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Brexit hereafter

Posted 25 11 18

by Ioannis Papageorgiou


It has been a sad day today.

I have always felt respect and admiration for Britain, its parliamentarianism and its political system; from its antiquated but vibrant political life to the high tea ritual, Britain was imperial, steadfast, soothing and exemplary in many respects. Even in recent times when Britain was no longer a political giant nor an intellectual leader, the country resembled a dear, though a bit eccentric old aunt, whose particularities annoyed but whose house and way of life was full of interesting and imposing memories – and jewels.


I have never had any consideration, though, for UK’s membership of the European Union. I can still remember the many unswerving, persistent, mischievous even perfidious, ways it has been, since the 1970s, delaying legislative initiatives, stemming efforts of further integration, blocking the appointment of able personalities to the EU institutions, suppressing attempts to build a closer union. I cannot forget that, for decades, the country’s establishment, all political parties and classes together, but also the media, popular and otherwise, vilified, ridiculed and scorned the European institutions and the European process. Nowhere else in Europe did the anti-European and anti-Brussels feeling gain such preeminence in public discourse and so much support in the media and among the society.


Nevertheless, and in the face of such widespread and chronic disparagement, Europe was doing all it could to accommodate British demands, no matter how counter-productive to European integration and to European interests. Maintaining its own currency, border controls, special opt-in and opt-out provisions even in matters as important as fundamental rights were all granted to the UK in order to keep the government of the time happy and the population satisfied that its particularities were taken into account. In February 2016, the EU even made to Prime Minister Cameron outrageous – and probably unlawful - concessions in so essential EU principles as equality and non-discrimination in a last-ditch effort to avoid a crisis with the UK. To no avail, as it appeared. The British electorate asked whether they wanted to remain in the EU by the same people who, for decades, abused European integration and lied about the competences and role of European institutions, (but now told them that it is good for them to remain in the EU) chose to leave.


It is true that voters in a referendum often reply to their own particular question rather than the one on the ballot paper – this is an inherent risk in public consultation. It is also true that man people voted ‘Leave’ because they wanted to reject governmental neglect, because they were deceived by shameless politicians, or because they wanted to denounce domestic inequalities, to express their misgivings against further migration or to voice a general malaise about the way the country was taking. But, together with all these reasons, rejection of the European project was the main reason for the vote to ‘Leave’. How could be otherwise? When, for thirty years. British people are being told that staying in Europe is bad, why should we be surprised if they eventually believe it and, when the opportunity arises and are given the choice to stay, decide to leave?


Britain’s withdrawal is a sad moment for Europe but it is not a failure of Europe – anti-European feelings in the increase elsewhere have totally different grounds: the UK is not feeling the pressure of austerity measures under the single currency rules, as Greece or Italy; it has not been affected by the 2015 refugee crisis as Germany; there is no crisis of democratic legitimacy of EU decisions. The reasons for Britain’s withdrawal are predominantly domestic – and its leadership (government, parties, opinion-makers or the establishment) who were massively in favor of remaining, bear, in large part, the responsibility for this departure. The EU and its institutions have committed many errors which have led to the current Euroscepticism among the peoples of Europe – and should deal with them if one wants the European project to go ahead. Mishandling Britain has not been one of them.


A crisis is an opportunity it is often said. UK outside the EU will not become Venezuela; London will not turn into a latter-day Timbuktu. Norway and Switzerland are thriving outside the EU in a “semi-membership” and geography is still there to suggest to both sides that close economic, political, defense and judicial cooperation is required – even imposed.


UK’s departure can also have a pedagogical effect. It will allow Britain to reflect on how it sees its role in the world and its relationship to other countries, in particular to Europe. A second referendum, now, whether confirming or informing the vote to leave will not solve this fundamental question. A realignment in British politics may also come as an outcome of this sad business.  


Such realignment is already taking place: if one claimed, some years ago, that London would witness mass demonstrations in favor of remaining in the EU, medical attention would probably be suggested. Yet, leaving the EU has energized young people and city dwellers (who probably were too nonchalant to go out and vote in the referendum) who realise that what they took for granted – free movement, Erasmus, easy access to jobs and activities outside their country – are not everlasting and can quickly be lost. They also realise that the EU was never the mad regulator of the size of bananas or the bureaucratic dictatorship which they loved to hate but a common, though faltering, project, the most important for Europe in the last decades and the only one which can provide our aging continent with the possibility to maintain its culture and model in an increasingly assertive world environment.  And who knows, after four of five years, when – rather than if- the UK applies to re-join the EU (under different conditions that she currently enjoys, I would hope and imagine), these people will have a clearer idea of what they want to join, why and on which conditions. After all, there have been other cases of unhappy marriages leading to difficult divorces which allowed for the couple to reunite when they both realized what they were really their intentions.