Time to reimagine Europe

Over 17 million Britons voted to leave. The EU must hear this cry to deepen democracy, before it further awakens Europe's far right.

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small
Mary Fitzgerald
1 July 2016

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This, next? Current polls predict Marine le Pen will comfortably make it into the second round of France's presidential election. Emmanuel d'Aubignosc, Wikimedia

My daughter is three and my son is nine weeks old and from time to time ­– in the evenings when I can stay awake long enough – I write a diary for them that I hope they’ll read as adults. As well as documenting their first smiles, steps, jokes and nightmares (‘the wicked witch stole my snot rag!’), I’m trying to bring to life some of what’s happening in the world outside their home. And so I’ve been asking myself how to convey the events of the last few weeks to people reading about them in 20 years time.

In the end, 16 million Britons voted to stay in the European Union. Over 17 million voted to leave. It's complicated, but both official campaigns primarily fed off and stoked fear: fear of economic collapse on the one hand, fear of immigration on the other. Across the mass media we heard little from those trying to advance more positive arguments: the idea of European/global citizenship on one side, of what 'more democracy' would mean on the other.

On openDemocracy, as always, we've tried to give space to perspectives sidelined or ignored elsewhere. During the lead up to the vote, we brought European voices into an alarmingly parochial national conversation. We asked if another Europe is possible and what a post-xenophobic politics would look like. In the wake of the result, we've featured the views of readers from the north of England to Kazakhstan, and profiled different reader voices on the future of the UK Labour party. We've asked what happens to EU migrant workers, to Scotland and to the entire continent. And we've challenged the idea that Leave voters didn't know what they were doing – a dangerous and condescending attitude which risks learning nothing from the result. Meanwhile Anthony Barnett’s Herculean ‘Blimey it could be Brexit!’, a magnificent book written ‘live’ one chapter a week during the referendum campaign, is a precious gift to those trying to dig deeper into what it all means both now and in the future.

I first drafted this article on the assumption that Remain would win, narrowly, and I warned against complacency and urged democratic reform of the EU. The fact that I was wrong about the result only reinforces those arguments. France chooses a new president in less than a year and the majority of opinion polls predict the Front National's Marine Le Pen comfortably winning enough votes to be one of the final two candidates. The Brexit result is a gift for her, in a country where anti-EU sentiment is even higher than in the UK. Germans will also vote for a new government within the year, with the right-wing anti-EU Alternative for Deutschland rapidly gaining ground. The warning signals have been growing louder for years, with the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer’s narrow defeat in Austria’s presidential election yet another recent close call. On the right and the left, whether you’re angry about the troika’s treatment of Greece or you want tighter immigration controls, the bloated, unaccountable, elitist EU can be blamed.

Perhaps when the citizens of other European countries see the political and economic turmoil visited upon the UK, and watch the leaders who urged Brexit in short order failing to deliver on their promises, the idea of leaving the EU may start to look less appealing. But while many of the underlying causes of their discontent remain, such an effect is likely to be minimal.

Either way, a quick second vote or some other procedural or legal gymnastics to bypass Britain's referendum result would be a big mistake. Whatever fanciful distortions were put out by the Brexit camp, many advocating Remain were also guilty of massaging reality to suit their arguments, and the fact that over 17 million Britons voted to leave the EU cannot be ignored. These people made their choice despite dire warnings from the supposedly independent Bank of England, leaders of business, the prime minister, the chancellor and a majority of politicians across the spectrum. World leaders, think tanks and global institutions lined up to debunk the claims of the Brexiteers. Britons were assured, relentlessly, that penury, unemployment, collapsing house prices and relegation to global irrelevance beckoned should they choose Leave.

That the not inconsiderable forces of the UK establishment failed to win this argument suggests that the true Brexit majority may be much higher; we can only speculate as to how many people voted Remain but in their hearts wanted to go. In any case, this divided country needs to come together – and blithely ignoring a democratic decision would be just about the worst way to go about that. In time, once the terms of the exit are negotiated, there may be call for a second referendum to approve or reject those terms, but that is still some way off.

So what now for Europe? 'More democracy' is the common refrain on the pro-EU left. “We need to fight for a democratic Europe that is run in the interests of working people,” says the columnist Owen Jones, one of the founding members of Another Europe is Possible. The pan-European DiEM25 movement, launched by Greece’s former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis earlier this year in Berlin, has given itself 10 years to force democracy into the 'democracy-free zone' of the EU: first by campaigning for full transparency in EU decision-making and ultimately convening a constitutional assembly to overhaul European democracy.

'Utopian' is a word used by Varoufakis himself to describe the project. Others would rate its chances even lower. Recently on oD-UK Joe Guinan and Thomas M. Hanna forensically outlined just how difficult any meaningful reform of the EU is going to be, concluding that reforming the European Union from within is 'chasing unicorns'.

The mechanics around EU treaty change, which will certainly be required for the profound changes badly needed, are truly daunting. However Guinan and Hanna, like so many others, make a crucial error when assessing the feasibility of EU reform. They assume only parties of the left are capable of supporting positive democratic change, and conclude it impossible because you’d never have a sufficient number of left-leaning governments in power across Europe at one time to achieve anything.

But you don’t need to belong to one political tribe, right or left, to believe that democracy and accountability are good things – and badly needed. Nor does change come from governments, it comes from governments acting in their own self-interest; i.e. doing what they think enough of their citizens want at a particular time. Those in the 'unicorn' camp have failed to imagine what Europe’s citizens could demand and achieve, if sufficiently inspired.

It's time to reset the conversation and rethink our relationship with this continent we do belong to. A good place to start would be considering what we can contribute, not just what we can take.

What would it take to really inspire people? For a start, we need pluralist, independent media that can play a positive role in creating a pan-European sense of citizenship and shared identity – and that entices people outside of their filter bubbles to engage constructively with those who hold different views. (Surely part of the reason so many pro-Remain Brits are in such shock is that their Facebook, Twitter and Guardian feeds echoed their own opinions back to them. Surely a good part of the reason so many Brits are so worried about immigration is that the media they consume stokes this fear, cherry-picking anecdotes and statistics to whip up outrage).

While Britain may be exiting the EU (at least if and until British voters have a chance to refuse the terms of that exit), all those British people reeling from the shock of the result now have a golden opportunity to show just how 'European' they are. Tellingly, this was an identity no one in the Remain camp dared to own – we never heard politicians proudly calling themselves European even as they urged voters to stay in the EU to protect their jobs – a sign of the narrow cowardice which characterised much of the campaign. Now that the worst has happened in the eyes of millions of Brits, it's time to reset the conversation and rethink our relationship with this continent we do belong to. A good place to start would be considering what we can contribute, not just what we can take.

Before June 23, Europe’s leaders gave lip service to the idea of learning from Britain's referendum: “It is important for the EU to send the message that it has understood the vote and is prepared to learn from it… Even in the event that only a small majority of the British voters reject a withdrawal, we would have to see it as a wakeup call and a warning not to continue with business as usual,” Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble told Der Speigel on 10th June. But the danger now is that he and other European leaders will see the result as another reason to avoid democratic participation wherever possible.

That would be lethal. If the words 'European Union' are going to mean anything to our children when they read this, we urgently have to start asking ourselves more questions – not fewer – and drawing far more people into the conversation.

What would it take to inspire people to demand change in Europe? Tell us in the comments below

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