To win its battle of Britain, the EU must undergo a process to regain trust of the Brexit voters so that they will advocate Britain to rejoin the EU for the very same reasons that led them to pin their hopes to it some 30 years ago.
Image: “Banksy does Brexit” (detail) by Duncan Hull (flickr.com).
In political terms, Brexit has been an earth-shattering event that has forced many to redefine their (implicitly goal-directed) narratives regarding how history and political events proceed and evolve. A main news item in the recent months was the deal that the British Prime Minister and the EU leaders agreed upon so that the divorce in question would be consensual.
The news on the progress of the negotiations featured alongside with others about ministers resigning their posts and the undemocratic call for a second referendum (so that this time around, the electorate would ‘choose wisely’). The Brexit delirium was also marked by appeals to courts in the UK and the EU, cheap fortune-telling, intransigent calls and claims on both sides of the channel as to non-negotiable issues, and speculation regarding whether an eventual treaty would garner sufficient support in Westminster and/or Brussels (there is a possibility that the deal may be rejected by the UK parliament).
Meanwhile, the majority of local comments—expressed either on social media or in opinion pieces—were a blend of parochialism, vindictiveness and attempts to mask one’s own interests under the guise of rationality. These opinions revealed the general inability to reflect on the repercussions of what is going on in the union of nations of which Malta is a part.
Here I focus on two aspects that concern how ‘our’ (i.e. the EU) side dealt with Brexit: how it failed to properly analyse the result and the impossibility of a win-win deal. I begin with the latter.
Some Divorces Are Not Made in Heaven
The official line on both sides of the channel (Downing Street and Brussels) after the agreement is that the separation has been consensual: a possible win-win situation, or at least a divorce that will not be excessively traumatic. This cannot be.
For the European Union the issue is ultimately existential.
Even if the deal will leave things fundamentally as they are, as some Brexiters have argued, the example may be followed by others.
Even if the deal will leave things fundamentally as they are, as some Brexiters have argued, even if the two parties struck the best package possible to the suit the City, even if everything was done to tie the hands of Jeremy Corbyn and his ilk should they get elected to office, even if May got a bad deal (whatever that means) and, finally, if Britain leaves and shows that there is life after leaving the EU, its example may be followed by others.
The consequence to the EU could be fatal. This explains why some on the EU side intend to injure Britain so that in the aftermath of the divorce it will receive a crippling blow. However, from their perspective, the problem was that the UK has a noticeable bargaining power. Britain has almost 4 million EU residents living in the UK, most of them earning their living in the country. On the other hand, the number of UK residents in the EU is 1.3 million, not all of whom are working (a third are retired expats who bring currency to the countries in which they reside). This is what has given Britain bargaining power in negotiations.
In a context where a win-win scenario cannot occur, the EU attempted to overwhelm the UK in neoliberal terms. An alternative path would have been far more beneficial to reach a consensus: the EU should have done what it failed to do up to now—address the key issues that ultimately caused Brexit.
A quick look at the map of the pro-Brexit regions, shows that the “Leave” vote was stronger in the most deprived areas. It also was very conspicuous amongst destitute categories of earners: welfare recipients, low income earners, unemployed or ‘unemployable’ due to their health or age, and pensioners.
However, this fact was brushed off by many supposedly ‘liberal’ critics who insisted that it was ignorance, if not senility, that swayed the vote one way rather than another, with some even offering fascist-like suggestions that such ‘ignorant’ people should perhaps not be allowed to vote on important matters. That many of the Leave campaign voters have experienced life since Britain joined the Union in the seventies is obviously not thought to provide them with some knowledge of what the marriage between the UK and the EU has been or failed to be.
Boiling Brexit down to xenophobia or nationalism as many have done is, to say the least, myopic.
Intolerance of immigrants and the little-Englander anxiety (phenomena that undoubtedly exist) certainly contributed to the referendum outcome. Yet, boiling this down to xenophobia or nationalism as many have done is, to say the least, myopic.
Sensible analysts, like former EU Commission President Romano Prodi, have admitted that the EU is losing trust of the poor and other groups who feel alienated by what goes on in centres of power over which they have little or no say. What makes the situation more depressing is the fact that in the 1980s many in the post-industrial areas that supported Brexit had hoped the EU would protect them from the neoliberal Thatcherism. Today, the Union promotes similar economic models and policies.
To win its battle of Britain, the EU must undergo a process to regain trust of the Brexit voters.
To win its battle of Britain, the EU must undergo a process to regain trust of the Brexit voters so that they will advocate Britain to rejoin the EU for the very same reasons that led them to pin their hopes to it some 30 years ago. Quoting Tariq Ali, a British Pakistani writer and public intellectual, this would require “a total reversal of [EU] policies… A radical social democracy.”
The EU should begin from scrapping the Lisbon Treaty. If necessary, it should close shop and be refounded. Member countries should be bound by the following policies:
Right to a minimum wage that is a living wage for each employee in the EU, the amount of which would pegged to the cost of living in each respective member state.
Common standards that guarantee the right to shelter across Europe and that are not susceptible to the frolics of the markets.
Common welfare rights regarding health and unemployment benefits and pensions, each adapted to the context of the member state but guaranteeing a common decent standard of living to those in the lowest echelons anywhere across the union.
European Institutions should be strengthened to the extent that such policies cannot be trumped by any decision to the contrary by national governments. Countries which would not wish to implement such standards might have various association treaties with the EU, but have no access to full membership.