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Brexit: a view from the other end of the telescope

Brexit is the incomprehension of a former imperial power, wistfully hoping to recreate a long-gone global sphere of influence. 

Image: diamond geezer, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

When the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, described the UK government’s proposal this week for an interim customs agreement as a ‘fantasy’, as Euronews reported, it highlighted how the view of Europe from the home counties is very much at odds with the view of the UK from the European mainland.

Yet amid the welter of coverage of Brexit in the British media, the view from the other end of the telescope is very rarely adopted. Take a simple example. Throughout the referendum campaign in 2016, no commentator—or even partisan from the Remain side—asked the obvious question: why has the European Union grown from the six that the UK joined in 1973 to the 28 of today and yet only the UK has even considered leaving the club, never mind voted so to do? What is it, in other words, not about ‘Brussels’ but about Britain, which makes it so alien?

The UK has always been a reluctant EU partner. An academic book published seven years ago with the title A Community of Europeans? described how hitherto narrowly national identities and public spheres across the EU had become ‘Europeanised’ as a result of decades of integration. But throughout the author, Thomas Risse, noted how the UK remained an outlier. The Brexit vote, we now know, was the consequence, but claims of a domino effect leading to a ‘Nexit’ or a ‘Frexit’ proved ridiculous.

On the contrary, before-and-after survey research commissioned by the Bertelsmann Foundation in six large EU member states found a significant uptick in support for the EU after the Brexit vote in all of them (France, Germany, Italy, Poland and the UK) bar Spain. Respondents were asked how they would vote in a referendum on retaining EU membership and in the UK positive responses rose from 49 per cent in March 2016 to 56 per cent in August. Fast forward and three out of four tracking polls by Survation—the company which called the Westminster election most accurately—in June and July this year have found Remain would win a rerun referendum. Hence the shrillness of the Brexiters that ‘the will of the people’—most of them, then—must be respected.

Yet also entirely absent from the saturation reporting of Brexit—and from the Remain camp—have been the three European precedents for the overturning of a referendum which initially brought a narrow Eurosceptic victory by a second ballot. In 1992 in Denmark, the Maastricht treaty was rejected by 50.7 per cent of voters but 56.7 per cent approved it the following year. Denmark and Ireland, both countries with quite a nationalistic political culture, joined the EU at the same time as the UK and voters in the Republic rejected two treaties at the first time of asking: the Nice treaty of 2001 and the Lisbon treaty of 2007. Constitutionally, Ireland requires referenda on EU treaties, because they comprise constitutional amendments; again, in both cases the initial vote was decisively overturned in the rerun referendum. Democracy is not a once-and-for all event—the ‘will of the people’, always pluralistic, changes.

Democracy is not a once-and-for all event—the ‘will of the people’, always pluralistic, changes.

Because of the myopic lens applied to European affairs, therefore, the UK is on track—despite contrary votes in Scotland and Northern Ireland and despite the shifting mood in England—to commit what the leading Irish official dealing with Brexit described in April as an ‘act of great self-harm’. A Financial Times investigation found in May that the UK would have to rewrite at least a bewildering 759 international agreements as alternatives to those to which it was party as an EU member. And an expert on trade has explained how developing a bespoke customs union with the EU bilaterally would be fiendishly complicated.

With firms and staff already voting with their feet in the City and the car industry in an agitated state—on top of Brexit-induced inflation hitting already pressed living standards generally—talk of sunny economic uplands for ‘global Britain’ has understandably quietened. So why is Brexit still going ahead?

The problem is that there are four longstanding features of British political culture which are taken for granted domestically and yet together have made the UK a ‘foreign body’ in the EU:

  1. A ‘classical’ English approach to political economy, rooted in the thinking of Adam Smith (not John Maynard Keynes) and embodied in the dominant ‘Treasury view’;
  2. A ‘liberal’ approach to the welfare state, characterised by means-testing of benefits and a commitment to low taxation;
  3. A patrician approach to governance, marked by dominance of the executive (‘the Crown in Parliament’) and lack of judicial constraint on ‘parliamentary sovereignty’; and
  4. A ‘realist’ approach to international relations — ‘no friends, only interests’ — associated with a transfer of allegiances from the countries of the former empire to the ‘special relationship’ with the US.

These four aspects were never going to sit easily with widely-held post-war assumptions on the European mainland—and indeed long delayed UK membership. While not all would share the traditional étatisme of the French governing class, nevertheless even on the Christian-democratic centre-right there was a recognition that markets had to be socially embedded to avoid the searing experience of deflation and mass unemployment which had been associated with the rise of Nazism and the onset of war. And while not all would endorse the Nordic welfare states, with their universal benefits funded by progressive taxation, the alternative was the insurance-based Bismarckian system, introduced to dampen worker alienation, rather than an Anglo-American minimalism based on faith in ‘flexible’ labour markets.

While there was respect for the long tradition of democracy in Britain, with its ‘mother of parliaments’, the absence of a written constitution for the UK was incomprehensible to most elsewhere, as was the British belief in the merits of a winner-takes-all electoral system, in sharp contrast with European-style coalition-building. And while British trumpeting of values of tolerance and freedom would also not have been discounted, the subservience (and associated delusion) of the UK’s Atlanticism was a mystery to many.

And so the conflicts inevitably followed over the decades succeeding UK accession, the periodic eruptions beginning when that nationalist evangel for market fundamentalism, Margaret Thatcher, entered Downing Street in 1979. And they were to be over predictable issues:

  • - ‘our’ money, as Thatcher banged the table for a rebate on its contribution to the resources necessary for the European Community to function;
  • - the mild ‘social chapter’ of the Maastricht treaty and the working-time directive, from which the UK opted out for ideological reasons;
  • - the constraints on UK ‘sovereignty’ represented by the European Court of Justice and the (separate) Court of Human Rights; and
  • - the establishment of the euro, deemed to undermine the City and sterling as a ‘global currency’.

These inchoate conflicts were inflamed by (themselves unregulated) conservative newspapers, which seemed unable to address European integration except in the aerated language of ‘Brussels’ impositions — ‘straight bananas’ among them — presented as defying British ‘common sense’.

These inchoate conflicts were inflamed by (themselves unregulated) conservative newspapers, which seemed unable to address European integration except in the aerated language of ‘Brussels’ impositions.

Underpinning all this has been the dominant narrative in Britain of World War II. This is not of a Europe rescued (including with the sacrifice of 20 million Soviet citizens) from the fascist Sword of Damocles but is a story of how ‘Britain stood alone’ against its main national enemy: historically this was France but since World War I had been Germany. Fascism, and the political alternatives to it, only entered this story in the superficial demonising features of helmets, swastikas and the pidgin German (‘Achtung’, ‘Jawohl’) found in countless children’s comic books.

Elsewhere in Europe, the political lesson bitterly learned through the Holocaust was of the need to subordinate particularistic identity claims and their aggressive prosecution against the ‘other’ to a regime guaranteeing universal norms of democracy, human rights and the rule of law — the fundamental shift which turned western Europe from the most violent region on the planet in the first half of the 20th century into a haven of peace in the second. What Britain ‘learned’ however was merely a reinforcement of its supposed national mission in the world, embodied in beliefs in its inherent stoicism at home and acceptance of the White Man’s Burden abroad.

Brexit is thus not just a misunderstanding between the British ruling class and the rest of Europe. It is the incomprehension of a former imperial power, wistfully hoping to substitute a long-gone global sphere of influence, for what remains—despite all its manifest shortfalls—a modern, cosmopolitan political project.

About the author

Robin Wilson has been lead editor of the openSecurity section of openDemocracy. He advises the Council of Europe on the intercultural paradigm for the management of cultural diversity, on which it has been the global standard-setter in the last decade. He is heavily involved in debates across Europe on the future of progressive politics, through Compass in the UK, TASC in Ireland and the Foundation for European Progressive Studies and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung on a wider canvas.


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