Disengaging from the European Union dominates British politics since 2016. A combination of political opportunism and incompetence has locked the political discourse to questions that do not address citizen concerns or serve the interests of the British state. The plethora of doomsday metaphors [train-wreck; cliff-edge; failed game; lost battle etc] used by journalists and commentators indicate uncertainty, apprehension and disbelief. After all, the infliction of persistent self-harm can only be a symptom of a pathological cause. Maybe something is rotten in the Kingdom of Britain.
Among brexiteers there are those that perceive a land of opportunity, lower taxes and new friends by unshackling from the EU behemoth. Political scientists on the other hand point-out that a referendum on a complex negotiation cannot be a binary choice. The democratic solution would be to offer citizens a choice between available deals and let them decide in a second referendum. Most political arguments depend on framing. There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.
While the British public are resigned to a bad deal there are many issues that are sidelined by the preoccupation with Brexit. Domestic issues such as the looming crisis with the introduction of universal credit [a reconfiguration of welfare payments that are expected to reduce benefits with a dubious impact on public finance] . International issues, such as trade wars, the rise of authoritarianism and emerging regional powers. And global issues such as climate change, pollution and global migration trends.
I have expressed concern two years ago, in my first reflections to the 2016 referendum, for British loss of institutional capacity. I am still amazed that the “remain” campaign makes no reference to the accomplishments, ideals and impact of the EU. The fact that the UK as 20% of the EU economic engine has been instrumental in building and shaping Europe and the global world order. The British have shaped a specific view on European integration, with many adherents in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia to whom they represent a champion of incremental and functional processes of institution building. Unlike visions of Shangri La and the failures of Kipling heroes favored by a former British Foreign Minister, the British have been instrumental in shaping pragmatic institutions and effective policies. Not by coincidence, the EU exercises a level of accountability and probity to public finances few member states enjoy. And as the Bard said, it is a wise father that knows its child. How come the British do not see their own DNA in this child?
The macro-economic argument for remaining could be that membership to the EU has underpinned British growth for decades. Membership is also critical to the appeal of the country to foreign investors and an opportunity to leverage its commercial and trade interests globally.
Bur it is a political argument that is employed for exiting the EU. And it is levied by those that perceive themselves as a political elite. And to the privileged, equality feels like oppression. And it is a perception of loss of influence that drive those among the political elites seeking a reconstitution of lost empire. And sadly, it is not just in annotating Corialanus that one can find examples of the interests of the many at odds with the interests of an opportunistic elite.
But, what I lament the most is the lack of an ideological case to convince the British public that the institutions associated with the EU are a patrimony of the British state, a legacy of British pragmatism in the world arena, and a guarantor of regional stability for the last half century. It is a failure of the British political class, which has found itself hemmed into a dead-end: by painting the EU as the source of all political ills and all ideological malaise for decades, they cannot now sound convincing if they were to support membership. And the Brits are unlikely to support membership just because some little-known economist decreed that they stand to loose 8% of GDP and 30% of property values on a hard Brexit. What fools these mortals be!