James Bailie, an MRES student here at Birmingham in medieval Byzantine studies talks Europe and medieval studies.
Britain’s future in the 21st century world hangs in the balance. This is not, alas, the hyperbolic start of an action movie trailer – it’s the political reality of the upcoming referendum on the European Union, which presents a potentially huge shift in this country’s relationships with the outside world. The possibility of leaving the EU presents significant challenges for medieval historians, some of which I want to try and outline here.
Free movement for students and academics significantly strengthens our discipline. The unedifying recent spectacle of a PhD student being arrested by immigration police recently whilst attempting to renew his visa should come as a warning to us; this could become an increasingly regular occurrence in a world where visas were needed for travel to all EU member states. The government’s moves towards income thresholds for migrants seeking to stay in the UK should also be a concern (these currently apply to non-EU migrants, but the legal differentiation would be removed in the event of exit). The current exemptions for doctoral-level researchers and students could be further restricted, especially outside STEM areas, if the drive to cut immigration continues to trump the desire for transnational academic discourse.
In this area, politics seems to potentially be moving in the opposite direction to academia. As Professor Standen argued in a CeSMA seminar earlier this year, collaboration may be increasingly vital to moving our discipline forwards – too much of the field of medieval studies requires too much specialist knowledge to allow the training of true generalists, but specialisation creates artificial boundaries that prevent the individual research from achieving effective large-scale analyses and comparisons across time and space. Collaborative history should be the future of our field, but it requires real-world interaction and movement to make this happen. More difficult and more expensive travel could hit junior academics particularly badly.
Transnational collaboration via the EU is also key for many of us who work on Europe’s medieval history when it comes to bringing our research to bear in the public sphere and making it available to people for whom – even now – our understanding of the medieval world is crucial to modern decision-making. This year’s guest lecture on the Islamic State hammered that point home particularly hard; now as much as ever, the challenges we face globally require an understanding of history. If we make movement and thus collaboration more difficult, we reduce the ability of academics to connect with policymakers or voters at a time when misinformed and historically naive decisions can exacerbate rather than solve serious geopolitical tensions.
We should also be keenly aware of the EU’s impact on the preservation of historical sites, documents, and other antiquities. Billions of pounds are spent each year across the EU on heritage programmes, with no guarantee whatsoever of the equivalent funds being replaced in the UK in the event of exit. EU heritage programmes such as the huge “Europeana” archive are able to do what they do precisely as a result of the fact that they are pan-European initiatives; many countries are able to secure vital historic monuments only as a result of EU funding, and even then some countries struggle to maintain their wealth of archives, artefacts and archaeology. Losing access to these cultural frameworks weakens both them and our ability to interact with them, and risks endangering the preservation of European heritage in very serious ways.
The European Union, via its promotion of free movement and international cultural preservation, thus provides a significant body of infrastructure not merely for our discipline as it is, but for the directions in which our discipline seeks to develop in future years and generations. This is something we should surely weigh in to our decisions and discussions on how to vote and which side of the referendum to argue or indeed campaign for.
Whichever side any of us end up leaning towards individually, however, the scenario of a British exit from the EU should be kept in mind and prepared for. The Out campaign, lacking in political unity, has no obvious coherent vision for how a British exit from the EU would be negotiated, and huge tracts of law and spending policies moving from Brussels to the UK would potentially leave the areas of our discipline outlined above under serious threat. Such an event will require all of us to be prepared to engage with politicians to secure and preserve our ability to make academic progress in areas where Brussels was the previous guarantor. Regardless of any of our eventual conclusions on the benefits of Britain’s EU membership, we must not underestimate the challenges of exit to medieval studies in the UK.
Mytilene Castle, which has been preserved and restored mainly with EU funding