As the debate on the British exit from the European Union gained global resonance it would be interesting to examine why Europe lost its relevance for large sections of the UK polity. This can help draw lessons for other member states, where a number of political entrepreneurs attempt to capitalise on the shifting political discourse.
But let us start from Britain. It was striking that during the debate no major political actors made the principled case for membership to the EU. All arguments for membership were predominantly utilitarian. Remain campaigners amplified the opinion of a long list of experts willing to opine on the topic. These assessments were universally in favour of membership but reasoned in technocratic terms. Experto crede. Brexit, on the other hand, was premised on ideological arguments coached on intangible concepts such as national pride and sovereignty and underpinned by fears of immigration and terrorism.
It is true, as we know from previous referenda in Europe, that charismatic political personalities can be instrumental in swaying public opinion. This was the case during the Greek referendum to reject the terms of the bailout and the referenda associated with changing the EU Treaties in France, Holland and Ireland. Citizens consider these as opportunities to express frustration with the political system, which makes it easy for vocal minorities to hijack and frame the debate in their terms. And of course, offer an opportunity for populist political entrepreneurs to increase their political capital.
To get back to the UK referendum, as Jean-Claude Juncker lamented, it should not be a surprise that British politicians could not elicit any sympathy for an institution that they have been haranguing for the past forty years. The only political force with a pro-EU rhetoric, the Liberal Democrats, are discredited from their disastrous co-habitation in government with the Conservatives. Ex post facto, there is limited room for political elites to now ignore a 52% vox populi. The Conservatives recognise that their party will split if they do not carry through with Brexit, while Labour lacks the leadership to challenge the Conservatives or a European conviction that will allow them to identify joint British and European interests. So, baring any tectonic shift in the political landscape I predict that politicians have to follow-through with a policy they broadly recognise as detrimental to narrowly defined British interests.
But what is the point of the EU? And could this have been conveyed to a wider audience? It should be self-evident that in a globalised world, sovereignty lacks clear delineation. Is Iceland able to exercise its sovereignty if its trade partners reach an agreement, say on bank capital requirements, that excludes its key service industry? What would happen to German car exports if half its trading partners unilaterally dismiss the way emissions data are measured? In other words, the chimera that a state can somehow generate its own rules and regulations and impose them on the rest of the world is ludicrous. So, the first point of relevance of the EU for the UK is to be at the table of the largest trading block when the rules are generated. The second point is that size matters. True in international negotiations, true in global influence. The third point is that European integration has generated stability within and outwith Europe. Britain has been a core driver of this process of stability and international development.
The EU (with Britain and all member states) is responsible for more than half of global aid. It is also a model political institution emulated across the globe. Furthermore, it has generated multiple policies for balanced growth within its own periphery, accountability and probity in public finances. Britain has been a driving force and a major beneficiary of this process. And to put things in perspective for Europhobes, both as an accountable institution and as an efficient bureaucracy the EU gets better marks than any of the equivalent institutions in national member states. But the consensual way the EU reaches collective decisions does not allow populists a constituency to manipulate. Ergo, the institutions must be at fault and democracy must be suffering. So, instead of devoting their energy in improving the accountability and transparency of existing institutions, populists would prefer a smaller domain from which they can directly draw political capital.
The crux of the matter is that the European project is also a British project. The failure of the British political elites to convey this message has become a British and European political failure. While there is a danger of populist contagion to other EU states, the immediate impact has been of a degeneration in European political discourse.