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Brexit – Britain’s exit from the European Union – is more than a debate on the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the European continent. This relationship has been difficult ever since Britain joined the European Community in the mid-1970s, a time when France was facing its first referendum on the question of Europe, because of the way this great nation sees herself in relation to Europe as a continent, on the one hand, and as a political and economic entity, on the other.
The French have already been there. We measure well the risks of a referendum for the ruling power and the entire political class, the potential benefits for the opposition, the dangers of economic destabilisations, and the symbolic ramifications.
Beyond Britain, a problem for the entire European Union
The Brexit debate reflects a problem that goes beyond the UK. After the last EU summit on Brexit, Jean-Luc Sauron, professor at Paris-Dauphine University, recently wrote in an article published in the Huffington Post:
The great innovation brought by the European construction is the substitution of legal and diplomatic compromise to warlike clashes between European nations. This disruption of interstate relations was made possible by the proclamation of equal rights between European nations regardless of their economic importance or their demographic weight. This last point is important because this proclaimed equality of rights is a base for the refusal of the balance of power as a means of regulating intra-European relations.
In addition to this egalitarian perspective that often leads to conflicts among EU members, we face a dual crisis of legitimacy of a European project that no longer receives sufficient popular support. But instead of trying to win back this support with positive reforms that meet the demands of citizens, political leaders struggle to contain the populist forces that exploit the popular anger.
The referendum paradox
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A referendum is a moment of democratic debate in which we consider parliament not legitimate enough to make the proper decision. But because of the political risks for the governing leaders, it is not used frequently enough for those who see value in directly appealing to the people.
In France, the 1969 referendum on regionalisation and senate reform teaches us an important lesson. Although the question was about modernising and democratising the institutions, the debate was about whether the French people wanted more of Charles de Gaulle. The slogan that was often heard in the demonstrations was "ten years is enough". De Gaulle lost his referendum and he withdrew from politics. The lesson is this: in our opinion-based democracies, where the media limit the voice of the elites, citizens never answer the question asked in a referendum. They vote based on their perception of both the issue and the credibility of the current government, which is itself put at risk by the referendum.
In 1972, the French were again called to vote. This time the question was on the enlargement of the European Economic Community to incorporate new member states, including Britain. The ‘yes’ vote won, but with a low turnout due to the weak commitment of former French president Georges Pompidou and the calls for abstention from the opposition Socialist party.
French lessons of 2005
The last referendum in 2005, on the constitutional treaty, provides another great lesson. The political, social, and economic situation at the time led a part of the country to challenge the conservatives in government as well as ‘Europe’ as a concept. ‘Europe’ and ‘Brussels’, according to the narrative of the sovereignists and the extreme right, were seeking to ‘replace’ the nation and the state. Alternatively, ‘Europe’ was implementing ultraliberal policies that strangled people. Beyond propaganda, the feeling of dispossession was real and the sense that people could not control their destiny was great. This is why everyone enjoyed the debate on the constitutional treaty. It met the democratic aspirations of greater inclusion and prompted a campaign for a popular consultation and a referendum.
But beyond the good intentions there was a problem: voters are sometimes strategists. They respond to a question by answering the question they would like to see asked. The referendum is indeed a political ‘kick and follow’, as they say in rugby. In the 2005 referendum, voters took the opportunity to punish the government and express their views on Europe and globalisation. A simple yes or no answer to a complex constitutional treaty furthermore brought up a battle of interpretation, where demagogy faced good faith. The citizens seized the issue. They were not satisfied with official information, party propaganda, or media debate. Social networks had begun to frame the public debate: a mix without hierarchy that includes accurate information, rumours, and original or unusual interpretations.
But political parties wanting to get the best out of a difficult campaign dramatised the situation, making it explosive. Jean-Christophe Cambadélis, now leader of the Socialist party wrote regarding the debate on the constitutional treaty that, “everyone is playing Russian roulette while taking care to load the entire barrel”.
Apart from arguments to reject the constitutional treaty on nationalistic grounds, there was also a ‘left-wing no’ vote. This was motivated by a section of the text that was perceived to further entrench European economic policies, even though the relevant language was already there in previous treaties. The referendum in 2005 thus witnessed a new voter divide. Beyond convinced electorates linked to political parties, voting overlapped unsurprisingly with social categories, socioeconomic situations, and views about the future and the world.
The ‘pros’ were rather older, educated, urban and integrated, well off or rich, and did not feel negatively about the political choices of the European Union or the government. These are the social classes that see globalisation as an opportunity. In contrast, the ‘cons’ were younger and from the working class. Many faced difficulties, sometimes far from metropolitan areas, despite potentially benefitting from European mobility through Erasmus, the euro, and social networks. It was even harder for non-student youth. We also saw public servants more in favour of the 'no' than the private sector employees.
The referendum debate created this new divide of ‘elite vs. the people’, replacing the left-right divide. On one side stood those who benefit from globalisation, the self-oriented class of property owners alongside political, media, and economic elites. On the other stood the ‘people’, the ‘average’ citizen who toils everyday.
The costs of the referendum debate for the left-right divide
A European referendum transcends all right-left divisions, even within the parties. Political parties need to position themselves carefully in such an unusual campaign because for them there is a life after referenda. Presenting the right message instead of ideological contradictions is always crucial for the next elections. In the French debate, for example, the ‘progressive no’ (in the name of social Europe) had to show clear distance from the ‘conservative or reactionary no’ (in the name of the European Nations). Similarly, the ‘progressive yes’ (in the name of a Europe of small steps) was to differentiate itself from the ‘conservative yes’ (approved of by the French president).
When we ask the voters to say ‘yes’ to Europe, we must first answer the question of ‘which Europe’. In other words, we must convince voters that the Europe they want may be real even if it is not the one in existence today.
Battle of interpretations in the Brexit debate: the problem of the day after
By asking the question ‘stay’ or ‘leave’, the British prime minister took on an old debate born in the fight between Margaret Thatcher and her European counterparts. The British debate questions the entire European Union. Where is the point of balance between the prerogatives of a nation state and a federation of nation states? How to express ‘national’ sovereignty when 80% of the legislation is the implementation of European decisions?
Those in favour of remaining in the EU will develop many rational arguments to demonstrate, with supporting evidence, the reasons to remain: how the EU funds the City; how the common agricultural policy benefits farmers and ranchers; how cohesion policy funds infrastructure in underdeveloped territories; how different funds are used to spur innovation across a variety of sectors. They will bring up political and diplomatic prospects for Britain. Isolation or dead end? They will warn about the precedent Brexit would establish, suggesting that a move towards Europe ‘à la carte’ could eventually break it up. After all, there are already talks of ‘Czexit’ among the Czechs, and Poland could also emulate the British case.
Supporters of the Brexit will tell a different story. They will try to explain why Europe is undemocratic, even daring analogies with authoritarian regimes. They will denounce the technocracy, complexity, and opacity of the decision process. They will develop a passionate formula on sovereignty, democracy, and freedom.
In a time of crisis and the challenges of globalisation, the reflex is to pull back. Left-right camps fracture along other fault lines and referendums are used to also vote ‘for’ or ‘against’ the current government and the mainstream parties. The confrontation of rational arguments with passionate arguments will also be a duel between elitism and demagoguery, and in a time when disaffection for politics is large there will be a risk of oversimplifying an incredibly complex political issue.
Finally, everyone should keep in mind that beyond the question ‘to remain or leave’ lies the question of ‘the day after’. Europe will not the same without Britain, and Britain will not be the same without Europe, but a stronger Britain is possible inside a stronger Europe.