“There is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come” – Victor Hugo
Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) has sparked an institutional crisis that could bring an end to the post-war European dream. Its potential to set off a chain reaction of referendums, cessations and reunifications has spread panic and excitement across Europe.
For the European Left, this is the opening it had been waiting for — the centre is collapsing under the weight of capitalism’s contradictions, and it is time to storm the breach. For the Far-Right, this referendum heralds the return of the nation-state, and with it, a sense of protectionism and sovereignty foundationed upon a self-serving definition of ‘Britishness’.
The vote has emerged from an unpleasant discursive space, the precincts of which have been largely defined by the xenophobic and racist campaigns led by the former Mayor of London Boris Johnson, and the leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Nigel Farage. Europe’s far-right parties have rejoiced at Britain’s decision to leave the EU, hailing it as a victory for their own anti-immigration and anti-EU stances and vowing to push for similar referendums in countries such as France, the Netherlands, and Denmark.
The spike in racist attacks against the Polish and Muslim communities across the UK lends credence to the fact that this referendum has emboldened the far-right. In the absence of organised progressive movements that could channel this popular angst away from the clutches of hate-mongers, there is little hope that Britain would spearhead a new model of internationalism, forcing many EU critics to wonder if a Brexit was the right thing at the wrong time.
Britain, a country so deeply divided by its own ruling, cannot boast a ‘popular will’. With Scotland eager to remain in the EU, a vote on Scottish independence is almost inevitable now. Moreover, demands for greater powers made by the city of London, a possible referendum on Irish reunification, and a seismic generational gap in the ways the young and old envision the future, highlights the glaring fault lines in British society. In such an environment, the will of the ‘British’ people can neither be reduced to a simple yes or no vote, nor defined against the agenda of the unsavory populists who claim to represent them.
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Perhaps it would be fair to say that the British people have not ‘spoken’ as much as they have yelled their discontent, breaking the echo-chamber of ‘extreme-centre’ politics — in which mainstream parties differ only in aesthetics and presentation, perpetuating the chronic dearth of political choices available to the electorate.
Around two thirds of council and housing association tenants voted to leave, so did a majority of unemployed, and underemployed people, according to a Lord Ashcroft Poll. Though, members of working class communities in poorer regions of the country had a low turnout, 62 per cent of them voted leave. Moreover, nearly half (49 per cent) of leave voters said the biggest single reason for wanting to leave the EU was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. One third (33 per cent) said the main reason was that leaving “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.” Just over one in eight (13 per cent) said remaining would mean having no choice “about how the EU expanded its membership or its powers in the years ahead.”
Only just over one in twenty (6 per cent) said their main reason was that “when it comes to trade and the economy, the UK would benefit more from being outside the EU than from being part of it.”
This is a mixed bag of motivations and grievances, and it would be foolish to think that they don’t overlap — both geographically and politically. Nor can we say that there is a single consensus amongst leave voters in terms of the role they envision for Britain outside of the EU. Had these questions been more refined, it would have been interesting to find out how many Britons wanted more progressive regulations, and how many wanted further deregulation in the form of the notorious Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a series of trade negotiations carried out mostly in secret between the EU and US, but blocked by France.
Austerity in Britain is almost entirely a home-grown issue, and one wonders if the EU — for all the horrible things it has imposed upon weaker nations — deserves blame in this particular case. However, there is an anti-establishment angst that the electorate has tried to express across the political spectrum.
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While there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about anti-establishment politics (look back at the 1930s, and it becomes clear that it can lead to disastrous decisions), it is still incumbent upon the EU to disentangle and respond to the jumble of grievances and motivations behind this vote, or risk its own extinction.
But will the EU cower to such pressing issues? Anybody who has encountered the institutional hubris of the European project knows that this institution is not willing to reform. It is structured to keep economic policy out of reach of politics. This became obvious during the Greek debt crisis in 2015, when German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, supposedly told the former Greek finance Minister, Yanis Varoufakis, that elections could not be allowed to change anything.
This notion is ingrained in its DNA: EU laws and regulations are drafted by unelected technocrats and then put to debate in the European parliament where elected representatives cast their votes. This structural schism between technocrats and elected leaders is a deliberate one, a shock absorber designed to protect economic policy from the whims of democratic practices.
What is to be done in a situation like this? Brexit has empowered the far-right, the EU is an arrogant, suicidal, anti-democratic institution beyond reform, and the world needs to deal with issues that require global cooperation, for example, climate change. A regression towards the nation-state model will make it harder to implement laws necessary to curb bad environmental practices.
The first step is to accept that the EU is fundamentally flawed. It carries a symbolic value that functions as social glue for the privileged, and an echo-chamber of discontent for those it does not favour.
While many ‘remain’ voters had valid concerns about the pragmatism of an unplanned departure, the terms of which were set by right wing forces, it is important to realise that those divisions no longer exist. Young voters, particularly those in diverse and prosperous urban areas, were eager to remain, and understandably so — the EU provided them with a chance to study, travel, work and fall in love in 27 countries. These young voters are desperate to win back their freedoms. Those who want to replace the EU with a more democratic institution will have to reach out across the divide and accommodate the concerns of people for whom the EU represents a sense of international community.
This ‘Generation Erasmus’ gave an overwhelming mandate to Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, who is currently facing a leadership challenge. Corbyn – a reluctant remainer – is perhaps the only plausible candidate who has consistently opposed the economic policies, pursued by both Conservative and Labour governments, that decimated communities in the industrial heartlands of England and Wales. It is time for his supporters to come together in building a new hope for a different, more egalitarian form of internationalism, without which our world can not overcome the challenges ahead.