British Remainers do themselves and their country no favours by insisting that the decision to quit the European Union is based on the stupidity of those who voted for Brexit. In a recent essay, Simon Tilford, deputy director of the Centre for European Reform, wrote that “too many see Britain as a beacon of democracy and liberty. Too few are aware… that Britain is less trusted and admired – than they imagine”. Tilford’s view is shared, privately, among many Remainers, who see Brexiters as fools and chauvinists, if not racists.
It’s true that a majority of the British believe the empire is a source more of pride than shame. But the urge to re-acquire an empire has long since drained from the British psyche; and it doesn’t seem to be a matter for regret, as Tilford believes, that the British are proud of their democratic and liberal traditions.
Dislike of mass immigration was clearly a major reason for the Brexit vote, though it’s debatable if it was the most important. YouGov polls show that immigration was by some way the major reason: an Ashcroft poll shows that sovereignty beat immigration by a significant margin. The British Election Study analysed its own poll data and split the difference, concluding that “reading responses shows that many respondents mention both sovereignty and immigration together, showing that these two issues were closely linked in the minds of British voters”.
Discussion of Brexit tends to implicitly assume that the process of exiting will be played as a game of 1 vs. 27, as if the 27 were united in satisfied membership of the EU. But that isn’t the case. A large-scale survey by Chatham House (Royal Institute of International Affairs) was conducted between December 2016 and February 2017 and published in June. Polling 10,000 members of the public and 1800 members of the ‘elite’, it found that “there is simmering discontent within the public, large sections of whom view the EU in negative terms, want to see it return some powers to member states, and feel anxious over the effects of immigration. Only 34% of the public feel they have benefited from the EU, compared with 71% of the elite” – though only a minority of the latter, 37 per cent, think the Union should acquire more powers.
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At the core of the integrationist strategy is an empty space, where popular assent should be: whether or not it can be filled with attachment to a political entity, a political Europe which displays the drama and allows the representativeness which national assemblies in democratic states offer their citizens is still an open question. Politicians know that the general lack of interest in and knowledge of politics – perhaps a compliment to the construction of a largely peaceful world in which politics can be ignored with impunity – is almost total when it comes to the European Union, with its various institutions and its several Presidents. Yet, as the French political philosopher Pierre Manent writes, “life for the European citizen is determined more and more not by the familiar national debate… but by the outcome of a European process that is much less comprehensible”.
The energy and belief in renewal of both France and the EU by French President Emmanuel Macron, evident in his July 3 speech to parliamentarians in Versailles, may change the atmosphere, as would the likely re-election of Angela Merkel as Chancellor in the autumn. Yet the Eurasia Group’s tour of the European horizon concludes:
France is a long way from hitting its fiscal targets; Franco- German plans for EU defence integration are mired in disagreement; Italy looks to have little prospect of a government capable of real reform…the likelihood is that… current talk of a radical “rebirth” of Europe will come to look overblown.
At the same time, Brexit need not be catastrophic either for Union or the UK. The FT’s Tony Barber notes that several governments are as lukewarm as the UK on integration, while “the EU27 are far from united among themselves on issues such as Europe’s migrant crisis, how to regulate free movement of workers and what sort of international trade accords to strike”. The French diplomat Pierre Vimont calls for a hierarchy within the Union, “from the single market at the top to association agreements of various types at the bottom”.
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Thus the EU becomes ‘Europes’ travelling at different speeds, some committed to arriving at full integration, others choosing, say, a strong security partnership and a customs union, with immigration policy and much else defined by the national parliament – an option which could suit the UK, and others.
These ideas, still minority voices, nevertheless command more space. Those who have held fast to the path to a fully integrated Europe, outlined nearly 80 years ago by Altiero Spinelli as he sat out the war on the Fascist prison island of Ventotene, now realise that if the Union is to be saved, it must lose its rigidity. The Italian ambassador Antonio Armellini, a former spokesman for Spinelli when the latter was an EU Commissioner, writes in his recent book Neither Centaur nor Chimera: a modest proposal for a plural Europe (Marsilio) that:
Europe must see itself as plural, formalising the existence of two Europes, one more political, tending towards supra-nationalism, and one intergovernmental, defined by the market.
That Armellini, whose career has been marked by a strong adherence to the ideals of Spinelli, should realise the need for such a shift shows how fluid the Union might become: and how, both for the sake of those who wish to attempt integration and even federation and for those who don’t, it’s necessary to recognise the realities of a European public unwilling to leave the shelter of national politics. That this should now be the case signals an opening to a possible alternative to Brexit which would – except for the purists – answer much of the democratic case against the EU.