A few thoughts on the British referendum

Elli Siapkidou

On 23 June, the majority of the British population, 51.8% voted against Britain remaining in the European Union (EU), after being a member for 42 years. Despite voices from the Left arguing that Brexit is proof that people are reacting to capitalist Europe which imposes austerity, this is not case.  The British referendum result is more a reflection of Britain's failure to accept its post- imperial identity and less of the European project’s shortcomings.

Britain was never a Euro-enthusiast. And this holds true for both its governments and its citizens. Britain chose not to take part in the discussions between the six countries (France, Italy, Luxembourg, Belgium, Netherlands and West Germany) to form the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) back in 1951, as it was suspicious of any federalist organisation that could erode its sovereignty. It decided to join the European Economic Community (EEC) two decades later in 1974, only after it had realised the limits of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), a much looser form of cooperation which it had championed and helped create.

The British people confirmed their government’s choice to join the EEC, through a referendum that was held in 1975 and in which 67% of the electorate voted in favour. However, the British public was never a pro European one. Even in the beginning of the 1990s when 75% of the Europe’s citizens supported the process of European integration, this percentage hovered around 55% for the Brits, reaching 25% towards the end of the 1990s when support was generally waning.

From a European respective, the other EU countries came to accept that Britain was the club’s “awkward partner”, with its rows under Thatcher’s premiership about Britain’s contribution to the European budget and the various opt- outs from European policies, the euro included. 

Britain’s relation with Europe was a lukewarm relationship, and would remain so, so long as it was undisturbed. Cameron' s decision to hold a referendum changed this. He chose to take a gamble for his own personal re-election trying to appease a part of its Conservative party, which has always been against Europe. But in doing so, he opened the door for British nationalism to be fully expressed, not to say unleashed.

All countries and societies are nationalistic to one extent or the other. What is distinct about Britain's nationalism is that it translates into a deep aversion towards European institutions, federalism or any structure that challenges the core idea of the nation state. This is probably related to the fact that the events of World War II have a distinct position in the nation's collective memory. While for the rest of Europe, the war is an event to forget about, with its fascism, bloodshed and physical and economic destruction, in Britain, it is still glorified as an occasion where the country was victorious. It is not an accident that every year the BBC proms close with the hymn “Rule, Britannia!”, although the British empire has ended for more than fifty years now.  

The British referendum allowed all these nationalistic feelings to emerge. This is not to say that there haven't been increasing parts of the population who have seen their standards of living decline and are trapped in vicious cycles of poverty, precarious employment or unemployment.   But these are the result of the austerity policies of consecutive conservative governments rather than policies stemming from Brussels. If anything, it was Britain, which has exported neoliberal ideas and trade liberalisation as a way to economic growth to the rest of Europe rather than the other way round. By any account, Britain is a more capitalist society, more right wing and less socialist than most of continental Europe.

The Remain campaign did not manage to convince people of the benefits of European integration. There are many reasons for this. First, the inability for campaign in favour of Europe to mobilise people has been a characteristic of all the European referendums so far. The Nons, the Neins and the Nos are always more vocal than the Yeses and the Ouis and it is always easier to react to something rather than argue in favour of the status quo.

Second, the economic benefits of European integration (which Labour could have used as a pro-European centre party) are diffuse and long-term and very difficult to pin down to be used in an electoral campaign.

Third, one of the most important elements of the idea of united Europe, that of free movement of people, the right to study, work and live everywhere within the 28 EU countries was high-jacked by the Leave campaign and was framed as a negative. It was translated as concerns about immigration and foreign residents (raised by even Labour in the 2015 parliamentary elections). Despite the rhetoric which focused on the “Polish plumber”, concerns about increasing numbers of foreigners were more related to Britain’s immigration policies over the last fifty years from countries which were previously part of the British Empire and less about citizens from Central and Eastern Europe.

European integration and capitalism creates losers and winners. This is a point which supporters of Brexit from left-wing parties tried to highlight. However, their voices were lost amidst the nationalistic yelps. A Brexit campaign won on an argument of the European project not being socialist enough would have changed the terms of discussion and the European agenda. However unfortunately, the debate was not fought on the Left-Right axis, but on a nation-state vs Europe one.

Where does that leave us now? At the moment there's an impasse. Cameron resigned to gain some time before invoking article 50 and to pass the hot potato to Boris, and Boris has decided to pass that over to Gove. There is a deadline to how much the British governing elites can fiddle around. As Juncker and other European officials have made clear, Europe will not wait forever. Europe will not allow Britain to threaten the European project altogether, which means that it was has no motive to make this process of disengagement any easier for Britain. If anything, it will try to make an example of Britain to discourage any other countries of thinking about starting pulling threads for the European project (the euro-Greece and migration crises are doing enough of that already).

Similarly, it is not easy for British elites to “take back” the result, as Greek Prime Minister Tsipras did in the aftermath of the referendum on Greece’s loan agreement. Unlike the Greek referendum, which took place within two weeks of its announcement, the British referendum had a long electoral campaign. British politicians will have to think very hard to be able to turn this round.

There will follow a period of political and economic uncertainty with unknown end date. But until then, Britain has become a less welcome place for many foreign residents. Naturally, the Remain media are keen to bring out to all the racist attacks which happened right after the referendum result and raise the issue, but the fact remains that there has been a 50% increase in racist attacks following the referendum and people feel it’s ok to shout insults to foreign-looking people in the street.

The Left needs to regain the debate on Europe. It has been in the defensive too much and unfortunately this referendum result cannot be used to build its case for a better, more socialist and less unequal Europe. There is an urgent need to try to understand what it is that a European Left wants. Is it a stronger European welfare state? Is it a completely different economic model? Is it an increase in Cohesion and Development funds? And then, we need to make this inviting to people. So far, we are losing. We are losing the battles and we are losing the war (see also the disappointing results from Spain’s elections). And meanwhile, with all these nationalistic trends appearing across Europe, it is becoming an ugly place to be.



Dr. Elli Siapkidou is a political economist working as a political and economic analyst in London. 
 

 
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Brexit: Scenes from a future to come

Georgios Giannakopoulos
 
In the aftermath of the British referendum, we asked friends of AnalyzeGreece with links to the UK what they thought of the result. We will be publishing short interviews with them over the coming days. George Giannakopoulos, an intellectual historian at Queen Mary, University of London, who has been living in the UK since 2010, gives us his thoughts on Brexit and its implications for migrants in the UK, as well as for UK politics and the rise of the far right across Europe.
ANALYZEGREECE!
 
What was your initial reaction to the referendum result? How do you assess its potential impact on migrants in the UK?

 
The news reached me in a hotel room in Denmark. I spent the night in front of a TV screen in contact with friends from the UK. The whole situation brought back memories of last year's long and bruising Grexit nights. Another summer; another referendum; another set of anxieties. Anxieties about Europe and about the country I've chosen to reside in for the past six years. One could hardly miss the anti- EU mood in the country in the run up to decision day. Brexiters were very effective in framing public discussion around immigration, power and control. It is high time, they argued, to control “our” porous borders with the EU; to empower “our” disaffected English citizens from a dysfunctional unrepresentative Eurocracy; to regain Britain's global so-called “prestige”. Jo Cox’s assassination interrupted the debate. To some of us it seemed that the reaction to the politics of hate might strike a chord with voters and energize the Remain campaign which by then was predominantly led by conservative arguments about the economy and sentimental appeals to abstract European ideals. Then came the moment of truth. The politics of fear prevailed. A misguided longing for national 'control' swept through England leaving Scotland, parts of Wales, Northern Ireland and London adrift in a sea of reaction.

Predictably, everyone in the UK is talking. Social media are full of commentaries and op-eds. Unfortunately, a good number of commentators in the Greek press offer misguided readings of the situation, be it from the left or the right. The tendency to read the British reaction against the EU from the lens of the Greek-EU debacle is distorting to say the least. If I were to point out a couple of interesting pieces offering a less distorting analysis, I’d have to mention Will Davies’s Thoughts on the sociology of Brexit and  Peter Mandler's take on the London/rest of the U.K. divide.
 
My generation has benefited immensely from the open borders policy of the EU. Even those who frequently trumpet their 'anti-capitalist' credentials by pointing to the so-called 'neo-liberal' foundations of the European project have profited from traveling, living and studying across a unified European space. Britain, and London, have been at the heart of this. The ensuing period of uncertainty accentuates fears. It is highly likely that new migration laws will affect directly the prospects of employment for European migrants in the country. Moreover, it is still unknown how the highly internationalized British university model will adjust to the new realities. This is just an example of the huge challenges lurking in a period of protracted instability and anxiety.
 
What are the implications for Europe and Britain?

Living through the rise and demise of the Syriza moment in the UK, I had the chance to witness the hunger for political change and progressive reforms in Britain (and Europe). The unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the Labour Party came to signify this. Corbyn’s reluctant endorsement of the Remain campaign seemed to be moving in the right direction despite the pressure coming from small factions of the far left which were behind the so-called Lexit campaign. At this moment, it is not clear whether Corbyn’s Labour will survive the unprecedented challenge mounted against his leadership. Corbyn's campaign faults and leadership style has been subjected to much hyperbole. On the whole, I find Martin O’Neill’s qualified account very well-balanced. The Labour Party is in dire need of an effective political and national strategy to address the political and national divisions in a disunited United Kingdom. Predictably, the Tory Brexiters are beginning to backtrack on many of their promises and the one force which seems to benefit at the moment is the right-wing populism represented by UKIP (and the Front National in France).

Finally, one has to mention the resurgence of Englishness as a response to the challenges of globalization and the purported “loss” of national identity. The media have been reporting racist attacks towards Eastern European migrants. A few weeks ago, in a coastal town not far from London, I witnessed an impromptu march by a small group of white middle aged English males holding anti-refugee and anti-immigrant placards and chanting racial slurs. The incident occurred in a very crowded street in broad daylight. What surprised me was the apathy of the crowd. The indifference shown reminded me of the attitude of many Greeks towards Golden Dawn. Scenes from a (dystopian) future to come.


Georgios [Yorgos] Giannakopoulos is an intellectual historian. He studied political science and history in Greece (BA, MA Panteion University, Athens) before embarking on a PhD at Queen Mary, University of London. His research revolves around ideas of nationality and internationalism in early 20th century British thought.
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Brexit is no victory, as much as it may upset EU elites

Despina Biri

In the aftermath of the British referendum, we asked friends of AnalyzeGreece with links to the UK what they thought of the result. We will be publishing short interviews with them over the coming days. First up, it's Despina Biri, from AnalyzeGreece editorial board, who studied and worked in London between 2003-2015, and who continues to have very strong ties to the UK.
ANALYZEGREECE!
 
 
 
1. What is your assessment of the referendum result and its immediate aftermath?
 
Quite frankly I did not expect Leave to win. This may have to do with the fact that most of my social circle in the UK is in London. Before the referendum I thought that the fractured nature of the campaign would be to the detriment of the right and far right groups in favour of Leave. Of course, exactly the opposite turned out to be the case.
 
However, I think we can quite safely conclude that the Left played a marginal role in deciding the outcome of the vote, as, quite frankly, the balance of power in UK politics is not such, at least for the moment, that would permit the adoption of a “Lexit” agenda for leaving the European Union. While it could be argued that Leave managed to harness anti-austerity sentiment among the disenfranchised, it is by now quite clear that Brexit does not mean the end to austerity in the UK. Nigel Farage’s rebuttal of the claim that Brexit would mean an extra £350m could be spent on the NHS goes to show that the Leave campaign is nowhere near advocating even a moderately progressive agenda, as if that weren't obvious enough. The UK under Cameron was not compelled to implement austerity by the EU, as is the case in Greece and elsewhere, but instead had its own agenda for creating a “minimal state” as envisioned by Thatcher and Reagan. Austerity in the UK is therefore less related to Merkel’s flavor of neoliberalism than to its London counterpart. However, Remain’s reliance on “expert opinion” during the campaign was problematic, and allowed Leave to prevail largely on the strength of right wing populism and on a reaction against the realities of inequality, hijacked by anti-immigrant discourse.
 
One important aspect of the referendum is how it is linked to the “refugee crisis”. While much of the debate in the UK centered on migration between EU states, I think Brexit may have implications for refugees currently trapped in Greece and elsewhere as well. The shameful EU-Turkey deal, and EU member states’, including the UK’s,  refusal to take in larger numbers of refugees, contributed to the xenophobic climate leading to the referendum. This effect was of course augmented by Remain’s reluctance to put forward a strong pro-immigration, pro-refugee agenda, brought on by fragmentation in the Remain camp, similarly to Leave.Therefore, the Leave vote can be interpreted as not only an anti-migration vote, but as an anti-refugee vote as well. This is regrettable, not least because the UK has been one of the instigators of the “war on terror”, and  is expected to do even less to tackle climate change, both of which will cause even more people to flee their homes in future.
 
I can only speculate what the Leave result means for UK politics, looking beyond obvious things we already know much about, such as who the next prime minister will be, and the possible eventual secession of Scotland. I do think that David Cameron’s resignation was the right thing to do, but I will be sad to see Boris Johnson, whose terrible politics I am all too familiar with as a former Londoner, as his successor. It is perhaps more interesting to see what happens to Labour, the leadership of which adopted a more cautious stance visavis the referendum, perhaps contributing to the weaker than expected Remain vote. What's certain is that things cannot and will not continue as before.
 
2. How, if at all, do you think Brexit will affect you personally?


While I have not managed to return to the UK since I left last year, my family, friendly, professional, and academic ties to the country remain strong. At this point I am therefore worried about what will happen to those close to me who live in the UK. I'm also worried about my own future, seeing as finding a job in Greece is difficult (even, or especially, for a highly qualified person such as myself), and I have considered moving back to the UK, though this will likely be more difficult after Brexit. We are already seeing reports of racist comments and bullying taking place all over the UK, and it may be some time before they subside, if indeed they do.
 
Of course, I cannot help but think about British friends and former colleagues, who I am happy to say voted overwhelmingly in favor of Remain, as did London, where I spent nearly all of my adult life until last year. At this point, I am cautiously concerned about what a Leave vote entails for EU citizens living in the UK, and for UK citizens living in the EU.
 
3. What do you think are the implications of Brexit for the European project and for the European Left?
 
I have been feeling pessimistic about the future of the EU for a very long time now. Quite simply, I believe that the European institutional framework is such that states are unable to function as democracies. The issue of EU expertise, mentioned in my answer to the first question, is a parallel but distinct issue to that of experts in UK public policy. I am therefore convinced that the disintegration of the EU into other formations –a “small Eurozone”, for example, or a “Visegrad group”, or something else entirely– is already underway (not necessarily triggered by Brexit, but by other events such as those following the Greek referendum in July 2015, compounded by the “refugee crisis”).
 
As things currently stand, I think that the Left in Europe is trapped into a cycle of trying to come up with alternatives, but has not come up with concrete proposals that would allow it to put those alternatives into practice as government. In Greece,  Syriza’s about-face bears a lot of the blame for this state of affairs, as the Left is too fragmented and sore from the defeat to recover quickly. I think the case of Greece serves as a cautionary tale for other EU members as well, in that it goes to show that changing European institutions “from within”, as Syriza tried to do, is an impossible task.
 
With reference to Brexit, I think the Left played a marginal role in the UK referendum. I therefore think that, barring significant developments in the Labour Party, the state of affairs in the European Left as a whole will not be affected much. However, I must say that I am sad to see many from the Left interpreting the referendum result as being “a blow to the establishment” when it is quite clear that it is elites who led both the Leave and Remain campaigns, and it is the worst off in the UK who will be hardest hit regardless of outcome, seeing as austerity and anti-immigrant policies will continue to be in place, perhaps with even greater force than before (the expected amendment of the Human Rights Act is a notable example, but not the only one). Therefore, I cannot see any reason to be jubilant about the Leave win, seeing as it goes completely against the Left’s permanent demand for open borders and freedom of movement, extending from the symbolic to the far reaching implications for many people who call the UK home, and who on the whole enjoyed living in a relatively tolerant (especially compared to those in other European countries) and forward thinking society, which is among the first in Europe to recognise same sex marriage, and the rights of trans people, to name but two areas in which the UK has been pioneering as regards social rights. Put simply, I can foresee a regression of these freedoms following the Leave win, because, let us not forget, racism often goes hand in hand with other forms of discrimination. Frankly, this cannot be called a victory, as much of an upset it may be for EU elites.
 
PS. Can you really cough it up loud and strong?
The immigrants, they wanna sing all night long
It could be anywhere
Most likely could be any frontier any hemisphere
In no-man’s-land
There ain't no asylum here
King Solomon he never lived ‘round here
 
(The Clash, “ Straight to Hell”, from the album Combat Rock)

Despina Biri is a researcher and writer on health care issues. She blogs at despinabiri.wordpress.com and bakterienfureureseele.wordpress.com
 
 
  • Published in EUROPE
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