By Nastassia Maes
On the day of Crimea’s annexation to Russia, March 18th 2014, Vladimir Putin reflected on the collapse of the Soviet Union and declared that, “Millions of people went to bed in one country and awoke in different ones […].” Today, this phrase can be tailored to the United Kingdom. In this case, millions of people went to bed in four different countries united under one sovereign state, and awoke in ones that had decided to exit from the European Union.
Much has been said on the topic, which is why I choose to focus on one specific aspect of the issue at hand. Now more than ever, it is immensely important to use our words. We must use them to fight against the outpouring of insipid racism, verbal abuses, xenophobia, and attacks on people’s dignity, such as the one that has emerged from the UK referendum decision. This ugly and harmful type of behavior has always existed, but it has been some time since the people adopting such behaviour have felt so legitimized and strong, both politically and socially. As such, we must, as often as we can, raise our voices so that they can be louder than those of racists, xenophobes, and verbal abusers. We must also speak against people such as the ex-UKIP Party leader Nigel Farage, a man who influenced so many people’s votes with a campaign that was made of smokescreens and vanishing promises, instead of concrete, honest, solid arguments and plans for a future outside of the EU. There need be no more proof of this than Mr. Farage’s resignation.
The situation in which we find ourselves serves as a reminder of the often overlooked yet highly impactful role language plays in the political sphere. There are several striking examples of the Vote Leave campaign’s occasionally propagandistic use of language and diffusion of false information. One scandalous and somewhat revolting example is that of the flashy red bus stating, “We send the EU £350 million a week/ Let’s fund our NHS instead/ Vote Leave.” As a matter of fact, as early as June 24th, Nigel Farage went back on his words and said that the National Health Service would not be the recipient of a weekly sum of 350 million pounds. This lead to widespread outrage for voters who had been won over or influenced by the conveniently shocking and alluring – but false – argument of the Vote Leave campaign.
The trail of propaganda does not end there. Phrases heavily infused with emotion, such as “take back control,” and “independence day” (Cooper) when referring to June 23rd, were repeatedly used by the Vote Leave campaign to indicate that the EU was harming the UK, that it was responsible for many of the problems the UK was experiencing, especially immigration. An anti-immigration poster showing almost only Middle Eastern migrants and refugees was also used to reinforce the claim that immigration needed to be reduced or stopped; it was accused of resembling Nazi propaganda several times. A little after the poster was revealed, the former chair of the Conservative Party, Ms. Sayeeda Warsi, left the Vote Leave campaign, “citing messages that stirred ‘hate and xenophobia.’” (Cooper)
It is unfortunately easy to draw more similarities between the context and language used leading up the UK referendum and that leading up to the Crimea referendum. In the case of Crimea, as explained in The Moscow Times, “[…] experts [said] an information war [was] launched after many Ukrainian news outlet were shut down and replaced by Russian state-owned ones.” (Sukhov). Furthermore, billboards such as one in Sevastopol, Ukraine, were seen to be indicating that the Crimean population had to decide not between rightfully and legally remaining a part of Ukraine or joining Russia, but between being annexed by the Russian Federation or succumbing to the Neo-Nazis in Crimea.
Change must happen and it must happen now. There are no greater tools than accurate, truthful words and information in this fight for the EU’s amelioration, survival and strengthening. ‘United in diversity:’ such is the motto of the EU and so it will remain. It is up to us to help make these words ring true as much as possible.
Cooper, Marta. “The “Romantic” And “Distorted” Language Of Campaigners Who Want Britain To Leave The EU”. Quartz. N.p., 2016. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.
Sukhov, Oleg. “The Media War Behind The Ukraine Crisis”. Themoscowtimes.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.