Can Europe Make It?

Brexit: a dismantling moment

We have reached a turning point with an uncertain outcome, in which the British and European dimensions are two sides of the same coin.

Etienne Balibar
14 July 2016
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David Davis, the new Brexit Secretary in Theresa May's cabinet. Gareth Fuller / Press Association. All rights reserved.I do not wish to understate the tragic consequences of the vote in the United Kingdom: either for the British or for Europe. But I am stunned by the way in which French (and foreign) headlines are presenting the facts to us: "After Brexit…”. Some rare exceptions notwithstanding, most seem to accept and agree that an exit has taken place. In reality, we are most assuredly entering a period of turbulence in which the outcome is anything but clear. It is this uncertainty that I would like to chronicle and interpret.

Comparison, we know, is never definitive, but how can we forget that in the recent history of European politics, national and transnational referendums are never put into practise? This was the case in 2005 with the "European constitution", in 2008 with the Lisbon treaty, and even more obviously in 2015 with the memorandum imposed on Greece. It is highly likely that we will see the same pattern this time. The British ruling class – beyond the personal conflicts which divide them tactically – is manoeuvring to delay the deadline and to negotiate the most favourable terms of "exit". Some governments (the French most prominently, as well as the spokesperson of the Commission), are ramping up their cries of “out is out”, and “leave means leave”. But Germany is not listening with the same ear, meaning there will be no unanimity (except that of a presentational facade).

At the end of a period of tension (the outcome of which will be determined more by the fluctuations of the financial markets than by public opinion), the most plausible outcome will be a proposal for the fabrication of a new geometry of the "system" of European states, in which formal belonging to the European Union will always be combined with other structures (the Eurozone, but also NATO - the security systems at borders that will succeed Schengen - and a "zone of free exchange" defining the functions of economic forces). Equally, from this point of view, the comparison between Grexit and Brexit may prove to be instructive. The weakness of Greece, abandoned by all those countries who were (logically) obliged to support their claims, led to a regime of interior exclusion. However, the relative strength of the United Kingdom (which can count on strong support from within the EU) will without doubt lead to an accentuated form of exterior inclusion.

Does this mean that no turning point has been reached? Clearly not. Let us briefly examine both the ‘British’ and the ‘European dimension’, before saying why they are inseparable, and instead represent two sides of the same coin.

It is obvious that the particular history of Great Britain (its imperial past, its social history formed of brutal upsets, its “special relationship” with the US) should be taken into account when explaining the emergence of a hegemonic ‘anti-European’ sentiment. The available analysis suggests that this encases an extraordinary diversity of motives, split according to factors of class, generation, nationality, and ethnicity. Potentially, they contradict themselves, and it is this contradiction that the ‘sovereignist’ discourse manipulated by the proponents of Brexit is designed to cover over. We must therefore ask the question of how long Great Britain will be able to mask the fact that the economic and social havoc taking place (victims of which include an increasing proportion of “new poor”) is owing to the cumulative effects of neoliberal politics which the EU has imposed - not only on Great Britain - given the fact that it has been one of the most active supporters of this throughout Europe since the Thatcher period and during the New Labour era. Brexit alone - no matter what the conditions may be - will not bring any form of corrective to the situation, except, clearly, if an alternative politics becomes mainstream. But for this to happen it would need (and this is by no means the least important paradox of the situation) a counterpart on the continent, because the law of competition between ‘territories’ will now impose itself more than ever.

Which leads us to the ‘European’ side of the conjuncture. All specificities duly taken into account, none of the problems facing the United Kingdom are absent from any other European nation. That is that to say that there is truth in the ‘populist’ propaganda (‘neither left nor right’) which has been unleashed in the four corners of the EU, calling for referendums based on the English model.

Already, in 2005, Helmut Schmidt observed that had referendums like the French and Dutch consultations taken place almost anywhere else, they would have yielded similarly negative results. The crisis of legitimacy, the return of nationalism, the tendency to project cultural and social unease on an “interior enemy” (targeted by xenophobic and Islamophobic parties), these features have developed everywhere. The Greek crisis was used by governments who were committed to social austerity, to haunt the taxpayer with the spectre of the public debt. The refugee crisis was amalgamated with questions of security. In plain language, what is manifesting itself across the channel as “separatism” translates itself everywhere throughout Europe as a tendency towards societies radically divided through the aggravation of both internal and external fractures.

No: we have crossed a threshold in the process of the disaggregation of the European construct - not as a result of the British vote, but driven by the logic of what it has revealed about the tendency to polarisation of the European entity and its political crisis (which is also a moral one). Not only, as I have written, are we in an interregnum, but we are also assisting in a process of dismantling which, for the moment, has no constructive counterpart.

Powerless? This is the question. In the short term I am very pessimistic, because the discourse of ‘reworking’ Europe is in the hands of a political and technocratic class who will not contemplate any change of direction to the one which guarantees them the indulgence of an occult power (that of the financial markets), or reform (in any meaningful way) to a system of power which lends them their monopoly over representation. Consequently, the function of protest is assumed by parties and ideologies who tend to destroy the links between European peoples (or more generally between European residents).

A long journey must be undertaken in order to unite and to explain in the eyes of the majority of citizens, across borders, the close interdependence between shared sovereignty, transnational democracy, anti-globalization, the co-development of regions and nations, and the necessary translation between different cultures. We are not there yet, and time is short. All the more reason – if we believe in Europe – to pursue such an explanation without respite.

The original article appeared in Libération, June 27, 2016. Translation by Asher Korner.

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