Brexit, or the lack of imagination

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Matt Dunham/Associated Press

Since June 23, 2016, the United Kingdom has been confronting a substantial task to leave the European Union after decades of deep cooperation and integration. Over the last two years, the UK political elite, Tories and Labor alike, has demonstrated an absolute lack of imagination and illustrated the inability to think beyond their wishes of a return to an illusory lost exceptionalism. Three weeks prior the fatidic deadline of March 29, 2019, the British political elite is unable to decide on what is next for the UK, a soft Brexit (based on the agreed terms between the May government and the EU), a hard Brexit (no deal), a revocation of Article 50, or an extension of the Article 50. On March 12, the House of Commons rejected the government’s deal, followed on March 13 by a rejection of a no-deal Brexit paving the way for a potential request for a delay.

A delay for what? And towards what outcome? The UK and EU agreed back on November 14, 2018 on two documents: the agreement on the orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU and the Joint Political Declaration on the framework of future relationship. One of the most contentious points for the UK in the withdrawal agreement is the third Protocol concerning Ireland and North Ireland known as “backstop,” agreeing to create an EU-UK single customs territory. The backstop is “an apt paradox for a problem that may not have a solution.” The backstop would keep the UK in both the customs union and the single market until at least 2020 during which Brussels and London would negotiate the terms of a trade relationship.

The Brexit vote was based on a series of lies and political manipulations over the relationship between the UK and the EU. The UK has demonstrated over its decades in the Union its ability to control sovereignty in areas considered of national sovereignty such as the national currency, immigration and judiciary affairs, and so forth. The UK used its opt-out rights in core competencies. The debate prior to the referendum was tailored around immigration/borders, supposedly high cost of the EU membership (money to be utilized to the Health and Human Services), and national prestige allowing the UK to reestablish its grandeur internationally.

Two years later, the illusion of a positive outcome, potentially being a hard Brexit, remains as a possibility. The lack of imagination has been so visible throughout the process and since the end of the UK-EU negotiations. The last four months have exposed the inability of a political elite to think, govern and lead. It has been months of political talks and votes in London with a Prime Minister losing time after time votes on the same document thinking that the outcome of a new vote on a same document could have a different ending. Furthermore, PM May has failed to lead and unite her party, let alone the nation, to agree on the terms of a departure, yet manages to survive no confidence vote and hold her position. This demonstrates another level of political folly. At what point the House of Commons massively rejecting May’s deal, on two occasions, think that keeping the same captain defending the same deal would lead to a different outcome.

In a case of a decision to extend the Article 50 and a reopening of the negotiations, two questions arise. First, are the 27 EU Member States convinced that new rounds of negotiation will lead to a different outcome? PM May said it clearly, “the EU will want to know what use we will make of such an extension.” And second, will the negotiating team from the UK be different a different one bringing new propositions with regards to Northern Ireland to the table? In the current deal, the EU has rightfully protected one of its member states, Ireland, and the core of the Union, the common market. It is quite unimaginable to have the EU undermining one of its members to accommodate one exiting. Furthermore, seeking an extension to the negotiations could poison the debate ahead of the European elections on May 23-26 and require the UK to hold a campaign for the European Parliament elections.

Now the organization of a new referendum on Brexit to put back the decision in the hands of the citizens would send a mix message. The new referendum would be less about democracy and more about the political elite hiding its inabilities to lead and govern behind another popular vote. Regardless of the outcome of the 2016 vote, the government had a mandate and failed to deliver, which has become a common trend across the transatlantic community. After three years of toxic rhetoric, the outcome of new referendum tipping in favor of a remain vote could be damaging in the long-term for domestic and European politics. Can the UK strive back in the EU after this tumultuous period like nothing had ever happened? An optimist could argue that the EU, the 27 capitals and the UK have learnt the lessons being on the edge of a precipice and are willing to move head with substantial reforms by deepening the integration process. Why not?

Theresa May back in 2016 said, “Brexit means Brexit.” The initial understanding was that the UK will be leaving at the end of the two-year period. Today, “Brexit means Brexit” illustrates a total lack of imagination, of leadership and policy-making. Over two years, the UK has been unable to think about its own future outside the EU. How can the UK be in any position of strength in negotiating future relationships with world actors? “forging a new role for Britain in the world”? and to legislate in re-drafting and voting on a new set of rules and laws post-EU? “Brexit means Brexit” has become the mantra of a lost nation.

(COPYRIGHT 2019 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).

Cameron’s Gift to Europeans

Britain's Prime Minister David Cameron arrives to pose for a family photo during a European Union leaders summit in Brussels April 23, 2015. European Union leaders who decided last year to halt the rescue of migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean will reverse their decision on Thursday at a summit hastily convened after nearly 2,000 people died at sea. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

If reelected, David Cameron, British Prime Minister, promised to organize a referendum on British membership with the European Union (EU). With his reelection in May 2015, David Cameron is now working on the details of the referendum scheduled to eventually take place between autumn 2016 and winter 2017. Initially the government had designed the following question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” The response would have been ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. But in early September, the Electoral Commission argued that such question was biased and gave an advantage to the ‘Yes’ camp. Ultimately, a new question was drafted and now read “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” Citizens will have to choose between “Remain a member of the European Union” and “Leave the European Union.”

Aside from political, economic and social considerations, the British referendum on its future inside the European club is an excellent thing for Britain and the other 27 Membereu-referendum-british-eu-flags States. The reason is simple. Since Cameron’s reappointment, the question of the EU has been ever present in European and world press. Cameron is in fact offering a gift to the EU and his 27 partners as for a very long time – or even for the first time in European history – Europeans and their leaders will have to finally reflect on the meaning of a EU membership, the role of the EU, and the concept of Europeanness.

Since the 2007 financial crisis, the EU has become synonymous with oppression, incomprehension, and in short the enemy of national sovereignty and regional diversity. These ideas are not new and have always been shared throughout European history. But the degree of integration occurring right after the Cold War with the first stone laid by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 created a complex problem for governments. Integration has led to a double process of deepening (institutionally) and widening (enlargement). The degree of integration attained today requires more Europe for more cohesion in economic, financial, fiscal, immigration, security and defense policies. But Member States, for many different reasons, are reticent in moving towards deeper integration.

The United Kingdom, like Denmark, is an interesting Member State as it is neither a founding nor a British anti-EU‘fully integrated’ member considering its opt-out clauses. With the collapse of the financial markets, David Cameron, leader of the Conservative Party, has driven its country based on highly conservative and ideological policies. He has been focusing on cutting British debt by slashing most of government spending from social policies to defense. In addition, he has sought to attract to the ultra-nationalist base, led by the UKIP party, and one way was to put British membership to EU on the table. As illustrated below, British public opinion is closely divided in either remaining in the Union or leaving it.

Source: The Economist
Source: The Economist

Over the next two years, the press, leaders, and European citizens will have to finally reflect on the EU organized around two questions: what has the EU done for us, Europeans? What can we – Europeans – do for the EU? The first question is historically redundant as Member States are always trying to denigrate the massive contribution of the EU in the quality of life, which includes a ‘perpetual continental peace,’ of its Members and citizens. For instance, Spain, Portugal and Greece all highly beneficed from their membership in terms of development. In a matter of a decade, the standard of living in these countries was considerably increased. Certainly the Eurozone crisis has caused great harm in these countries, but all cannot be blamed on the euro. National governments ought to receive their share of the blame.

The second question is the most interesting of the two, as it will lead to a bottom-up reflection. What can European citizens and countries provide and offer to the EU? Member States and their citizenry ought to finally see how their contributions are necessary in order to grow and shape the EU of the 21st century. Most European citizens complain about the lack of connection between Brussels and themselves. European citizens are not doing enough in order to have their voices been heard when one reflects on the degree of abstention at the latest European elections. Being opposed to specific EU policies is one thing, contributing to European civic life is another. By asking the second question, European citizens will re-discover the sense of togetherness, identity, Europeanness, and the ‘we’ in European.

Source: The Economist.
Source: The Economist.

David Cameron is facing a very tricky battle head, but the history of Britain inside the Union is quite complex. Back in 1967, French President Charles de Gaulle opposed to the inclusion of Britain within the European Economic Community (EEC). His rationale was that de Gaulle “accused Britain of a ‘deep-seated hostility’ towards European construction.” De Gaulle was not totally wrong and understood the complexity of a British inclusion within the Union. Once in, Britain has played an important role in the integration of the common market, defense policy, and foreign policy.

China and the US have expressed their opposition to a Brexit and are worrying about the negative consequences of Britain’s departure from the Union and global markets. In addition, European diplomats, civil servants and the national capitals have all expressed some degree of frustration with London as no clear points of negotiation for reforming the EU-Britain relationship have been sent to Brussels. Aside from broad wishes – limitation of movement of labor and people, greater power for national parliaments, limiting the growth of the single market in favor of Eurozone members, reduction of social benefits for EU nationals – and calling for Treaty change, Brussels has yet to receive very clear and implementable demands. Cameron has his back in the corner and is now managing to survive a very complex domestic debate. Until 2017, the EU will be at the heart of political debate around the world. Politically speaking, David Cameron does not want his legacy to be remembered as the PM whom could not keep Britain in the Union.

(Copyright 2015 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission).

France, the sick man of Europe?

Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images
Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images

Maybe after all, Europeans do not deserve the European Union. Or maybe France does not deserve the European Union. The recent results of the elections in France for the European Parliaments send a serious signal to Europe, as there is a real misunderstanding of the role of the EU. Unfortunately, this result does not come as a surprise. With the vote of May 25, France’s role in shaping European policies and the EU has shifted from being central to marginal. For the first time in its history, France will not have enough deputies within the two largest European parties – right wing Europe People’s Party (EPP) and left wing Socialists & Democrats (S&D) – in order to shape policies in Brussels/Strasbourg at least for the next five years.

Source: The Independent
Source: The Independent

Throughout the last decade France has progressively moved in this direction of anti-European, anti-globalization, and anti-euro. This started in 2002 with the shocking victory of Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the Front National (FN), at the first round of the presidential elections, followed by the 2005 ‘non’ at the referendum to the Constitutional Treaty, and now in 2014 with 25 percent for the Front National becoming the leading party in France in these European elections. Ultimately, one should wonder: What’s wrong with France? Why does France hate so much the European Union?

With 25 percent, the Front National (FN), the largest extreme right wing party, a neo-fascist party progressively transforming itself into a national-populist party, becomes the largest winner of these elections in France. This means that out of the 74 French euro-deputies, one third will belong to the FN, the anti-Europe and populist party. Marine Le Pen, the FN leader, is even self-proclaiming the FN as the ‘first party of France’ and has been calling for a shuffling of the government in accordance with the results of the European elections. This result has been perceived rightfully so throughout Europe and by French political parties as a ‘political earthquake.’ This earthquake with its epicenter in France was well felt throughout Europe as advanced in most European media. Right after the elections, European press was more concerned about the results in France than actually looking/speculating at the next Commission and Presidencies.

National parties

France is one of the founders of the EU with great men like Robert Schuman, Jean Monnet, Jacques Delors among others. France has greatly benefited from the EU and vice-versa. France has been unable for decades to have a normal relationship with Brussels fueled by a strong domestic belief, a sort of French exceptionalism, that France can exist and strive without the Union. Unfortunately, many French citizens take for granted the accomplishments of the Union and most importantly the maintaining of peace on the European continent. Apparently over 60 years of peace between great European powers, the longest period since 1600, is not that impressive for European citizens.

The argument that the EU is the cause of all problems is the wrong approach. Throughout contemporary history, nation-states have been the main causes behind instability, violence, repression, and economic and social inequalities. So how would retrieving into the nation-state, especially one envisioned by populist-extremist parties like the Front National, would finally bring back stability, peace, and serenity to its citizens? For instance, the FN agenda is misleading and absurd. Ms. Le Pen’s policies consist in assuring her bases that once in power, France will be able to reaffirm its identity and grow by itself outside of the EU. Let’s be clear, French economy cannot survive alone against the international forces of the market. FN policies consist in leaving the common currency, the euro; closing French borders to international trades and blocking the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP); making agriculture the pillar of the French economy; ending the Schengen agreement and reestablishing French borders to fight immigrants.

However, blaming the Eurocrisis on the results in France would only be looking at one side of the coin. They are several reasons behind such outcome: first, mainstream political leaders – right and left combined – should take a large part of the blame. With all these decades of perpetual euro-bashing, it is no surprise to observe French citizens finally voting against Europe. As argued by Jean Quatremer, France’s governments have been the first one to nationalize European successes and Europeanize national failures. The strategy of short-term gain has finally back-fired. Due to this perpetual euro-bashing, not only French psyche has grown anti-Europe, but also mainstream French politicians are unable to mobilize their bases when it comes to voting for Europe.

Second, French contemporary history is not very rosy as well. France has flirted more than once with extremisms and populism. We cannot forget the Dreyfus affair, the centuries of colonization, the 1920s fascist leagues, Vichy and the years of collaboration with the Third Reich, and recent immigration policies. France and its citizens have had a long history of attraction and implementation of xenophobic policies. It is a taboo, but a reality.

Third, no recent Presidents have been able to boost growth and re-give a sense of pride to a wounded country. Instead of implementing real structural reforms, mainstream politicians have tried to increase their electoral bases by wooing the extreme voters on all sides of the political spectrum. The result has been the normalization and incorporation of xenophobic, populist, extremist, mercantilist narratives promoted by the FN into mainstream political narratives. Additionally, French media have normalized such votes for extreme parties by calling them ‘protestation vote.’ Unfortunately, the rebranded FN led by Marine Le Pen, known as the wave Bleu Marine, has had trouble in splitting up with her father’s legacy. The latest antisemitic comments made by Jean-Marie Le Pen, Honorary Chairman of the FN and newly elected MEP, certainly underscores the continuous normative and ideational struggles within the party.

Fourth, in recent years, one of the favorite national sports has been abstention. In the case of the 2014 European elections, 57 percent of French citizens did not dare to vote. These abstainers were complicit in the rise of the FN in 2002 and now in 2014. Abstainers send a wrong message about democracy and republican values discrediting Democracy as a whole. Europe’s neighborhoods are in flame and European neighbors are fighting for the right to vote, meanwhile French citizens perceive it as a waste of time.

Turnout

At the end of the day, the European Union will survive. The center right European People’s Party (EPP) won 221 seats out of the 751 or 29%, followed by the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D) with 24%. As demonstrated by Daniel Gross, the EPP may have the most seats, but the S&D won the popular vote 24.4% for S&D to 23.9% for EPP. Based on the percentage of seats, conservative and pro-Europe leader Jean-Claude Juncker deserve to be selected as the next president of the Commission. However, based on the popular vote, the S&D leader, Martin Schulz, former President of the European Parliament, should get to head the Commission. But from now on, it will be politics as usual. European leaders that have called and argued in favor of greater democratic representation at the EU level are now facing a challenge: should Juncker be directly propelled at the head of the Commission in accordance with the composition of the European Parliament? Or, will the traditional ‘behind close doors’ strategy remain in appointing the next President of the Commission?

Seat per political groups

In any case the biggest looser of these elections is undeniably France, which has lost its European influence, its European credibility, and its voice in shaping policies in Brussels from the EP. France proportionality within mainstream European parties – S&D and EPP – is much lower than in previous years, but could be balanced by an increasing representation in getting one of the new high level official openings. France has been a pillar of the European adventure, but it now raises fear across Europe.

 (Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)