Brexit has been a shock. It wasn’t the European Union that smashed the trade unions, depleted Britain’s social housing stock and then went on an orgy of privatisation, but Brexit has handed complete, unregulated control over to those who did, and the potential consequences reach far beyond Britain’s borders.
The Leave campaign used ugly xenophobic nationalism to make their case and there has been a long and hostile campaign against the EU in Great Britain. That this has never been effectively countered by the mainstream media or commentariat was a real problem, for even while agreeing to the many benefits of EU membership they shared the general amusement in Britain at the fervour for the EU in Brussels. It seemed obvious to them that it was folly to promote the idea that unity in Europe meant disregarding deep-seated national loyalties, and they saw that this was as true for France as it was for England.
There are now signs that both London and Brussels are waking up to the debacle of an unfolding Brexit. Young people in the UK will not give up the freedoms that European citizenship has brought them and which are now threatened. The elite vision of European integration has been replaced with their actual experience that Europe is their country and they will react savagely if Brexit takes this from them. Brexit is not over. Whatever agreement Theresa May’s Government can forge with the EU will need to be agreed by the Parliament in Westminster, and perhaps put to the people of the UK in a general election.
Far-reaching consequences – Brexit’s potential impact on Ireland
There has been a deluge of requests for Irish citizenship from those born in the UK who are eligible and want to retain EU passports. The Irish Constitution has a broad idea of citizenship, including in its membership those born in Northern Ireland and those who have Irish grandparents. Citizenship is at the heart of Irish Independence, a foundational idea for the 1916 Proclamation of Independence and a radical idea for a British Imperial administration which did not then possesses such a concept. Even after Independence in 1922 the British Government continued to insist that Irish “citizens” were actually “British subjects”, and maintained that Irish people must travel on British passports.
In Ireland we fear Brexit for several reasons. Firstly the Ireland of Ireland is divided by a land border. This border, which was guarded by watchtowers and troops into the 1990s, was dismantled by the peace agreement in 1998. No one on either side of the border wants to see it return, and the effects of so doing on the stability of Northern Ireland are incalculable. Secondly, Ireland and Britain share many billions in trade every year. If the UK pulls out of the single market, the effects on the Irish economy could be immensely destructive. Thirdly, Ireland and the UK have a common travel agreement for their citizens since 1922, when the Republic of Ireland became independent of Britain. This means that there is free movement of people between the two jurisdictions. Though there is good will and intent to maintain this, we do not know what technical difficulties may surface during the negotiations with Brussels on Brexit.
Brexit is not just a British issue, the anger with the political elite is a global issue; the same anger powered the Trump campaign in the USA. Brexit is a cry for leadership in response to the power of globalisation. The European Union was not the principal reason why many felt economically and politically powerless, but it became a potent symbol of the overpowering force of globalisation. Brexit was favoured by the less educated and more precarious. As in many parts of Europe, there are two different economies and for the low-paid the benefit of the European Union are not evident. Their target was the privileged urban elites who have done well from globalisation since the 1990’s, while those who were poorly educated and disconnected were left behind.
The citizens globalisation left behind
The proximate reason for Brexit was also in the mindless pursuit of fiscal austerity by these same elites at a time when interest rates were low and the need for the next generation of services and infrastructure was pressing. The former industrial workforce has nothing to replace production-based industrial work and its communities are dying and ignored. There is no real attempt to replace old industry with new kinds of work, no Green New Deal, no re-training for the challenges of today, because ideas of austerity have taken hold and investment in necessary infrastructure and services is neglected.
If the leaders of Europe do not recognise the task in front of them, the forces of democracy will continue to churn in search of those who can rise to the challenge of these times. They still fail to understand, although they should remember, that a charismatic candidate who appeals to the dark side can be just as potent as one who appeals to the common good. If France turns to Marine Le Pen in response to random acts of terror on its streets, then Europe is frighteningly at risk. The existing fault line between the nation state and the EU institutions is already deep because of the economic crisis. This is most strongly expressed in Eurosceptic states like the UK, but also exists elsewhere and is getting stronger. EU leaders must articulate a vision of Europe with which they can identify and which will deal concretely with the woes caused by globalisation and the economic collapse.
The EU’s flawed democracy must be reformed
Change must also come to the way the EU does its business. Democracy, like justice, must not only be done, but seen to be done. Levels of EU governance are so complex that they are not intelligible to its citizens. The people of Europe demand representation and accountability that they can understand. The first challenge is to reform the European Council, the body that is most visible and interesting to the citizens, and the politicians that have the most legitimacy, their own heads of government. For too long these statesmen and women have blamed Brussels for all that their own citizens’ dislike. It must be understood that they have agreed to the same laws that they complain of. It is astonishing and against all European ancient traditions of governance that Council convenes in secret when legislating. It must operate with accountability and transparency when making laws for the whole of the EU because the European Council has the most visible role in giving the EU political legitimacy for its citizens.
The EU has powerful structural safeguards. Member state governments are not only directly represented in the EU’s de facto ‘upper chamber’, the Council of Ministers but also appoint the European Commission President and the College of Commissioners and the justices of the European Court of Justice. They monitor both the implementation of EU policies by the Commission, and control the implementation of most policies at the national level. All these powerful structural safeguards for state interests should make fears of dominance by the centre implausible.
However, Generation Europe is not content to allow the political elite in Europe to make decisions without them being visible and accountable and see this as vital to prevent a catastrophic collapse in our systems of governance in the EU. Although many in the Greens wish to change these structures and create a more unified EU, and the Eurozone makes this a necessity, we must start from where we are, not from where we may wish to be. Then perhaps our citizens will come to understand that together we are stronger and better able to deal with the challenges of globalisation, climate change, environmental destruction and economic collapse.