself, I was shocked as well as mostly confused. This really happened, I thought. How is that possible? How is it possible that more than half of Britain’s citizens were not convinced of the benefits of cross-border cooperation?

Probably most European citizens raise an eyebrow when the topic of the EU comes up. The complicated structure, the fact that the Commission is not elected, the “management” of the Euro crisis having lead to austerity and one rescue fund after the other: For many, the EU is this dubious, detached bureaucratic entity far off in Brussels which still influences our governments’ every move… There are many things to criticize about the EU in its current form. But while anti EU parties are undoubtedly on the rise across all of Europe, a majority of a country voting to actually leave the EU came unexpected, came as a powerful wake-up call that wasn’t heard in time. The US elected Trump and here we are, split in entities and more than ever reminded that we need to embrace the “other” both abroad and at home: by investing in cross-border encounters and intercultural learning but also simply better listening as to create mutual understanding and more empathy to prevent the world from drifting even further apart.

As a postgraduate student in the UK, I am confronted with the word “Brexit” all the time. We discuss its effects in class, I read about parliament debates and immigration cases in the news, it creates this blank page for about every issue and topic. When I am asked if I will stay in the UK or go back to Germany, an ironic and sympathetic “Oh yeah, Brexit” creates an immediate notion of understanding in the conversation… A notion of pity, sympathy, confusion and irony all together, summed up under the questions of “What on Earth did those British people think?”. The past months gave me a glimpse into life in the UK and this state of confusion and uncertainty summarized by the word “Brexit”. I certainly know it is not enough to say, “Oh those stupid British” as many Europeans tend to do. While I am still struggling to understand what is happening and why it happened, I suppose it is time to reflect a bit on what I make of Brexit and why I believe in cross-border encounters and empathy, now more than ever.

Dark clouds on a sunny sky

My London weather metaphor, the clouds are coming from Parliament…

The best I can come up with to describe my impression of the post-Brexit UK that I have had the chance to experience since September is a metaphor of weather. As a student in London, I utterly enjoy the UK in its diversity, history, its myriad of cultural offers and achievements. I can visit two free art museums in the morning, eat amazing Japanese food for lunch, stroll through a park in the afternoon, watch a musical in the West End, and dance salsa at night – an ordinary day in London. When I take a bus from my house to the centre, there are people from every part of the world on it, talking in loads of different languages and all bringing in their own cultural elements into this colourful cultural fabric that is London. It is the cliché London that I describe here but for me, this is it. If London was weather, it would be bright sun with the occasional soft drizzle (with a thick layer of smog on the horizon, but that is another story…).

In London, I mostly meet people that are devastated about the Brexit decision and do not cease to ensure every European that this goes completely against their beliefs. Still, daily news about another part of the “hard Brexit” plan of Theresa May’s government, or European citizens in Britain receiving letters in which they are told to prepare for the leave do take their toll on my impression of this country. In January, I participated in an Anti-Trump demonstration after his meeting with May in which she seemed to embrace his restrictive, intolerant, and encapsulating politics. While her supporters are not known to me in my London student bubble, they do exist, must exist around the UK and are represented by her actions. Even with Brexiteers regretting their decisions, there are far too many of those in full support of rejecting openness, emphasizing differences and cheering for isolationism. Knowing that they exist, being confronted with the decisions of their government, and reading about this in the news all the time forms a shadow in my head that creates thick clouds on the sky of my London/UK weather. Only today, I read that apparently, 28% of residency applications by EU citizens are rejected at the moment.

The sunny sky of London as a world city boasting with culture, people and perspectives from across the globe is more than ever represented by its current Mayor, Sadiq Khan, who seems to establish himself as the tolerance and openness bastion of the city – as the true London that exists despite the presence of Theresa May’s Westminster a few kilometers away from his workplace at City Hall. During a visit with my class there last week, viewing the Bank district and Tower Bridge from the impressive balcony while the House of Parliament and Big Ben are far out of view to the West reminded me of both the mental and the physical distance between these two very different political voices from London.

The view from City Hall onto Tower Bridge

In summer, Khan had launched the #LondonIsOpen campaign in response to the Brexit vote which was also prominently reflected in this year’s New Year’s Eve Fireworks which I went to watch from Waterloo Bridge in all its glory. “London is open… to the world” – were the words in between the music with which Khan’s voice emphasized to everyone that Brexit would not change the character of (t)his city. Just this weekend at the day of the Oscars, Khan cleverly sent a message on Theresa May’s collaboration with Donald Trump: He organized a free screening of the Oscar nominated film The Salesman by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi who had decided to boycott the Oscars in response to the Muslim ban. The movie was shown on Trafalgar Square, a powerful gesture of union – the wind that is pushing out the clouds, the bright sky that hides behind them, representing what London (still) is and should continue to be.

Sharing economy and cross-border travel

In a recent discussion in my Cultural Relations course, we spoke about why Brexit possibly happened and what could be done now. I was thinking about the anti-European feelings in the European mainland and the fact that these fade quickly when we travel elsewhere and have to queue in passport controls or border inspections. As a German citizen, I studied in the Netherlands, moving countries sometimes several times a week, crossing over the border unaware of it sometimes, only being reminded of this fact by an incoming message on my phone: “Welcome to the European Union”. I enjoy all the benefits of living in an interconnected Europe. I could settle wherever I liked, study where conditions were best or fees cheapest and enjoy this feeling of belonging when meeting fellow Europeans outside of Europe. British people I have met on my travels though usually did not say that they came from Europe. As their country had never been part of Schengen, they do not enjoy passport-free travel and would usually take a plane. For them, it probably never felt much different to go to France or Germany than to the US, just a shorter trip.

Since I spend an exchange year in Turkey when I was in High School, I know of the transformational power of intercultural encounters. Meeting people with different backgrounds, being the foreigner amongst them and learning to observe, accept and respect differences has been a life lesson that has enabled me ever since to put myself into another’s position much more easily. My travels since then have been enriching, not only because of seeing new places and learning new languages but also because of being constantly confronted with other viewpoints, understandings and perspectives. This is exactly what enables me to get to know someone before explaining his or her motivations, trying to understand before judging, letting in before pushing out. An intercultural experience, as simple as a trip to another part of Europe, is what creates such an attitude and shows powerfully the enriching experience of diversity. Of course, this has to go beyond simple being abroad, for instance in a beach resort in which only British, or only Germans stay. This diminishes the possibility of learning anything about the local place and people and instead only fuels stereotyping and prejudice. But travelling with open eyes, or simply looking out for visitors and interacting with them at home can already be enough to catalyze true intercultural learning.

A few years ago, my partner and I have gone on our first hitchhiking trip across Germany and France, from Cologne to Barcelona, meeting incredible people from across the globe and being confronted with their kindness. A free ride, a place to stay in their house, home-cooked meals and a glimpse into their culture – the sharing economy enables, in my view, the truest glance at what humanity really is: incredibly kind, welcoming and supportive. We need more people participating in things like Couchsurfing, Airbnb, Blablacar and especially unorganized forms of sharing during travels – a conversation on the bus, an invitation into one’s home, a welcome to the stranger. While this is of course a question of attitude and lifestyle, we need to find ways of bringing more people in contact with similar experiences and Brexit only reminds us what can happen if we don’t.

Promising initiatives

Recently, some EU parliamentarians proposed a free Interrail ticket for all European 18-year olds: An amazing idea which could be seen as a response to Brexit but more generally expresses the belief into the power of travel and of encounter. The same idea is also encompassed by different initiatives awarding Interrail passes to individuals wanting to experience Europe in this immersive way, such as the Schwarzkopf-Stiftung’s Travel Grant and Robert-Bosch-Stiftung’s “Travel to Europe” project in Germany. While the EU’s free Interrail pass will probably only be realized in a restricted way in form of a lottery or a school budget for trips to Brussels, the idea lives on and should be a reminder for all of us to invest into the power of cross-border trips and to keep our eyes and ears open when we do them. More such projects, more initiatives encouraging us to meet others are the only way in which we can counter xenophobia, hatred and isolationism – also at home.

Only yesterday, a German student initiative came to my eye: Startpunkt (Starting Point), is a weekly meeting in which people come together to listen to each other’s viewpoints. Different statements about political issues, such as immigration, are brought in by the organizers; the participants pick one and are then matched in pairs. One of the partners then gives his or her viewpoint on the topic while the other only listens, knowing that he or she will need to summarize and explain the partner’s view to the next person he/she talks to – and as such, is forced to change the perspective and really try to understand the other’s opinion. This is an amazing idea, enabling the participants to break out of the filter bubbles and a promising method for taking away the aggression out of conversations these days and creating meaningful encounters with others. A German newspaper in Heidelberg reported about the initiative and quotes a supporter of the right-wing AFD party who now participates regularly: “Discussions are often poisoned”, he said. “This is the antidote”.

Brexit and Trump urgently point out that society is split these days, in two large but also many smaller parts. We settle behind our country’s borders and between the borders of political sympathy, the borders in our minds. Meaningful cross-border travel, best in early years of our lives as in my case with my Turkey exchange can teach us more empathy and more respect for differences and can enable us to grow closer together. Initiatives like Startpunkt help us to do the same in our daily lives, staying open minded and avoiding exclusionary thinking. These are the initiatives that spark hope for true global connection instead of isolationism. As Society 3.0, representing more interconnectivity, a global network of sharing and encounter, we need to be cautious to burst the bubbles and the borders around us and make the Society as encompassing and empathetic as possible.

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Jenny Hecht
Hitchhiker, language addict and passionate about intercultural learning. Studied Project Management & Communications in Zwolle, Groningen, Brussels, Cologne and Istanbul. After 5 months of travel through Latin America, she now studies Cultural Relations & Diplomacy in London and regularly blogs about the experiences.