The British public has itself to blame for the barrage of facts, opinions and predictions it has been confronted with in recent months. And there is no end in sight yet; the British will have to endure more of the same, especially doom and gloom forecasts, until 23rd June. But the public only got what they asked for. Months ago, whenever the forthcoming referendum was raised in discussions on TV or Radio, you could again and again hear one complaint from the great British public: “They”, government and the politicians, are not giving us the information needed to make an informed decision; how dare “they” ask us to decide about Brexit or not if we do not have access to all the facts. This argument, uttered in an accusing tone and as such reflecting the antipolitical mood of our age, were each time rewarded with thundering applause. Politicians rarely dared to contradict the strong element of selfrighteousness – instead British politicians ate humble pie, admitted their failure and promised to behave better in future.
Blaming politicians has after all become one of the most popular pastimes in the mass media democracies of the Western world in which the UK is playing its traditional role of trendsetter.
By now, after months of being bombarded with information or propaganda the electorate may long for an end of the relentless campaign that has mutated in a spiral of hyperbole and apocalyptic warnings of impending disaster if Britain should decide to leave or stay.
The British discourse about the EU and its role was until recently shaped by the clash of Realism versus Idealism, of hardnosed pragmatism versus often dreamy utopianism.
The role of the Utopians belonged to the Integrationists; the Realists were more represented among Eurosceptics minus the “little Englanders”, pointing out to pitfalls and risks of untried and untested European institutions and arrangements. The creation of the Euro in an EU of vastly different economic and financial national cultures was seen by realists and sceptics as a recipe for disaster, a view shared even by Gerhard Schröder, the former socialdemocratic German chancellor, who warned as early as 1997 of the creation of the Euro and called the European currency “the sickly prematurely born”, “die kränkelnde Frühgeburt”.
But the integrationist were not easily perturbed nor was it possible to stop the Euro – train, as Schröder realized after he became Chancellor of Germany in 1998.
Integrationists in Germany loved the idea of a United Europe, the larger the better, some were even enthusing about a future without nation states. The European solution offered after the Second World War the chance of redemption and a new beginning. The political classes in Germany widely accepted the thesis that the nationstate and aggressive nationalism was responsible for the catastrophe of National Socialism and the Holocaust. The future belonged to a supranational Europe. In Germany you find even today more European Utopianism than in other EU countries. Not only is it deeply ingrained in the postwar generations but it fits well into a German tendency to build “castles in the sky” and forget about reality, as Merkels refugee policy proved.
In Britian, the lure of a European concept tinged with utopianism was weaker, if not completely absent. Eventually the European Idea going beyond a free trade area were embraced by centre left and centre right; many advocated for a while even giving up pound sterling and joining the Euro.
But Britain had never quite forgotten two lessons of history: It was the British nationstate, that had 1945 triumphed and had withstood the totalitarian challenges coming from the continent, National Socialism and Communism. Furthermore, democracy was born and had developed in the frame of the nationstate. Empirical evidence gained over decades of the existence of the EU demonstrated to the British that the democratic principle cannot easily, if at all, be transfered on to a transnational entity, as manifold examples of the “democratic deficit” of the European Union demonstrated. It is bureaucracies and corporations that rule and determine to quite an extent the decisions of supranational entities like the EU, not accountable and sackable politicians.
The creation of the Euro was the final triumph of Integrationism and maybe one of the factors that may lead to its final demise. The number of integrationist who are fervent supporters of the Common currency has shrunk; most former British supporters of the EURO today keep quiet about this and are relieved that the UK stayed away from the two most advanced projects of Integration, the Euro and Schengen. Nowadays Integrationist are much more modest in their outlook. They would be happy enough to preserve the EU and its British membership; they would agree that the Union needs reform urgently to survive the dangerous and stormy times lying ahead.
No wonder that their Remain campaign avoids any discussion of promises or daring designs for more integration. Instead they rely heavily on the fear factor, on worries about the economic consequences of a jump into the unknown; they appeal to the selfinterest of British voters. A understandable and rational strategy. It has after all in the past proved to be successful many times. “It is the economy, stupid”, as Bill Clinton said. “Better the devil you know” was and still is the dominant mood music. It will, so the expectation, work in Britain 2016 too. So the warnings of ecomomic disadvantages, of lesser growth and job losses outside the EU got more plentiful, darker and in the end more hyperbolic as time went on.
As far as the Brexiteers are concerned there is a kind of reverse role play going on. To a certain extent they have taken on the role of the utopians. Some of their leading figures seem to have a gleam in their eyes when they paint a golden future of Britain freed from the shackles of an interfering, overregulating Brussels bureaucracy. The world would be keen of trading with the fifth biggest economy on the globe, they say. May be, maybe not. But one has to give it to Brexiteers like Michael Gove and Daniel Hannan, the MEP who is fighting for abolishing his well amunerated job in the European Parliament. They try to inspire, unlike the “Remainers”, who predict doom and gloom for Britain outside the safe harbour of the EU.
The economic argument for staying in received as expected establishment support from OECD, IMF, Central Bankers and numerous heavy hitters around the world. But it is unlikely that it escaped the the attention of the wider public that the track record of the establishment institutions have not been very accurate, especially not in predicting the future a few years ahead.
The likeliest outcome is that in the short- and midterm “Brexit” will prove to be disadvantageous for the UK. Markets do not like uncertainty, there will be pressure on pound sterling and share prices maybe affected. But in the long run the negative economic fallout might prove to be limited and may perhaps even give way for a rosier future.
Wjhat about the other issues at stake? If the British will base their decision mainly on issues like democracy and national souvereingnty the country could indeed decide to leave the EU. Inside the EU a nationstate cannot have full control over its borders, as David Cameron found out during his attempt to renegotiate a better deal for Britain. If this is what the majority of the British demand, fearfull of the Millions of refugees from Islamic Asia and Subsaharan Africa trying to get into Europe – and we are just seeing the beginning of the new age of migration – they could vote accordingly and leave the EU.
The British voters, one of the more mature electorates of the western world and in the past giving again and again credence to the theory of “the wisdom of the crowd”, might come to the same conclusion, if they value the principles of national selfdetermination and accountability of its rulers higher than what is on offer inside the EU: friendly cooperation underpinned by shared souvereignty, a powerful, all in all a benevolent bureaucracy, the Commission in Brussels, with all the hallmarks of such institutions, first selfpreservation, then creating subhierarchies to deflect responsibilities, while at the same time relentlessly seeking and accumulating more competences and influence, as described by the German Sociologist Robert Michels at the beginning of the 20th century in his seminal work “The Iron law of Oligarchy”, in which he analysed the internal mechanisms at work in all institutions and bureaucracies.
The European Parliament did not manage to reduce the democratic deficit of the EU. It was based on the illusion that a European “demos”, an European nation exists or would in time develope, another example of the strong utopian element that has been driving the European project forward.
If the economic argument might in the end be not as decisive as the “Remainers” had hoped, especially in the light of the growing concern about immigration, and if the arguments of democracy, national selfdetermination and souvereignty are anyhow pointing towards “Brexit” – what hope is there for the “Remain” – camp?
There are arguments that could be made and that might even influence enough voters to shift the result in favour of staying in the EU.
Brexit will be seen by the enemies of the West as clearest eveidence that its power is waning and that the democratic world is beginning to fall apart, losing the will and determination to defend its principles and interests. Putins Russia, Iran, North Korea and Isis, but China too, already encouraged by an indecisive Obama administration, will be further strenghtened in their belief that the West has lost its way.
Furthermore, if Britain leaves the Union, it will be seen, whatever the economic fallout for Britain may bring, first and foremost a devastating blow for the European project. The EU is already in a precarious state and crumbling dangerously; Schengen is as good as dead, borders have gone up even between northern and central European countries, always so keen to demonstrate civilised and less nationalistic behaviour to their backwards neighbours in the east and on the Balkan. But the “new age of migration” is bringing to an end the European dream.
One thing is certain: The next Euro crisis will arrive sooner or later too. As David Marsh in his latest book outlined as convincingly as depressingly, everybody in charge throughout Europe knows what needs to be done in order to save the Euro, but it cannot and will not be done because the political mood, in short “renationalisation”, across the continent is making this impossible.
Whatever happens with the EU, Britain cannot escape the likely mess unfolding in continental Europa by leaving and expect to live happily ever after. There is no escape, in or out of the EU. Like in the past, when totalitarian currents were creating turmoil throughout Europe, the UK again will be affected and asked to get involved, today even more and more urgently than before.
Britain may never have fulfilled the ambition of many of its Primeministers, to be “in the heart of Europe”, but it can be part of its “brain”, by lending pragmatism and rational policies to an EU in urgent need of all the help it can master. Germany, despite its relative economic strength, did never demonstrate the necessary characteristics that are demanded from a hegemonial power.
Britain has no friends only interest, so the famous quote goes. It is in Britain’s selfinterest not to wash her hands of the EU. Influential members of the London government are aware of this. They know that a possible Brexit could in the worst case trigger an untidy break up of the EU.
Even if the worst scenario could be avoided a Brexit outcome will leave bitter feelings and anger behind in countries like France and Germany. Disgruntled advocates of a fully blown European Union – and some do still believe that their dream is realisable – will hold a strong grudge against London. Necessary renegotiations might very well be protracted and new arrangements might not as easy and quickly to achieve as the Brexit campaign is expecting.
In political and diplomatic circles of France and Germany one could hear more than once the opinion expressed along lines like “why should we after a Brexit bend over backwards to accommodate them as quickly as possible or even give them special treatment?”. In Brussels, Paris, Berlin and Madrid are many resentful figures in Politics and Media who once supported the European dream fullheartedly and who for many years have been irritated and angered by the lack of British enthusiasm for their vision. In the past they used to blame Britain for trying to stall and boycott their project. A new “Dolchstoss Legende”, a legend of the “stab in the back” could easily gain popular traction and influence governments.
All this would bode ill for Western democracies and it will encourage their enemies and rivals. Better for the UK to remain inside, have influence over the future structure of the European Union, prevent, in the worst case, chaos and promote sensible reforms. Change the EU must and will in the near future anyhow. Better to bring change in an orderly fashion.
There may be convincing and legitimate arguments for Britian to depart. I hope the British will step back and consider and not give in to the temptation to go it alone. It might help reminding them of their own Union which might in danger because of a further Scottish referendum. Will the British electorate consider all these possible consequences of a vote for Brexit, will they be solely guided by economic worries or will the urge to do something unexpected win the day? I don’t know the answer. But I feel that the world after the vote on the 23. Of June might be as surprised as Million of football fans across the globe were when the news came through that the unlikeliest of football teams, the former nobodies of Leicester City, had won the Premier league and beaten the Establishment.
Jürgen Krönig, May 2016