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. 

  • Published in EUROPE
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