European Union

Survey: The Causes and Consequences of Brexit (Part 2)

Commentators, analysts, and intellectuals across Europe and beyond comment on the UK’s decision to leave the European Union.
Brexit

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?

 

Colin Kinniburgh, editor, Dissent Magazine

The success of the “Leave” campaign reveals the extent to which the British right, like its counterparts across the continent and across the pond, has been effective in channelling discontent with a broken political and economic system into racist and anti-immigrant hysteria. Faced with stubborn unemployment and round after round of cuts to basic services, a majority of mostly older, white British voters were desperate for change—any kind of change—but above all a return to the economic stability promised them by the welfare state. The most immediate and drastic change offered to them was Brexit, underpinned by the toxic fable that it was immigrants, and not London elites, who had dismantled the postwar order.

We can only hope that the Brexit vote has been a wake-up call to those who thought a Clinton victory over the hideous Donald Trump was assured in November.

The extent to which this vote has already emboldened violent racist and anti-immigrant groups across the continent and beyond has been shocking. Even as the leaders of the Brexit campaign stutter and stumble and walk back their promises of a swift departure from the EU, far-right leaders in other European countries and as far as Texas are clamouring to follow the UK’s example. The breakdown of the EU is far from inevitable, but its institutions will be severely tested by the months and years ahead; the best hope for avoiding an EU collapse at the hands of the belligerent right, rising in one member state after the next, is the movement to democratize the EU from the inside, turn back the tide of neoliberalism, and offer a genuine, inclusive populist alternative.

Here in the United States, we can only hope that the Brexit vote has been a wake-up call to those who thought a Clinton victory over the hideous Donald Trump was assured in November. If the Hillary Clinton campaign does not take seriously the underlying grievances that led roughly half of all primary voters to reject “establishment” politicians and veer toward opposite ends of the U.S. political spectrum, we may face our own far-right jolt before long.

Nick Srnicek, political scientist and philosopher, UK

The narrative that the UK has split in two, following the referendum outcome, is too simplistic. Rather than being split in two, we must see the vote as a very crude measure of the numerous fractures running throughout British society: the xenophobic vote, the anti-establishment vote, the “Lexit” vote, the pro-EU business vote, the critical Remain vote, and so on. This fracturing is a process that has been underway for decades now (as Will Davies nicely demonstrates), and is set to continue. The result is a common phenomenon across Western democracies in recent years: the collapse of establishment, centrist, social democratic parties. We see this in the UK right now, as the Labour Party faces an existential battle over the very nature of its politics: either a traditional left program with Jeremy Corbyn as its current face, or a continuation of the Blairite strategy of triangulating in the perceived centre ground. In other countries, as these parties collapse and fall apart, there have arisen numerous other parties attempting to represent various fractures of society. Yet in the UK, their expression in parliament is blunted by the electoral system of first-past-the-post – consistently marginalising emergent parties. The result is a continual frustration of the unrepresented. This has given rise to even more anti-establishment anger, and given the current attempts by the political classes to delay or even reject the referendum vote, this anger seems likely to continue. The crisis is far from over.

Barbara Brzezicka, National Council member, Razem Party, Poland

The results can be explained by one word: misinformation. The British people were misled and lied to about almost every facet of the issue. The Brexit campaign was a manifestation of what is now being called “fact-free politics”, full of populist solutions as easy as they were false. Brexit would let Britain have its cake and eat it too, staying in the European Economic Area but contributing no money – something the rest of Europe will never agree to. Brexit would ensure 350 million pounds of NHS funding – a blatant lie, as admitted by Nigel Farage. For xenophobes, Brexit would make immigrants leave the UK. For the working class, isolationism would shield them from the consequences of globalization. It was largely the working class that voted Leave, though they will bear the brunt of the economic downturn. European social democracy, including Blairite Labour, having accepted neoliberal dogma, have also abandoned their traditional voter base, and can no longer mobilize them. This niche was filled by far-right rhetoric based on fear and xenophobia. Brexit was largely a protest vote, a red card shown to the European establishment.

The worst possible scenario is EU institutions entrenching themselves and refusing any radical change.

This is a decisive moment for the European Union. Brexit has shown that the EU can no longer function the way it did, and inevitably, there will be an initial sense of chaos and disorientation. It is a crucial task for EU officials to manage the crisis swiftly and take decisive action. Either we will introduce thorough democratic reforms in the European Union, rebuilding trust in the European project, or more countries will decide to leave. The EU elites must change their way of thinking about Europe and abandon the idea of “technocracy”, which all too often means leaving the people behind. Already the Greek crisis had shown an outrageous lack of solidarity, which was supposed to be the basis of EU integration. The worst possible scenario is EU institutions entrenching themselves and refusing any radical change.

In Poland, we have had only two policies: the liberals have always blindly followed European political decisions, to them, “European” meant “modern” and modernization was their priority. The Right, on the other hand, used nationalist rhetoric and underlined Polish “sovereignty”, supposedly threatened by deeper EU integration. Neither of these groups ever thought of the EU as a common responsibility. Neither tried to work out a vision of Europe – the EU was always “Brussels”, an outside force to be treated either as an enemy or something like a secular Vatican to be obeyed without question. Maybe Brexit will finally show that the European project cannot be taken for granted, and trigger a long-overdue debate about must be done to keep us all together.

Jaroslav Fiala, editor-in-chief, A2larm.cz

The fact that Brexit went through probably mostly surprised its advocates. The reaction of politicians such as Boris Johnson corresponds with their true aims: they wanted to escalate the campaign, intentionally whip up passions and gain electoral support. Their interest in the result was only secondary. Brexit not going through would have been more favourable for them: they could have played the role of “dissidents”, fighting for independence against the hated EU. Now they have to accept political responsibility, which will be quite difficult for them. The advocates of Brexit said that they will save hundreds of millions of pounds, which will go to the healthcare system. But already two days after the referendum, they admitted this was a trick and they had lied. They will also have to undergo extraordinarily difficult negotiations about the re-organization of the relationship of their country with the EU, including a huge amount of trade agreements and regulations. If Britain stays within the single market, which is very likely, the result will paradoxically be that it will lose the possibility of setting the rules of this market. Nevertheless, those who voted to leave did not take the warnings against these consequences seriously. For many of them, Brexit became an expression of revolt against the liberal establishment – it created an opportunity to be heard, to express their mistrust and protest against being overlooked by the ruling elites. It was a rebellion of the “losers” of globalization, if we can say so. And it is of course a huge problem that a large part of society feels that is excluded and overlooked. Is it possible to close one’s eyes and pretend that such a system functions flawlessly? I think not. But before we begin to talk about the disintegration of the EU, it will be good to follow Britian and how it deals with leaving the EU. The problems which await it could serve as a deterrent. The politicians campaigning for Brexit did not take into account the potential consequences. And these will be significant. At the same time, it is highly necessary for European politicians to think about what is wrong if such an important country has decided to leave. The EU cannot be taken for granted, nor can it be blindly rejected. The lesson of Brexit should be a reform of the EU.

Szilárd István Pap, editor, editor, Kettős Mérce

The decision of Great Britain to leave the EU can be understood against the background of profound economic and social insecurity experienced by large segments of the working class and the middle class. Besides the underlying structural issues, the role of the political elite is also unquestionable. Irresponsible political entrepreneurs trying to capitalize on the general slide to the Right in European politics contributed heavily to channelling social anxiety into such a direction. The weakness of the Left to re-frame the debate should not be overlooked either.
The fear of disintegration is exaggerated, in my opinion. A transformation of EU structures seems a more likely scenario. However, the way in which this transformation unfolds is of paramount interest. The Union needs a sweeping popular reform that makes it more accessible for citizens, and a robust redistributive social program that would lay the bases for common European solidarity, and ultimately, shared identity. Unfortunately, Europe currently lacks the leadership in possession of the political vision and charisma necessary for such a profound reform.

The Hungarian government openly supported the Remain option, but not because of a commitment to European unity, but because the Eurosceptic government of Viktor Orbán saw an ally in Conservative British governments blocking the idea of an ever closer union, and advocating for national sovereignty. Brexit might give the Hungarian government yet another argument for its fight against Brussels. Furthermore, if a large scale exodus of Hungarian guestworkers were to occur, the fall in remittances sent home by them would put the Hungarian economy under a lot of stress.

Radovan Geist, publisher, Euraktiv.sk

There are many reasons. Cameron, who for years convinced the British that the EU is a source of problems and a threat, could not appear trustworthy as the leader of those advocating to stay in the EU. Moreover, those against remaining were able to communicate their message through the easy-to-grasp themes of “sovereignty” and “migrants from poor member state” (regardless of how dishonest their arguments were). Furthermore, although Johnson and Farage represent one of the most reactionary parts of British capital, for many the referendum became a vote against the elites, against the establishment.

However, it is not clear Britain will leave the EU. But already the pre-referendum campaign and the period of uncertainty that will now follow will increase the pressure on formalizing a narrower group of countries that will continue on the path to integration, while their ties with the rest will loosen. In Slovakia, it is possible that one of the marginal political parties will seize the topic of a referendum on leaving the EU and build its agenda on it. Furthermore, certain politicians are trying to interpret the results of the referendum in a way that will support their opinions on the future of the EU, or rather their positions on certain topics. Prime Minister Fico has already begun with this, claiming that the British have rejected the EU also because of “uncontrolled migration”. He probably hasn’t noticed that when Farage attacks “immigrants”, he means first and foremost people from poorer member states – Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia…

Petr Uhl, journalist and activist, Czech Republic

The referendum results can be explained by the low level of British democracy. This is generally limited by the neoliberal resistance to regulating the market economy and life in general. The country suffers from an insular feudal residue, imperial nostalgia, and tabloid superficiality. The media campaign was based on demagoguery and lies. I regret the decision to leave, but I also understand the relief it brings and the end to the shameful February agreement, in which the European Council promised Britain conditions of membership that directly contradicted the principles of the EU. Czech Prime Minister Sobotka was personally engaged in negotiating that agreement.

The Union will only create a genuine ability to act if it broadens the scope of authority of its parliament and through federalization.

The British people cannot be punished for their decision, but England and Wales will probably live separately from the EU for many years. The danger that the EU will transform into a mere duty-free zone of free trade is low. But the Union will only create a genuine ability to act if it broadens the scope of authority of its parliament and through federalization. We have to overcome this culture of fear, this bartering, where each government, which is currently in power in its “own nation state”, takes whatever it wants from the European Council, while rejecting what is not in the “national interest” – whether that means migrants and their redistribution, or even choosing among them based on their religion, because of the fear of its voters. Whether it will restrict woman’s rights like in Poland. Whether it will remove judicial guarantees of rights and freedoms like in Poland and Hungary. Whether, acting in the interests of powerful lobbies, it will reject the tightening of arms controls, like in the Czech Republic, whose solitary attitude in these times of suppressing terrorism is particularly arrogant.

Also in both of “my” countries (I am a citizen of both the Czech and Slovak Republics), we will see a departure from the idea of the EU as a cash cow and as a platform for Czech and Slovak nationalist strutting. I like to see the interest of the citizens of both republics in what is happening in the EU. It is a precondition for the democratization of both these societies. It leads to the deepening of a sense of belonging to the EU, and thus also a wider global community and the greater emancipation of humankind.

Zoran Veselinović, editor, Radnička prava

The pre-referendum discussion was basically dominated by classical right-wing talking points: anti-immigration and the sovereignty argument.  The arguments of the pro-EU Left in the UK (Corbyn’s Labour and the biggest trade unions) were a) the EU isn’t perfect, but some EU legislation secured better workers’ rights than it would otherwise and b) we opt for Remain because we believe that we can change the EU so that it can become a set of institutions that protect all European workers’ rights. It is clear that these arguments got small traction and weren’t in the end decisive.

On the other hand, the aforementioned right-wing arguments, to my knowledge, had good traction among older citizens of the UK, who tend to have a higher turnout (as was the case now). These arguments had much smaller influence on younger citizens, who did not show up in large enough numbers (as usual). Furthermore, it seems that although the younger generations are more prone to left-wing ideas, not only in the UK but also in the United States (as seen in the Sanders phenomenon), the pro-EU Left didn’t manage a) to put their narrative on the table and b) mobilize younger citizens. If there was a higher turnout of younger citizens, we probably wouldn’t be having this discussion today.

While there is a lot of talk in the EU about the advantages of membership for individual states or regions, we know a lot less about the gains and losses of EU membership within various strata of individual societies.

The defeat of the pro-EU Left in the UK, in my opinion, suggests two things:  the pro-EU Left must devise new strategies a) to bring its talking points to the discussion and b) to mobilize young people. It is extremely hard to say what the consequences will be for Croatia. I personally think that there will not be any direct consequences. Brexit will affect Croatia per implicationem on the basis of the consequences for the EU as a whole.

Tereza Stöckelová, sociologist, Institute of Sociology of the Czech Academy of Sciences and Charles University, Prague

Brexit is a double defeat for the European Left. The first defeat is the probable end of the UK’s membership of the EU, something the Left generally supports – albeit with reservations and nowadays mainly as a battlefield. The other defeat can be seen in the fact that Britain was voted out of the EU by those whom the Left aspires to politically represent. The workers of the world are refusing to unite and are rejecting both globalization and alter-globalization. Some of those who voted out may also have suppressed information about the fact that the substantial problems relating to, for instance, the financing the National Health Service have little to do with membership in the EU. But maybe the British knew very well what they were doing, and did it with the knowledge that they will harm the country as a whole. I’m afraid that the vote could also have been influenced by the dark motivation of harming those who benefit from EU membership relatively more than those voters themselves. It’s hard to dispute the fact that various generational, social and educational groups benefit from EU membership to very different extents. The EU needs to strengthen its presence in public space, debates, and language in individual member states and begin to defend itself in some senses. National politicians won’t do it themselves, because they (including those who are “pro-European”) have learnt to use the EU as a universal conductor of public dissatisfaction. The EU needs to build a network of intermediaries and allies in various parts of society and professions who will act locally. That doesn’t mean propaganda, but the stimulation of critical discussion, which EU organs should also pay serious attention to. While there is a lot of talk in the EU about the advantages of membership for individual states or regions, we know a lot less about the gains and losses of EU membership within various strata of individual societies. The EU cannot (and should not!) survive gross asymmetries in this regard, and must actively take part in balancing them out.

Yannis Stavrakakis, political theorist, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, POPULISMUS project

One can, of course, speculate on the motives and attitudes of British voters that opted in favour of Brexit. It is perfectly possible to enlist a series of economic, identity, political, even “anthropological” background characteristics of the Brexit voter. Hence, one could have arrived at the decision to leave on the basis of a (misplaced) economic calculus, of nationalist feelings, of a xenophobic predisposition or even of irresponsible and irrational personality traits. This is how mainstream discourses have invariably –and stereotypically– described the popular majority expressed in the UK referendum. No doubt such voters do exist; and yet, isn’t it obvious that such simplistic explanations obscure rather than illuminate what is at stake?

What if, for example, the main desire behind such a choice was merely a desire not for but against, a desire not formulated in terms of positivity but in terms of a negativity desperately seeking to find an outlet of expression? A variety of recent mobilizations and electoral processes – from the Arab Spring to the Greek referendum of July 2015 and up to Brexit – should perhaps be interpreted as incarnating a primarily negative gesture of Machiavellian nature, registering a desire “not to be dominated” anymore in the often undemocratic and undignified way typical of our crypto-colonial world order.

It seems as if the old is dying but the new cannot yet be born. Click to Tweet

The majorities of our electorates may not know what is to be done but are becoming increasingly conscious of the fact that what is currently going on – a revolt of the elites and a betrayal of democracy to refer to Christopher Lasch– cannot continue. The more established political and economic elites fail to recognize the problem, the more they brutally silence or ignore the cry of the voiceless, the more they demonize the quest for an alternative, inclusionary vision of change, the more popular discontent will be channelled towards blind acting-outs fuelled by resentment and potentially hijacked by obscure political agents.

The challenge here is obviously to transform such negative gestures into a positive course of action able to renew our democratic culture; this is exactly where our current predicament is located and where a short-circuit continuously re-emerges. The brutality of institutional constraints and the inability to elaborate feasible – visionary as well as pragmatic– alternatives is making such electoral victories ultimately embarrassing even for the “victors” – whether we are talking about the peoples themselves or political figures ranging from Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage to Alexis Tsipras… How is this impasse going to be resolved? It seems as if the old is dying but the new cannot yet be born. Well, as we know from Gramsci, this is the age of the monsters…

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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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