Can Europe Make It?

A French elegy for the UK

Referenda are a populist gimmick drafted to unite as many people as possible on a single issue. They work when leaders are popular and voters vote for the messenger.

Patrice de Beer
25 June 2016
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Nigel Farage: victorious. Press Association Images/Matt Dunham. All rights reserved.

Why did Little England decide to leave the European Union, unlike Scotland or Northern Ireland? Why did you decide to part from us? I can understand these slogans against immigration, bad government by remote bureaucrats etc. But they are far from new and are shared in all other Europeans countries and by many others throughout the world.

Your politicians, bureaucrats and business elite are no better, or worse than ours. They are as corrupt, inefficient, arrogant and remote from normal people as ours, while the gap between rich and poor is probably widening on your side of the Channel even faster than on ours.

Your populist politicians are as viciously hypocritical, and as popular, as ours. Do you see more credibility, more honesty, less blatant lies with Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson than with the Le Pen family in France, AfD in Germany – on the right – or the leftist populists who have made a resounding entry in the political field during recent years, from Syriza in Greece to Podemos in Spain, 5 Stelle in Italy or French firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon?

They are all at histrionic utterances and wild promises they know they could never fulfil and they are so much more at ease in irresponsible opposition than at facing the hard reality of real human beings they all too often have an abstract and ideological vision of. People to which the Labour's leader, Jeremy Corbyn, sometimes look a little too close.

Boris Johnson switched from traditional pragmatic Tory benevolence towards business, whether British or foreign, when he stopped being Mayor of London, thinking perhaps that his political future lied – a double entendre word! - in opposing not only his rival, Prime Minister David Cameron, but his, although ambiguous, stand on Europe. And he won despite the pack of lies we heard from him on bull fighting, bananas and other crucial elements of world politics.

Did he lie on purpose, did he not realise the difference between facts and fiction, or thought voters were so stupid – of course they never went to public schools – they could gobble up anything?

We also had an ex Prime Minister, Socialist this time – today left and right wing politicians are not that different on that field - Laurent Fabius, who thought he could build his presidential credentials in opposing his own party's stand on the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution. He helped create a constitutional havoc which was resolved by next President Nicolas Sarkozy, and he lost pitifully during the primaries, worst of all for him against a woman. “Who will take care of the children” if she is elected, said he.

Another recent phenomenon brings us even closer together. The demise of the traditional bipartite political system and especially of the left. Many traditional Labour constituencies in industrial – or former industrial – areas and among middle classes massively switched to UKIP. Just like the French working class, whose majority now vote for the Front National.

All throughout Europe formerly strong Social Democrat parties appear to be in limbo, unable to catch back the millions of voters who deserted them to abstain or join extremist parties. Is the same phenomenon now occurring in the UK or what might be left of it if the Scots were to vote to remain in the EU? Is Labour, after such different but equally controversial figures as Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn, following the same downtrend spiral?

This takes us back to the referendum. Happily, you British have not been as prone to referendums as we have. Until now. The De Gaulle era was very prone to referendums till the General was forced to resign after having lost his last one in 1969.

Referendums are and have been a populist gimmick drafted to unite as many people as possible on an single issue. They work when leaders are popular because voters tend to vote for the messenger rather than for the message.

And when, as nowadays, politicians are despised all throughout Europe, voters express their dissatisfaction, their anger by shooting at the messenger. This is why our leaders are now so reluctant to use them. Our last one, in 2005, was defeated by an odd coalition uniting left, extreme right and disgruntled voters from all sides.

We can see a similar situation when we look at the June 23 referendum. Many voters expressed their anger against remote and irresponsible national and local politicians, against London and the wealth and arrogance it represents for them, against the more educated, the affluent who can afford to travel overseas, as much as against their likewise in Brussels.

British society, like all European societies, and more perhaps, is fed up with inequalities of income, of opportunity or with their bleak future, and their anger was cunningly redirected towards unpopular Brussels, the so-called leviathan of the modern world.

But are there not a thousand British civil servants serving in Brussels? Have they not been trained in Britain to push for British interests within the EU? Are EU commissioners not selected by EU governments – including the UK – to implement policies drafted by all European partners - including the UK - who all have a right of veto? Have they not been voted with, or defeated, by Euro MPs elected in each of the different countries, the UK included? And have the British government and its – former – 27 partners not always played the same trump (not Donald but sometimes very close to his jingoistic slogans) card by voting for bills they knew would be unpopular at home and then, often through euro-phobic London media, putting the blame on their partners and on Brussels?

But, in this, are British politicians and elites so different from the other EU ones? So why leave a club they have felt so comfortable in, which has been paying them so well and which has offered them all the out options they claimed for, starting with Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron?

Has Nigel Farage ever protested against the grotesque alimonies granted to MEPs? He and his UKIP MEPs have pocketed without any scruples this unholy money. Like the FN, which has milked the budget of an institution they pretend to hate and want to leave, to pay they cronies. And even Boris Johnson, so critical about us, now seems in no hurry to start negotiating Brexit with a Europe he now recognizes Britain is part of.

So why do you want to share your miseries among yourselves while we could all have lamented together, or even better supported each other against the same evils we are facing? You will now have to lament among yourselves when you see EU funds, like Feder, stop supporting deprived areas in the North of England where they made the difference between poverty and misery, or stop subsidising British agriculture which was all but dead when the UK joined the EU and is now one of the most prosperous in Europe.

Who will now pay for them? When I was Le Monde's correspondent in the UK, I talked with a lot of people from deprived areas in Liverpool or Glasgow as well as with farmers who had benefited from an aid their own government had failed to grant them. Won't they be the biggest losers of Brexit after having served as cannon fodder for those who redirected their anger against a Brussels bogeyman, even if there is a lot to say against the EU's management?

Perhaps thing could have been different if the referendum question had been different, like: “Do you want to leave an EU that does not want you in any more?” like a very recent poll which indicated that 45% of Europeans would not really mind saying goodbye to you. Maybe British pride would have pushed more voters to respond: “To hell with you! You want us out, so we'll stay. We have our own pride!” But history does not repeat itself. Or does it?

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