Monday, 23 May 2016

How the British political elite has done the groundwork for Brexit

In one month from now, on 23rd June, the British electorate (or rather those who are registered as voters and can be bothered to cast a ballot) will decide on the future of the United Kingdom (UK) either inside or outside of the European Union (EU).

While the referendum campaign has heated up considerably over the last few weeks, including the inevitable references to Hitler and bendy bananas, and the media’s eyes are turned towards the divisions of the Conservative Party, there is no clear indication as to what the likely outcome is, at least not if we trust in polls. Despite some variation, the ‘poll of polls’ that captures the average of all surveys has for a long time hovered around an even 50/50 split between ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ – which is further proof that opinion polls can be as insightful as asking Auntie Agatha or Uncle Albert.

With often polemical debates running high, and everyone expressing their opinions, I think it is not too preposterous to add my own views as a long-term resident of the UK and one of those pesky immigrants who have come to this beautiful country.

If Britain chose to leave the EU, it would be fair to say that this is the outcome of the long-term relationship that British political and economic elites have had with the project of European integration. In other words, many of those who now argue for ‘remain’ would be at least indirectly responsible for a success of ‘leave’. Here is why, in four steps:

  1.  The vote to withdraw from the EU has multiple drivers and is inspired by different, sometimes opposing political views, but it seems reasonable to say that it was primarily high levels of net immigration, notably from Eastern European countries after 2004, that have fuelled the anger and frustration of substantive shares of the population towards the EU.
  2. At the same time, over the course of the last years, it has become clear even to the most na├»ve that economic globalisation, free trade and the financialisation of the world economy, linked to weakened welfare states and ever more competition between states, industries, organisations and individuals, produces a great deal of despair, tension and unrest. With centre-left and centre-right governments equally unwilling and incapable of addressing these issues head-on, it is not surprising that the public support to all representatives of what is seen as the establishment runs low – to put it mildly.
  3. Both factors, immigration and the dark underbelly of a globalised world, are well aligned to the long-term preferences of British political elites regarding the EU. Always a strong proponent of an EU that is as large and at the same time as little integrated as possible, the UK was one of the most vocal advocates of admitting Eastern and Central European countries as quickly as possible – and together with Sweden the only EU member state that in 2004 didn’t impose any transitory labour market restrictions on citizens from these states. While the historical responsibility of uniting Europe should not be understated, there is no reason to assume that a slower process, involving an institutionalised partnership between East and West beyond the EU (as it was proposed among others by the French President Mitterrand after the German unification), would have been impossible.
  4. When it comes to the negative impact of ‘globalisation’ (to use this as a shorthand for more complex problems), the hopes of the centre-left to turn the EU into some sort of bulwark against the most damaging forms of economic competition while developing a common framework for addressing humanity’s challenges such as climate change or global insecurity, have been crushed, often by the same parties of the centre-left whose ideology consisted of delivering neoliberal policies with a ‘human face’ – an aim that was so largely missed that social-democratic parties across Europe have become an almost negligible force.

To summarise, the orientation of British politics in the last two decades has laid the groundwork for the UK leaving the EU becoming a serious possibility.

This is not to imply that the UK alone is to be blamed for the woes of Europe, given that other countries have been on the same page. Germany for example shares Britain’s basic views, mainly because it has managed so well to turn Eastern Europe into its own backyard factory, with low paid workers assembling goods for export on which German companies only need to put the sticker ‘Made in Germany’. That Britain has proceeded differently by mainly importing the labour force, is hardly more than a variation on the same theme.

This does also not imply that a better integrated EU would be an intrinsically benign project. The recent treatment of Greece and Malta, the obvious lack of democratic accountability, and the one-sided orientation of its economic policy towards ever more competition, as exemplified by the TTIP negotiations, have shown that the EU is in need of profound reform (if it is not long too late for this, as it increasingly appears) – reforms that may have to be negotiated without input from the UK, within an EU under shock from losing one of its key members.

Enrico Reuter - follow me on Twitter: @ReuterEnrico 

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