Boris is taking back control in a Ginetta G60 - a British sports car with an American V6 and no "nannying electronics". (Photo: Vote Leave/Facebook)
Brexit and the rise of anti-politics in the EU
In one month Britain decides on whether it wants to stay in the European Union. The public debate on the topic was never exactly rational - now even the Treasury Select Committee and the Treasury Authority are stepping in to criticise the increasingly hysterical campaigns. While most heavy weights with economic authority agree that leaving the EU will not have any significant benefits to outweigh the potentially major recession leaving the EU will cause (at least in the short term), the Vote Leave campaign is focussing further on migration.
by the Know Nothing Enquirer 28/05/2016
The Remain campaign isn't any better. On a daily basis government members proclaim new horrific numbers of the economic costs of Brexit. Most of the figures are based on worst-case scenarios and on highly speculative economic predictions. The main problem is that neither side actually knows what the economic impact will be, as Britain would be the first country to leave the EU (technically the third, taking the predecessor organisations into account - Algeria left 1962 upon independence and Greenland in 1985 after a referendum). The Treasury Select Committee recently criticised that both campaigns use "misleading" figures and make "implausible assumptions". The Statistics Authority heavily criticised the Vote Leave's claim of EU costing Britain £350 million a week, highlighting that the figure does not take into account Britain's rebate.
Even though the vote campaign seemingly drifts from one low point to another, voters do not really seem to mind. In a recent BBC interview the defence minister Penny Mordaunt claimed that "Britain doesn't [have a veto]. I do not think that the EU is going to keep Turkey out. I think it is going to join". Of course this is not true and Turkey joining the EU in the next 20 years is not going to happen. Every EU member country has a veto over the accession of a new member. Taking into consideration that the right-wing governments of Poland and Hungary would not exactly be too happy for Turkey to join the EU, the chances of this happening in the near future is extremely unlikely.
And they will all come to Britain. (Photo: Vote Leave/Facebook)
Besides, even in countries with pro-EU governments, arguing for Turkey to join the union is one of the least popular stances amongst the electorate. But 76 million Turks joining the EU definitely sounds more threatening than 4.4 million Croatians being able to freely seek employment in the UK by 2020 (EU member states can restrict free movement of workers for a transitional period of up to 7 years).
Boris Johnson recently even compared the EU to Napoleon's and Hitler's ambitions to create a European superstate. He went on to explain: “But fundamentally what is lacking is the eternal problem, which is that there is no underlying loyalty to the idea of Europe." Rather, it seems, many Brexit campaigners miss the "good old times" when Britain was still great. But of course they forget that the days of Empire and Britannia ruling the waves are long over. Britain will not find new glory at the international stage if it leaves the EU. Or as Obama said during a recent visit to London: "The UK is at its best when it's helping to lead a strong European Union. It leverages UK power to be part of the EU. I don't think the EU moderates British influence in the world, it magnifies it." Britain would be at "the back of the queue" for American trade deals if it left the EU, he continued. The British-American "special relationship" had been one of the main arguments of the Vote Leave campaign ("We are not Europeans").
The hardcore Brexiters do not seem to care much about the warnings from world leaders and economic pundits. The EU referendum is their chance to achieve what they have been fighting for so long. Boris Johnson has even linked his entire political career to the referendum (and so has David Cameron). And the Leave Vote campaign knows that a significant proportion of British citizens back their cause - Britain is the most eurosceptic country in "old Europe".
Even to eurosceptics in other European countries this is quite surprising. Britain has negotiated extremely beneficial positions in many EU treaties - Margaret Thatcher had managed to negotiate an extremely beneficial rebate in the membership fees and the country has many "opt-outs" in major treaties. Britain is not part of Schengen, the Eurozone and has two other "opt-outs". The overwhelming majority of the more established eurosceptic parties in other (Western) European countries view Britain's status as a desirable outcome and see some sort of European cooperation through central institutions as a necessary evil to avoid history from repeating itself. The Conservative Party is an exception due to its public split on the issue (and not being an anti-politics party). Some of the more radical Brexiters in the party and UKIP see the EU as the greatest evil that has to be disposed off.
Britain currently enjoys very beneficial membership conditions and yet hopes to be even better off without having to pay any membership fees and without all the "nannying" regulations. Many Vote Leave campaigners see Switzerland and Norway, who are not EU member but have full access to the free market, as role models. However, even though the two countries have a beneficial status (as the EU thought they would eventually join), Vote Leave completely ignores that they are both part of Schengen, have to apply 93 out the 100 costliest EU regulations and are net-contributors to the EU budget. Who would have guessed that being part of the biggest free trade area does not come with a price? Norway currently pays €107 per capita as opposed to Britain's €139. In case of a Brexit actually happening the EU will very likely punish Britain by not giving it such favourable terms (after all Norway achieved its discount from a very different standpoint). Otherwise leaving the EU might seem like a good idea to other eurosceptic countries (especially in the East), which could likely cause further erosions to the European project. And even worse, even though Norway pays "membership" fees and has to implement EU legislation, it has no vetoes in the European Council, no MEPs, no European Commissioners and no votes in the Council of Ministers. In effect, Norway, as a European Economic Area (EEA) member, has no say or veto in the making of new laws and frameworks (it is consulted) yet it has to implement new legislation (it can refuse the implementation but that has consequences on access to the free market). One of the main arguments of Vote Leave is that EU regulations are suffocating the UK economy and that Brexit would be beneficial to British businesses. Therefore, becoming an EEA would not be a possibility. The Swiss model would also not be welcome by Vote Leave, as they had to adopt numerous EU laws and are part of Schengen in order to participate in the European free market. Furthermore, it took Switzerland 10 years of negotiations before they joined the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) in 2002 (in a 1992 referendum the Swiss rejected EEA membership).
Not to mention the future of Great Britain, which might not be as great in the event of Brexit. Former first minster of Scotland Alex Hammond said Scottish independence would happen if the country were to be "dragged out of the European Union". According to recent data from YouGov, Scotland is mostly europhile. So in case Brexit were to happen, but Scotland voted to remain in the European Union, a further referendum on the country's future within the United Kingdom would have to follow. Hadrian's Wall could soon become an external EU border.
There is a lot of legitimate criticism on the EU, such as the lack of democratic legitimacy, the numerous curious laws, the lack of transparency in the ongoing TTIP negotiations or the handling of the Eurozone crisis. However, Britain should not forget that it has often been the cause of many of the criticisms. Or to quote Margaret Thatcher:
"Yes, the [European] Commission does want to increase its powers. Yes, it is a non-elected body and I do not want the Commission to increase its powers at the expense of the House [of Commons], so of course we are differing. Of course…
The President of the Commission, Mr. Delors, said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the Executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate. No. No. No."
Brexiters seem to be driven by some intense eurosceptic ideology that makes them believe that reforming the EU is impossible and the only solution is leaving. Of course they are not alone. Marine Le Pen, leader of the French far-right party Front National, declared in an interview last year that she "will be Madame Frexit if the European Union doesn’t give us back our monetary, legislative, territorial and budget sovereignty". However, she highlighted that she would want to negotiate reforms with the EU and other member states before a "Frexit". The possible presidential candidate of the centre-right party Les Répulicains (LR) said that it is likely an EU referendum would be held if he were to be elected. In an interview with DLF the LR MP Jacques Myard criticised what he sees as the "Europe of utopias". He argues that Europe should return to a "Europe of cooperation" and devolve more power back to national parliaments. According to Myard, creating a utopian vision of what Europe should look like has resulted in many of the problems the EU faces today.
Indeed Myard's arguments are repeatedly voiced throughout the EU. But what they forget is that if the utopian idea of ever closer union and an eventual European federal state had become reality, the crises the EU is undergoing at the moment would be able to be combatted in a completely different manner. In reality there exist two options - either a European superstate or returning to the European Economic Community (EEC). The former is extremely unpopular in most member states (not only in Britain as Brexiters suggest) and the latter would give up the Euro as well as basically implying that the European project has failed. At the moment Europe is choosing a third option: going from one crisis to the next without any European consensus on long-term solutions (in an organisation with consensus at its core) and the EU taking all the blame. However, Britain would never be part of a closer union or the monetary union as it negotiated the "opt-outs".
The European context of a possible Brexit cannot be ignored. Similar to the Brexit debate, the European public discourse on many issues is becoming increasingly polarised. In the recent Austrian presidential elections, the second round was won by the Green candidate Alexander van der Bellen by a margin of 31,000 votes. Norbert Hofer, the right-wing candidate of the Freedom Party (FPÖ), had previously won the first round. This was the first time in post-war Austria that the presidential battle was not fought between the two established parties ("Volksparteien"). The positions of Hofer and van der Bellen could not be any further apart. The same case could earlier be observed in Hungary and Poland - even though the populists succeeded there. A possible Brexit would be seen as an alternative to many. In normal circumstances Britain leaving the EU would not necessary have any wider implications for Europe. But with deeply unsatisfied voters and rising populist movements all across the EU, this could potentially mean the end of the EU (at least the union we know today). That poses the question whether 28 countries deciding what is best for themselves and for everyone is really a long-term solution. Of course the outcomes of globalisation cannot be controlled by single nation-states. The migrant crisis has highlighted this yet again.
The main problem with the populist movements across the EU, including parts of the Brexit campaign, is that they do not seem to care about facts and their supporters will still take them seriously. Facts and rational arguments do not bring popular support, especially in times of crises. The populist movements give easy and emotional answers - and define clear enemies (i.e. migrants and Muslims). Coming back to Brexit: The remain campaign has the benefit of the doubt - why leave a party if the alternative could be a lot worse. Instead of focusing on real figures and facts, Vote Leave is increasingly focusing its campaign on anti-migrant scaremongering. It does not even offer a real alternative and fails to answer what Britain's role in Europe (and the world) would look like after a Brexit. By going that route, the campaign is also losing the support of liberals and moderates who might agree that leaving the EU could be beneficial but fear that the outcome might be quite the opposite.
BBC (2016) Reality Check: The EU referendum
KNE (2016) The legitimacy issue with referendums