How Britain became more European by trying to leave the European Union

By closing our borders and opting for austerity, we have embraced the most dubious aspects of the European Union in our attempt to leave it.

Andreas Rahmatian
8 November 2016

An umbrella bearing the EU flag is carried outside the UK High Court. Picture by Yui Mok PA Wire/PA ImagesThe people’s decision on 23 June 2016 to leave the European Union is unquestionably of fundamental importance to the UK. In the present debate ‘Brexit’ seems to have been accepted as a fait accompli, often reluctantly, because ‘the will of the people has to be honoured’. Perhaps we should not forget what the will of the people actually responded to. Those who too readily submit to the ‘vote of the majority’ should not be allowed to develop excuses and apologetic narratives for a completely different matter. Until now, nobody has objected to the fact that Britain is a particularly staunchly representative democracy, where plebiscites are an extreme rarity. But the present one, which was deliberately set up as an advisory referendum, shall not only decide on the membership of Britain in the EU, but also on the possible disintegration of the country, a move of fundamental constitutional importance. A journalist wrote in the Guardian that he voted for ‘Brexit’, ‘because the European Union is a failed project; because Europe is moving in an increasingly free-market direction; and because I wanted to shake up the status quo.’ It does not sound convincing that shaking up the status quo should mean destroying what is there with no idea what should replace it. If the euro crisis or the refugee crisis are this ‘failed project’, then one must acknowledge that Britain has not been significantly affected by either, as it is not part of the euro and Schengen zones. The free market is clearly not a concern for the leading Conservative ‘Brexit’ representatives.

‘Brexit’ supporters could have had a point if they had ever taken the trouble to contrast the European idea with the current reality. The European idea, in short, is, never ever war again between France and Germany and between Member States generally. To achieve this, a confederation of sovereign and equal states has been formed with an underlying common understanding of the ideals of liberal democracy and human rights. These are given effect by a common policy in relation to persons (‘European citizens’), solidarity, and by a common economy. Thus the common market is a tool of politics and practical political philosophy, not an end in itself. Where economic decisions impinge on the equal status of a country and its people, or jeopardise human rights, also social rights, the economic policy has to change to give effect to the European idea. This policy, if it is to be successful, is not one of effacing distinctiveness and levelling of peoples and cultures to impose some new politically desired identity (this is the method of nationalism); it rather operates with a more complex idea which I call the ‘Herderian paradox’ after the German man of letters Johann Gottfried Herder: the more standardisation is enforced, the more the countries are driven apart. This notion seems to be beyond ‘eurocrats’ and nationalists alike. The right balance is that of a politically complicated unity in diversity which has to be readjusted for each era, so that the EU is a breathing body with elements which are once closer to, once wider from, one another in different times. If anyone dismisses that as too idealistic, then he is just the living proof of how corrupted the state of affairs already is.

The weakening of the European idea and its values started especially with the rescuing of the banks in the financial crisis of 2009-10 which was mostly implemented through the states taking on large public debts funded by taxpayer’s money, and this created sovereign debt was then collectivised in the ESFS and ESM devices. That situation was used to justify economic austerity measures particularly against poorer Southern European countries. When the newly elected government in Greece in early 2015 announced that it wanted to abandon these austerity measures because these make it impossible that the Greek economy could recover, Greece was nevertheless forced to agree to an extended policy of austerity. As a reaction to a referendum in which the Greek people rejected the proposed agreement, Greece was compelled to accept a much harsher deal in long bail-out negotiations with EU representatives on 13 July 2015, a course of action which was widely seen as undemocratic and potentially humiliating to a Member State of the EU. Since Germany had a leading role in these negotiations and the method of conduct, it needed to divert from its then negative image in summer 2015. So Germany invited a large number of refugees from the warzones of the Middle East. Because of its demographic situation Germany wanted obtain the cheap labour force of supposedly skilled young people without having to pay for their education. Now Germany and the EU send refugees and migrants back, assisted by a questionable agreement with Turkey. German and EU officials keep deploring the lack of solidarity among Member States in the refugee crisis. But Germany itself refused to take more than 8,000 refugees as late as in June 2015. As the EU appears wholly grounded on free market competition now it stands for the exact opposite of solidarity against the founding principles and the European idea. The competition among EU Member States, not only Luxembourg, for undercutting tax liabilities for multinational enterprises shows that nicely.

However, none of the important flaws of the EU were relevant to the ‘Brexit’ campaign, even if such reasons are now given for the ‘Brexit’ result. The economic regime of austerity by the Cameron government has never really been the target of wide public criticism or discontent. Britain did not have to suffer some unpleasant effects of austerity as its economically central and strong financial services sector is hardly affected by austerity. The UK has also the advantage of not being locked into the common currency of the euro which required austerity measures against certain EU countries according to German financial policy in particular. In fact, the ‘Brexit’ referendum was largely fought, and largely won, on a mixture of irrational paranoid hatred against the ‘European Union’ or ‘Brussels’, and of xenophobic and racist propaganda, ostensibly directed against continental Europeans, but indirectly also indiscriminately against anyone, even British-born, who was not white ‘native’ English, as the excesses showed immediately after the referendum result. This riotous English nationalism is also opposed to the Scots, Welsh and Irish. One cannot cover up the true reason for the referendum result with persuasive arguments about the EU which were never important to the majority of ‘Brexit’ voters and mostly not even known to them. But it appears that despite, or because of, the nationalistic rhetoric the cohesion of the United Kingdom as a country also depends significantly on being a member of the EU: on the continent, Belgium is a more extreme example of this situation.

For the ‘Brexit’ campaigners the message consisted mostly of populist verbal aggression against real or supposed foreigners. People who decided in favour of ‘Brexit’ cannot say that they were not aware of that primitive message in the referendum debate and did not acquiesce in them with their vote. The recent Conservative Party conference reinforces this impression of xenophobia. The home secretary’s proposal to require companies to publish the number of international staff they employ may only be the beginning.

The ‘Brexit’ idea is also a harkening back to a mystical yesteryear sometime in the 1950s, when the rigid class system was still intact, when Britain was ‘Great’ and could exploit its colonies in the British Empire to make up for the shortfall of its ailing economy in the motherland, when there were almost no non-white races in England, and when landlords could shamelessly advertise their rooms with ‘no dogs/no blacks/no Jews/no Irish’. A sophisticated debate was almost deliberately avoided, not only by the ‘Brexit’ campaigners, but also by the Tories against ‘Brexit’ and by the followers of Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour party. Not surprisingly, many voters felt ill-informed and misled by the style of the campaign.

Xenophobia and racism, utilised in the ‘Brexit’ campaign by members of the upper classes, and believed and felt by the lower classes, united the classes for a moment of romantic English nationalism. Now the classes are strictly separated again, as always. Hatred does not create solidarity or compassion. Nationalism and xenophobia will remain, but will exercise their usual corrosive and destructive effects on society, perhaps for decades. After all, representatives of the rich and well-heeled managed to present themselves successfully as the advocates of the poor and deprived people, and extracted ugly reactions from many of them which may make these lower classes unattractive for the wealthy political right, as was always the case anyway, and now also for the socially concerned political left, because nobody would want to be associated with the intense xenophobia that was displayed particularly in the lower classes. Poverty, austerity and political and social deprivation may explain populist right-wing and fascist developments, but they do not justify them. The old principle of divide et impera was applied again, here poorer English people against poorer foreigners. Divisions may initiate some social unrest, but will not bring about social changes.

Until recently one could get the impression that England (Scotland less so) had a very benign idea of nationalism: since the English thought that they were the greatest nation in the world anyway, they found it unnecessary, even vulgar, to emphasise English nationhood in any way. The ‘Brexit’ campaign has once and for all killed this impression. England has entirely emulated various most unpleasant nationalistic movements on the European continent, perhaps even surpassed some of them, and has unreservedly taken on the ugly spirit of nationalistic Europe. The toxic, intolerant, xenophobic, inward-looking anti-‘European’ message will be understood very well in many countries in Europe, only that these nationalists stand on the other side as opponents: ‘nationalists of all countries unite’ won’t work. Some associations are really suicide pacts.

Britain mirrors here eerily the European continent, and if it seeks splendid isolation, then with the curious means of poisonous ideological imports from Europe, very much at variance to British tradition. The situation in Europe is often even worse: a strong rise of a populist far right, often even an extreme right with fascist elements, such as the Front National in France (with a more classical fascist ‘national-socialist’ economic policy), or the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany (with a decidedly neo-liberal economic agenda), and equivalent movements in the Netherlands, Denmark, Austria, Hungary, and Poland – in the latter two countries far right conservatives are even in power. They are all united in the separation: strict border controls, the indiscriminate denunciation of refugees, the demonization of other people and peoples, even from their neighbouring countries, increasingly like in 1914. When the current far-right Austrian presidential candidate advocates dual citizenship of South Tyroleans within Italy and a referendum to let them come closer (back?) to Austria, and was congratulated to his almost-victory in the first round by far-right Hungarian nationalists (among other far-right parties) who also consider that the very eastern region of Austria (from which he hails) could be part of Hungary, then one gets a good illustration of this widespread mindset.

In another aspect Britain became very European as well: this has been the complete lack of statecraft in the preparation and management of the ‘Brexit’ referendum and its unexpected result. Three months after Brexit the unelected, accidental Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May and her Government are still trying to find out what the effects of some of her male party colleagues frolicking about with UKIP’s political positions actually may be. There was once the idea on the European Continent that Britain is the oldest functioning democracy in Europe, with a notion of steadiness and reason and stability. That idea can now also be buried safely. Politically Britain fits into the EU better now than ever before. However, while other EU Member States have decades of experience with incompetent governments and inefficient politics to an extent that they have made this a work of art, Britain would have to learn this way of life, and it may ruin the prospects of at least a generation until Britain can turn inefficiency into a pleasantly irreverent attitude in which a government cannot do much harm because governments do not matter much anyway.

We still have no good idea about the future. That the UK should secure access to the single market and at the same time restrict considerably freedom of movement of persons is obviously a contradiction in terms. The EU has also made that very clear. There may be protracted negotiations with the EU for a decade, or there may not be very much negotiation at all: if a fundamental contradictory position is not resolved, detailed negotiation, not specifically required by Art. 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, becomes meaningless. EU Member States also may be held to account by their electorates why large administrative resources should be poured into ‘Brexit’ negotiations if this is of no benefit to the European peoples. The British government seems to lean towards an oversimplifying ‘hard separation’ solution now because it realises that it will be overwhelmed by the administration and logistics of the ‘Brexit’ negotiations and may also face the problem of a separation of Scotland from the UK and an accession of Northern Ireland to Ireland: both scenarios have become possible in the present circumstances.

That Britain has withdrawn from the European peoples will affect generations to come. Only in the negative divisive forces Britain and Europe appear astonishingly united.


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