after the brexit vote: more of the same — but more so?

This is the first of a series of posts reflecting on the Brexit vote. I did start writing an earlier piece trying to make sense of my feelings right after the result, but it was a little overwrought! Even now, nearly two weeks later, it’s difficult to keep up with all that’s happening. But ideas are gradually taking shape. The next (planned) post looks at the Green Party’s call for progressive alliance; a theory-based analysis of the Labour Party crisis is also in the pipeline. Don’t forget to subscribe below for updates on new posts.

The day after the Brexit referendum, there was no shortage of opinions and analysis, much of it crushingly gloomy. One of the very few optimistic interpretations appeared in a press release from Germany’s Left Party. Yes, the Brexit vote has ‘upset the status quo’; but in so doing it has also opened up historical opportunities and ushered in a new struggle for a different social and political vision of a Europe of peace and openness. It’s a struggle that transcends national borders and involves everyone determined to protect human rights from the economic and technocratic elites. In other words, a new start to a new European future.

Post-Brexit vote, can we really be optimistic about a rebirth of the EU? It’s still too early to tell, and it’s hard to keep smiling as the bad news keeps rolling in, but what can we guess from EU responses so far?

As David Cameron disappeared on gardening leave for the rest of the summer and the lack of a Plan B (or even a Plan A) became glaringly apparent, various EU officials and leaders expressed exasperation and impatience at the perceived heel-dragging: ‘You’ve voted to leave, so just hurry up and go!’ Because, of course, Brexit gives the EU plenty to think about too.

First, the EU is very keen indeed to ensure the UK doesn’t ‘set an example’ to other Member States. Hence the insistence that negotiations should offer no ‘special deals’ for the UK. If the UK is seen to secure too many concessions, particularly in relation to market access and migration, then governments — and, of course, voters — in other Member States would take a dim view of it and begin to question the rationale of their own EU membership. Indeed, the Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders has already prophesied that The Netherlands will be next to go. And let’s face it, enthusiasm for the EU isn’t exactly overwhelming. Both in Germany (whose economy relies on a cheap currency and stagnant low wages) and in Spain, 50 per cent of population has a negative opinion of the EU, while dissatisfaction levels in France have reached 61 per cent and, unsurprisingly, even higher in Greece, at 71 per cent.

Another argument for a swift and brusque departure, closely related to the first, concerns growing nationalism and the rise of the far right in Europe. Immigration dominated the debate in the UK, and there several far-right movements and parties elsewhere in the EU, among them Pegida and the Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany; the Front Nationale in France; the Sweden Democrats and the Freedom Party (FPÖ) in Austria. Both France and Germany face General Elections next year and things aren’t looking rosy for either President Hollande or Chancellor Merkel. But while we should condemn the awful rhetoric of bigotry in the referendum debate and the appalling outbreak of racist abuse in its wake, let’s not forget that far-right movements and attitudes were gaining ground well before the UK’s referendum too. In Germany, for example, Pegida has been on the march since 2014 and last year saw a proliferation of violence against refugees and attacks on their accommodation. In March the far-right AfD performed strongly in regional elections, becoming the second largest party in the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt. I followed those elections closely, and they didn’t take their cue from the UK referendum. So the resurgent far right is a genuinely EU-wide crisis — and attributing it to referendum-related noise from the UK won’t tackle it.

But it’s not just the far right the EU has to worry about. Young people across the EU are fed up with the establishment, unemployment and zero prospects. At the moment, they tend to be pro EU — or, more specifically, are pro European unity and freedom of movement  — and hope to achieve radical reform of the EU from within. But what if things don’t improve for this lost generation? Will young people tolerate a ‘post-democratic’, incurably neo-liberal, austerity-fixated EU and just accept that perhaps another Europe isn’t possible after all? What then?

Thus, Brexit is widely seen as a shock which demands a swift response. But one particular EU reaction has been to pursue even less democracy. After all, a crisis can be a convenient opportunity to push through measures which, during ‘normal’ times, would prove too controversial — when citizens and opposition movements are so dazed or preoccupied by the immediate upheaval that they aren’t able to mobilise effective resistance. So it wouldn’t be altogether surprising if, in the midst of the Brexit confusion and conjecture, the EU pressed ahead with something controversial. Something like CETA; TTIP’s ‘little sister’, and every bit as dangerous for both sides affected by the EU-Canada deal. Just a few days after the referendum result, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced that he favoured pressing ahead with the controversial trade agreement without parliamentary approval from the Member States. Why? Because securing the approval of the respective democratically elected national parliaments would take too long (isn’t democracy tiresome!) and paralyse the process. According to Juncker, delaying CETA would damage the EU’s credibility even more than Brexit has. 

Meanwhile, the Canadian Minister for Trade has reported not even a ‘whisper’ of discontent on the European side. But then again, it rather depends on who you’ve been listening to. The EU doesn’t consist solely of Eurocrats — and there’s been decidedly more than a whisper from the growing movement of citizens protesting against both CETA and TTIP. Demonstrations called ahead of the Canadian PM’s visit to sign the deal in autumn will ensure there are plenty more voices to be heard, too.

The Commission argues that consent from national parliaments isn’t actually necessary, as CETA is a strictly European treaty (i.e. the EU acts as a bloc). But even if that’s the case (which is disputed), where does that leave democratic legitimacy? Member States, including France and Germany (whose objection to the controversial investor protection clause delayed the signing of CETA in 2014) are insisting on the right of national parliaments to have a say. And now the Left Party is preparing a legal challenge to any ratification of CETA that bypasses national parliaments. Co-Chair Sahra Wagenknecht cited the CETA proposal as a perfect example of Brussels arrogance destined to further alienate people from the EU. But even this attempt to secure a voice for parliaments is being dismissed as a cynical manipulation. The deputy Chair of the conservative CDU accused the Left Party and the Greens, who also oppose CETA, of exploiting Brexit and resentment in order to destroy the deal with Canada. Well, admittedly, the Left Party and Greens have been nothing but upfront about their opposition to CETA and TTIP. (A transparency that’s missing from the negotiations and lobbying behind the deals, it must be said.)

So if Juncker gets his way, CETA will circumvent elected national parliaments — and that’ll be that. By the way: did you notice much of this in the news? Probably not, unless you actually went looking for it; it’s buried by Brexit and, depending on where you happen to be, football.

The EU is busily setting about restoring the status quo as soon as possible. But the Brexit vote was an expression of resentment against the establishment (or, in plainer English, a huge ‘Up Yours’), aggravated by a growing social divide. If you already have nothing, then you have nothing left to lose. And this too is a problem throughout the EU. Germany’s Social Democrats (rediscovering their social conscience?) have called for greater investment in the EU’s infrastructure, research and education in order to boost growth — something which would benefit young people. However, EU legislative measures require the prevention and remedy of ‘excessive’ macroeconomic imbalances, and are backed up by recourse to sanctions and other ‘corrective’ tools. Indeed, German Finance Minister Schäuble, a proponent of the ‘schwarze Null’ (‘black zero’, referring to an austerity-driven balanced federal budget) has recently advocated imposing such sanctions on Spain and Portugal.

At a time when the EU needs to (re)establish its legitimacy and prove it delivers real social benefits, is turning the screws even more on Member States and their citizens, or even more technocratic decision making above people’s heads (and parliaments) likely to tackle disillusionment and disengagement in Europe — or deepen it?

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