Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate at the gates of Downing Street in central London after the UK voted to leave the European Union. Credit: Isabel Infantes/PA Wire/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.I recall vividly the moment of encountering a beautiful idea in the library of University College Cork over twenty years ago. I happened across Neil MacCormick’s Beyond the Sovereign State – an articulation of the ideas he would later flesh out in the book Questioning Sovereignty. He showed, based on the European Union, that indivisible sovereignty was a myth, that the sovereign state was a passing phenomenon, and that new ways of living together were possible. These forms of governance give people more say over their lives, with people working together across boundaries – local issues dealt with locally, national ones nationally, and transnational ones in regional institutions. MacCormick lived his ideas too, as an effective Scottish nationalist Member of the European Parliament.
Ten years teaching EU law in England have been revealing. That small nations have greater say in the EU rather than out has been fairly evident in Ireland, and across Europe. One of the founders of European integration, Paul-Henri Spaak, is said to have described Europe as made up of small states, and some that realise they are small. Smaller states understand that they give up some formal autonomy, and gain greater influence. That understanding has never resonated in England. Nor have the costs of borders and boundaries, which are stark in living memory on the island of Ireland, and the European continental mainland.
Small nations have greater say in the EU rather than out.
Also missing is any understanding that the EU offers a new political space and opportunities for new coalitions. As a young academic and barrister, Mary Robinson (later President of Ireland) intervened to make sure that when the Ireland joined the then EEC, there would be no Irish exception to the equal pay guarantee. Feminist activists used that commitment to catalyse an EU gender equality policy, in a process that showed the potential of the EU political space to create coalitions across Europe to foster equality. Many can see that the core of what EU membership offers – EU citizenship, the internal market, shared norms on equality, worker and environmental protection, and a bigger collective voice on the international level – do not undermine democracy, but foster it at multiple levels.
The EU is flawed, of course, and its enlargement has changed its politics and workings. It is a good thing that the EU project is repeatedly questioned and contested – indeed Ireland’s repeat referenda on treaty change mean that public debate and understanding of the EU is enhanced. The popular rejection of the EU Constitutional Treaty was an important reminder that the EU project depends on repeated acceptance by the peoples of Europe. The Euro crisis has shown a very different side to the EU, imposing stringent austerity. EU governments’ failure to agree a strong collective response to the refugee crisis has also cast into doubt its capacity to act. However, on the Euro and asylum, the UK already enjoys a special position. It has repeatedly been accommodated in its demands for different treatment at various treaty negotiations.
In the Brexit debate in contrast, ‘Take back control’ was a jingoistic refrain, based on the false premise that ‘Brussels’ makes laws over which the UK has no say. The campaign was characterised by lies "on an industrial scale" (as Professor Michael Dougan put it). The editors of the main EU law journal made a statement decrying the "normalising of systematic dishonesty as a tool of political campaigning". Brexiteers repeated lies on EU funding, member state vetoes over new members joining the EU, and the basics of the workings of the EU. The fact that the European Commission merely proposes legislation, which is then subject to acceptance by the national governments in the Council (by majority vote if agreement cannot be reached by consensus), and the European Parliament, was irrelevant. In spite of the UK’s overwhelming success in influencing the content of EU laws, none of the interventions explaining the workings of the EU seemed to hit home in the UK. That information came too late, after decades of 'blaming Brussels' for EU laws by politicians and media of all stripes.
The political irresponsibility of the Brexiteers is staggering.
Taking control over the immigration of EU citizens to the UK became the defining issue of the debate. The UK government has for some time made control over the numbers of (non-EU) immigrants a political goal. It set up a political aim it could not deliver, and in a UK experiencing swingeing cuts in welfare and public services, blaming immigration for all ills is now deeply engrained. The Labour Party offered no alternative, and no one really managed to refocus on the real problem – a deregulated labour market that allows employers to pay whatever they like and import workers without any standard on labour rights. The UK is responsible for regulating its own labour market and social services, but again all parties have enabled the scapegoating of EU citizens living and working in the UK. Today, that group is feeling deeply uncomfortable, if not unwelcome.
The political irresponsibility of the Brexiteers is staggering. They offered an alternative that is a mirage – full access to the EU market without free movement of persons. That will be impossible to deliver. Why would the EU Member States accept this sort of relationship in a new association with the UK? What sort of precedent would that set for other wavering members? During the debate, even the Norwegian Prime Minister intervened to explain that full access to the EU market means accepting free movement of persons and much EU legislation (over which Norway has no say whatsoever). Reciprocity never came into the debate either – that if the UK wanted to reject EU immigration, this would impact on the rights of UK nationals to live in the EU. Remarkably, the rights of Brits living elsewhere in the EU never got a proper airing.
What now for the UK? The day after the referendum feels sad and frightening. The 'little Englanders' may have destroyed the Union. It was clear that Scotland would vote to remain, and then seek another independence referendum. Northern Ireland too has voted (albeit perhaps not as strongly as was anticipated) to remain. Perhaps we should have thought more seriously about Nicola Sturgeon’s suggestion that the referendum contain a lock to protect the voice of the constituent parts of the UK (requiring majority votes in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland). That would have been constitutionally ground-breaking in the UK, and against a headcount majority version of democracy, but it could have preserved the UK as a quasi-federal entity. The complete failure of any other-regarding positions to resonate in the English debate was troubling. Belfast, Dublin and Edinburgh seemed like far away, foreign places.
Divisions across nations, class and
generations have been deepened. It seems two-thirds of younger voters were for Remain. It is hard not to rail at Cameron’s awful hubris,
Johnson and Farage’s corrosive lies and the barely veiled racism and xenophobia
the debate unleashed. Most of all, the debate entailed the duping of
vast swathes of people who really do feel they will gain a voice and
prosperity in a disintegrating United Kingdom that is no longer a member of the EU. It seems many supported Brexit as they feel angry at and betrayed by the establishment. What is to come seems more likely to exacerbate rather than alleviate the
predicament of the dispossessed and disadvantaged.
For the rest of the EU, this will clearly be read as a vote for the populist right, and is a constitutional game-changer. I shudder to consider the contagion effect across Europe, particularly for French National Front leader Marine Le Pen and her like. For those of us who share MacCormick’s vision, and that articulated by the late MP Jo Cox, the road ahead looks much more challenging. But their vision is the only honest hopeful one.