European Union

Survey: The Causes and Consequences of Brexit (Part 1)

Commentators, analysts, and intellectuals across Europe comment on the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
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How do you explain the fact that the majority of British citizens voted in favour of leaving the European Union? 

In your opinion, what will Brexit mean for the future of the EU? 

What will be the consequences of the British decision for the situation in your country?

Matěj Stropnický, Green Party leader, Czech Republic

There are several reasons. Mainly, it has been more than seventy years since the end of the last big armed conflict in Europe and people have forgotten why the European Union was formed: the goal was to achieve peace through political, economic, and cultural cooperation instead of confrontation. Secondly, the EU truly does not function optimally, in the eyes of many it is going against its own principles and is more and more of a platform for transnational corporations, rather than a champion of ordinary people – a typical example is TTIP, which more than 2 million European citizens stood up against through a protest petition. Thirdly, pointing to differences is usually easier and more successful than unifying strategies; those against the EU, who take the advantages of EU membership for granted and exaggerate the disadvantages, had an easier job convincing people. The media also played a role, as they were unable to describe the overall contribution of the EU, because it probably seems boring and doesn’t sell, while magnifying small and larger blemishes brings profit.

Either the UK’s exit will trigger a gradual disintegration of the EU and more likely Britain itself, or the EU will be reformed.

Either the UK’s exit will trigger a gradual disintegration of the EU and more likely Britain itself, or the EU will be reformed. The goal of such a reform should be: more participation, more democracy, more effective regulation of supranational economic forces, less bureaucracy and regulation of trivialities, less influence of corporations, fewer particular influences of nation states. But such a Europe, founded on the cooperation of people, not just states, can only be achieved through a federation.

In the Czech Republic, support of the EU is continuously going down, without any significant reasons. I attribute this to politicians’ constant bragging about what they vetoed or rejected and how they said it loudly to everyone in Brussels. But the reality is that they were unable to push through anything of significance. The interior minister, Milan Chovanec, is probably most notorious in this regard. The Greens are therefore forming a wider movement of people who want the Czech Republic to be part of the EU, but also take part in its fundamental reform. The undemocratic global economy, a major cause of climate change, demands a globalization of democratic politics, of which the European Union is a meaningful example.

Sławomir Sierakowski, Krytyka Polityczna

British citizens voted to leave the UK because they could. The UK will bear the consequences, but in the end, it can afford to leave the EU. It is an island, it has nuclear weapons, it does not have an experience of fascism or authoritarianism from the twentieth century, it is a wealthy country and the whole world speaks its language. If they want to be a second Switzerland, they can. Another reason is that nowadays, it is only populists who are credible when they promise change. When the mainstream claims that something will change, nobody believes it. The mainstream has become unelectable.

The EU will fall apart within a decade, or it will transform into something akin to a European United Nations, i.e. an irrelevant institution.

The EU will fall apart within a decade, or it will transform into something akin to a European United Nations, i.e. an irrelevant institution. In my opinion this is one crisis too many for the EU to survive. For Poland, the European Union is a guarantor of independence for Poland. In the short term, the EU will reduce pressure on Jarosław Kaczyński, which will allow him to move further away from liberal democracy. In the long term, this will be another replay of the sad Polish history.

Boris Buden, philosopher, Faculty of Art and Design, Bauhaus University, Weimar

At stake is before all a divide between two classes of European citizens, and the future of Europe will be politically decided along this class divide.

I see Brexit rather as a symptom of a deep crisis of the European Union, or, to put it more precisely, as an effect of the failure of European integration. This is to say that we won’t understand its true meaning looking back into particular British social and political divides that have prompted the decision to leave, but rather looking forward into the divides and conflicts that this decision of British voters will trigger in the continental part of Europe. At stake is before all a divide between two classes of European citizens. The one, which in Great Britain voted for its stay in the European Union and in every other member state, generally supports the process of European integration, is young, better educated, mobile, liberal, cosmopolitan and flexible enough to catch up with the speed of the market-driven transformations. In short, it is an elite that is fit for Europe because it is generally fit for globalization in which it sees its chances and opportunities. But there is another class, those who wanted their United Kingdom exclusively for themselves, and all over the European continent they are mobilizing today to protect their homes, nations, cultural identities and what has remained of former social welfare, not only from migrants but from globalization that threatens to wipe them out. They are older, not well educated, culturally inertial, monolingual, and deeply anchored in their provincial localities, which are but desolate post-industrial wastelands. These classes even speak different languages, the first one a global English, the other a particular national mother tongue degraded today to what in the Middle Ages were European vernaculars. The future of Europe will be politically decided along this class divide. Coming originally from Croatia—itself a product of the violent dissolution of former Yugoslavia; having Austrian citizenship, that is, being on the one side of a politically fifty/fifty divided county, and living now in Berlin-Kreuzberg, probably the most cosmopolitan (after London left) spot in the EU, I have no illusions. The divide that is tearing Europe apart today cannot be simply reconciled. Rather it should be politically rearticulated in emancipatory terms. Otherwise Europe will be united again as it once was – under Hitler and Mussolini.

Milena Bartlová, art historian, Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design, Prague

I don’t know the exact number, but I believe it wasn’t the majority of British citizens, but merely slightly over half of those that took part in the referendum, who voted to leave the EU. I’m afraid the result would be the same in all European countries, perhaps with the exception of Germany. Dissatisfaction with what the EU is doing wrong in the economic, social, and political sphere easily outweighs its benefits when faced with a simple choice between a mere two options. I would say that the need to fit the complexity of the world into a yes/no decision cannot lead to good results. Referendums are a good tool of democratic decision-making especially at the local level, where citizens are able to use their own experiences and are not massively manipulated by the apparatus of public opinion-making, especially on the part of privately-owned media.

The need to fit the complexity of the world into a yes/no decision cannot lead to good results. Click to Tweet

The three worst consequences: a legitimation of racism and xenophobia on the public scene not only in East-Central Europe, where this has already been the case. Our attention is being directed away from climate change, which is the greatest contemporary problem. And finally, a malign consequence is the polarization of society, a simplistic choice creates deep rifts. This happens in today’s media and communication situation in the case of any yes/no vote. The Czech Republic will be negatively affected by not being able to participate in a more firmly integrated European core, as there will be more space for propagators of authoritarian rule, corruption, and a tendency towards fascist mentality. I don’t see any positive consequences. I don’t wish for the EU to fall apart, but for its transformation a strong European movement.

Agnieszka Wiśniewska, editor-in-chief, Dziennik Opinii

A Europe that has problems in its core will not pay attention to peripheral countries, so the countries of East-Central Europe will continue to bear the brunt. And this comes at a time when the right wing is in power and there are real worries that it has bypassed the rule of law, and what’s more, has resigned on any help to refugees. Poland demands solidarity with Ukraine from the West, but there seems to be no more room for solidarity with Greece, Italy, or Germany. Western Europe will first of all want to deal with its own far right politicians, who are now engaged in building an opposition between a technocratic Brussels deaf to the voice of the people and sovereign nation states.

For Poland and countries in the region, it will mean further marginalization.

Brexit is a red card for the EU. It’s not a warning. The time for warnings is over. It’s a retreat from the field and a weakening of the team. So what can save the idea of a united Europe (because this is not just about the EU, but also other important European countries outside of the Union)? I’m afraid that rational arguments won’t work. Brexit doesn’t have much to do with rational arguments either, which became very clear with all the googling once the results were announced. Europe can be saved by emotions. At the moment, it is being broken by fear, a feeling of uncertainty and lack of security. However naive it may sound, these emotions can only be beaten by other emotions – solidarity and democracy.

Marina Gržinič, Faculty of Fine Arts, Vienna

It is clear that the only sovereign entities today are the central banks, the IMF, and the war industry.

Brexit is another failure in the long history of Europe, which is becoming a hyperautistic, impotent space that bases its logic of community, politics, and labour on fear and violence against the other. It is not without reason possible to say that Brexit is a sign of paranoia against refugees and migrants. On the other side, imperial Britain as well as France and post-Nazi Germany, not to forget Belgium, are all European countries that accumulated their wealth through direct exploitation, expropriation, and slavery, with brutal past colonialism and present coloniality in the regions from where refugees and migrants have arrived and continue to arrive massively. The capitalist crisis in 2008 provoked a decapitation of the working class in the EU, the stagnation of life, and a privatization of public services, while we see that the banks survived and today, dispossession is happily practiced on. This stagnation of life in Europe provoked by capital is covered by the constant production of systematic racism against the refugee, the migrant who is not white, not Christian. So the horrors of the collapse of the Middle East provoked by states such as Britain and the US, and the proxy war in Syria, are now concealed by myths of national autonomy and national “freedom”(Brexit). But it is clear that the only sovereign entities today are the central banks, the IMF, and the war industry.

Florin Poenaru, CriticAtac, Romania

The first thing to point out is that there was not a clear majority for Brexit. The difference in favour of Leave was very small up to the last minute and unexpected. The problem right now is that we have an attempt not to explain the vote, but to signify it according to one’s own political and ideological interests, both on the left and on the right. This is why Brexit is at the same time registered as a success of extremist and quasi- fascist forces in Britain and Europe, but also as the voice of disenfranchised working classes fed up with neoliberal and austerity-driven Europe; a victory of racism, British colonial nationalism and xenophobia, but also of the leftist criticism of the EU’s neoliberalism, imperialism, and undemocratic austerity politics. Each side seems more concerned to claim a victory rather than to have a sober look at the situation. This makes for some strange bedfellows, but also for some more worrying similarities: just as the extreme-right parties blamed the migrants for all the evils, the so-called leftist progressives ostracized Brexit voters for being old, stupid, reactionary, brainwashed by fascist propaganda, simple-minded, provincial, nationalist, and xenophobic.

We cannot ignore the fact that the referendum for Brexit and the main driving forces behind it were right-wing and reactionary in nature.

We cannot ignore the fact that the referendum for Brexit and the main driving forces behind it were right-wing and reactionary in nature. But what is more troublesome is that the outcome of the referendum only exacerbates these forces. This clearly flies in the face of all those leftist people who were open advocates of Brexit (or Lexit). Since Brexit revolved mainly around migration issues, I expect this to come back to the forefront across Europe regarding internal work migration, but also, and with more tragic consequences, in relation to external migration. At the same time, progressive political forces in Europe will most likely lose ground. The relatively disappointing result of Podemos in the last Spanish elections is just the first sign that what appeared to be a promising revival of the radical left in Europe might be already finished. As for Romania, the internal dynamics currently shaping the Romanian situation will continue unabated after Brexit. As a peripheral member of the EU, Romania will be affected by mid and long-term changes within the continent, but it is highly unlikely that it will be able to shape them in any way.

Ilya Budraitskis, political writer, Openleft.ru

I believe that the main reason for Brexit’s triumph was an anti-establishment protest, which was, however, formulated, guided, and politically capitalized upon by the most reactionary fraction of the establishment. That is an extremely dangerous precedent, which is now spreading all over the world, from the US to Poland, from Britain to Russia: a new type of hegemony, based on open cynicism.

The worst choice for the radical left in this difficult situation is to back the “moral” side.

While the main argument for Remain in the UK was sublime and moral (we should stay in the EU in the name of a better future, tolerance, dramatic lessons of history, and common humanist values), the reasons of the Leave supporters were from the beginning treated as racist, backward, stupid and irrational. So, when political discussion was reduced to the primitive opposition between enlightened minds and irrational dark affects and prejudices, irrationality became the smartest and most cynical political strategy. The anti-EU position was based not on any kind of social or political alternative, but on the negation of any common values.

The message of politicians like Johnson or Trump is: “We have everything – you have nothing. Let’s take our country back! Make it great again!”. The only type of common interest here is an open denial of any declared common interest. This cynicism sounds like “naked truth” – which is definitely better than the hidden cynicism of the European mainstream, which has for years covered its real neoliberal politics with lofty moral arguments. The worst choice for the radical left in this difficult situation is to back the “moral” side. I believe that the main task is to change the public agenda, the false and catastrophic choice between two kinds of cynicism.

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This survey was conducted in cooperation with A2larm.cz

 

Krytyka Polityczna
Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) is the largest Eastern European liberal network of institutions and activists. It consists of the online daily Dziennik Opinii, a quarterly magazine, publishing house, cultural centres in Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk and Cieszyn, activist clubs in a dozen cities in Poland (and also in Kiev and Berlin), as well as a research centre: the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.

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