The vote for Brexit has opened an existential phase for the future of the EU. Irrespective of the political debates over the past year or so, the British referendum at its core was not about Britain’s membership of the EU, but about how the country copes with deindustrialization, deprivation and one of the highest levels of inequality in Europe.
“Privatized Keynesianism” (C. Crouch) helped to conceal the underlying economic and societal fault lines of Britain for much of the 1990s and early 2000s. Even at the height of the financial crisis the country did not even wake up. Moreover, what followed were years of austerity, which especially impacted communities that had previously been severely hit by de-industrialization.
The Brexiteers built on, and further fueled, the dissatisfaction by blaming Europe and European ‘immigrants’ for all the problems the country is facing, from stagnating wages for many to increasing waiting times within the National Health Service. In addition, the Brexiteers used the argument that European integration had led to a loss of parliamentary sovereignty and forcefully maintained that the country needed to once again take control. The day of the referendum was elevated to Independence Day.
The Remain campaign did not really address any of the underlying socio-economic issues, but argued that a vote for Leave would lead to an economic crisis, an approach coined by the Brexiteers as ‘Project Fear’. Until very late in the campaign, the Remain camp did not provide positive arguments for continued membership, for instance that EU citizens are actually contributing to the economy and filling skill shortages, be it in the manufacturing, construction or the health care sectors. Not to mention the fact that EU citizenship or membership of the EU might constitute something to be celebrated, irrespective of the economic costs or benefits.
A large proportion of the electorate obviously did not believe the Remain campaign message that things could get worse and was of the opinion that the negative consequences would not matter, as it felt it had nothing to lose or was afraid that continued EU membership would make their perceived or real situation even worse.
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In many European countries we can identify similar feelings of discontent. Without making clear that the pro-European elites across Europe, but especially in the capitals of France and Germany, have understood the message of the British electorate, it might be too late for the EU – it is five to midnight!! After decades of market integration it is time for the realization of a SOCIAL EUROPE, should we not wish to abandon the ideal of European integration and citizenship!
We are faced with the question: To be or not to be.