Six ways to bring about a coordinated outcome to the crisis in Britain.
The Brexit referendum has triggered a wave of populist fervor that is overwhelming our democracies. Eight years on from the 2008 crash, it marked the end of a cycle of liberal globalization that began in 1979 with Margaret Thatcher’s reforms, and also marked the beginning of the era of de-globalization, under the banners of retreat into national interests, protectionism and xenophobia. Two and a half years after the vote on 23rd June 2016, Brexit is in gridlock. On 15th January, Theresa May’s government suffered the worst defeat in the House of Commons of any British government in almost a century when the deal she proposed for Britain’s quitting the European Union was rejected by 432 votes to 202. The next day, she survived a motion of no confidence by 325 votes to 203, obliging her to present, on 21st January, the elusive plan B that MPs have demanded – which amounts to the initial deal linked to a bilateral agreement with Ireland over its frontiers. Two months away from the deadline of 29th March 2019, fixed in accordance with Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom is tipping over into chaos. Economic activity and purchasing power are falling sharply and more and more businesses and jobs are being relocated. Society is deeply divided and violence is erupting, as shown in the spate of knife attacks in Greater London. The political climate is dominated by nihilism: the UK can neither remain in the EU nor leave; a deal is impossible, but no deal is recognized as being suicidal; and there is no majority in Parliament, either to approve a deal with the EU – which Theresa May continues to assert is the raison d’être of her government – or to overturn it.
Brexit has run aground, and this is totally because of the rabble-rousing that produced it. Debate on the referendum obscured the all-important questions of the consequences of leaving the customs union, the situation of Scotland, and, even more importantly, the preservation of peace in Northern Ireland which requires there to be no restoration of the frontier with Eire in the south. The small majority in favor of Brexit (51.9%) was the result of an unnatural alliance between that section of the population that feels marginalized by globalization and wants more protection, and that fringe of the City elite who want to be free of any regulations and create a European Singapore. Theresa May has cultivated the denial of reality and shown herself incapable of taking a clearly-defined negotiating position. She has then found herself obliged to make more and more concessions in deals that never got off the ground, like the one that came out of Chequers on 6th July 2018. As the months go by and and UK spirals down into decline, the national interest and respect for the institutions have been blown away by the unleashing of collective fervor and party politics.
Brexit is a slow-working poison that threatens to lock the country into chronic economic, social and political instability, which would be catastrophic both for Britain and for Europe. It is therefore indispensable to envisage a coordinated way out of the crisis. It should be based on the following principles:
- Rejection of the deal with the EU means that the UK needs to clarify its position. It can only preserve its national unity and economic development if it maintains a customs union with Europe.
- British political leaders are behaving in such a way that they are putting their democracy at risk, for they are no longer respect its values, its institutions, its sense of pragmatism, or its ability to reach compromise. They must recover their sense of responsibility and put the national interest above any party political considerations.
- The increased number of serious threats to Europe – from démocratures [a démocrature is a combination of democracy and dictatorship], Jihadism, the militarization of space, and from the cyber-world, mean that defense and security agreements between the UK and member countries of the EU must be guaranteed and remain sacrosanct. This is particularly the case of the Lancaster agreement, signed with France – the only other European country with an operational army and a nuclear armory.
- Ultimately, any re-orienting of Brexit can only be decided in a vote by the British people. This is inevitable and should take the form of a general election rather than a new referendum which would have dubious legitimacy and might yet again raise the risk of being skewed by rabble-rousing and interference from Russia.
- To extend the Brexit deadline beyond 29th March, which requires a unanimous vote on the part of the 27 member countries, has no sense if tit only prolongs the current confusion. It is relevant if it corresponds to a precise strategy, specific objectives and involves a new, precise schedule.
- Whatever the outcome of Brexit, the EU will have to be reshaped in order to meet Europeans’ expectations, and to undermine the populist movement, which could take control of the European Parliament in May. The more Europe re-thinks itself in terms of inclusive growth, sovereignty, security and democracy, the more it will facilitate a positive outcome to Brexit.
Brexit is the worst political disaster for the UK since the outbreak of the 1914-18 war – the war which put an end to its world leadership. There are lessons to be learned from this for all our democracies. In times of crisis, the referendum is a fatal weapon when in the hands of demagogues. As a testing-ground for 21st century populism, Brexit illustrates the ravages than can be inflicted on nations and on the people it claims to serve: promises to “take back control” end in a dead-end street where everything is “out of control”. Just like the trade war launched by Donald Trump, it also underlines the dangers of de-globalization, which hinders development and impoverishes the masses, whilst weakening sovereignty and the rule of law. As a final point, the British are showing, albeit against their will, that the achievements of the European community are not just a myth; they are tangible realities. We must not wait for populists to destroy Europe before we take its successes on board and rally round to reshape Europe on the basis of security and the defense of liberty!
(Column published in Le Point, 24th January 2019)