How should life be after Brexit? Even though the academic and intellectual communities, just like the public, got highly emotional after the Brexit referendum, we assume that it can serve as the start of something new and functioning both for the UK and the EU. Here are some pointers for the future already visible.
So much in our relationship will go unchanged. The UK is part of the international community and remains so after Brexit. States are interconnected, especially economically. After leaving the EU, the optimal choice for the UK would be to remain in the EEA. This would result in nearly similar circumstances to what obtains now inside the EU (but without political power, influence and voting rights). If the UK wants to access the single European market, it has to give up some of its sovereignty. If this does not happen, there is still a high chance that Europe will push it to uphold parts of the single market, like the free movement of workers/EU citizens, since the UK will still depend on Europe (for example in importing food, connected banking systems, etc.), and the bargaining powers are asymmetric in this case. This of course does not change the fact that there is a high chance the British economy’s performance will possibly worsen, and we personally even see the slight chance of a recession in Britain (e.g. we do not know the outcome of the 100 trade agreements which must be renegotiated). This is especially critical since approximately half of British trade is carried out with EU countries.
The UK was one of the least cooperative members within the European integration process. It was not really cooperative in the field of Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) and social policy; it stayed outside Schengen and the Eurozone. It had the right not to accept legislation in the JHA field, adopted several laws nevertheless, and later sought to opt out under them – without any coherence in its actions. To avert Brexit, other EU leaders sacrificed the core element of the European project and renegotiated UK membership in the EU: Brussels has suspended some parts of the four freedoms already. When we evaluate Brexit, we must ask, was the UK’s membership really worth this price? And what if next year another Member State begins to blackmail the community with a referendum if it does not get the suspension of, let’s say, the freedom of goods, in order to help its economy and avoid the rise of extreme and anti-European parties?
If the press gorges on Euroscepticism and xenophobia, it will have an elemental effect on ordinary people. A huge number of articles spreading disinformation were written in the UK. The fact that the EU does not have rules on long-term visas and does not force the UK to welcome everybody who arrives from third countries was hidden from view. There is no extremely large bureaucracy (around 50,000 employees for more than 500 million inhabitants) and nor is the EU anti-democratic in the sense that demagogues claim. We accept the criticism that the EU’s efficiency should be enhanced (e.g. we read day by day an extreme amount of useless strategic documents and action plans adopted by the institutions), but this does not mean the European project should be abandoned completely.
Strengthening democracy in the EU is unavoidable: the EU needs to get closer to the people. We believe this could be a clue for successful future cooperation. A functioning and effective EU is in great need of a federal structure. Now, it is rather a multi-level co-operation, with no accountable leaders with power to decide on major questions and no responsible people to account for its actions to EU citizens in the way domestic politicians can. Brussels is the capital of Europe without a visible leadership, but domestic leaders sit back in London, in Budapest, in Paris, and can flaunt their demagoguery. When you do not have a transparent and accountable leadership structure, if you have only bureaucrats (in a good sense) instead of politicians, it can and will backfire. The EU should engage in its societies’ lives: When did we see for example an EU commissioner giving speeches in different Member States, explaining to people his/her work and arguing for cooperation or certain solutions to solve certain problems? And when can we elect commissioners directly, to choose their proposed future agenda? Making decisions above and partly without the people will not be successful over the long term.
The EU must give answers to the questions that preoccupy people: in a number of cases European citizens want the EU to give answers to their problems. As a recent survey suggests, these are questions like terrorism, tax fraud, migration, border control, security and defense. If we analyze these questions one by one, we must admit the EU has proven unable to react properly. The refugee crisis was “solved” by an agreement with Turkey that even breaks EU law and cynically handles Turkey as if it were a safe country for asylum seekers. The answers to terrorism are inefficient (creating passenger name records was a useless measure). The answers are mainly weak because Member States oppose closer cooperation. Why do we not have a unified European anti-terrorist agency or intelligence unit? Why do not we have a European public prosecutor (instead of allowing state authorities to spend EU funds without proper control)? The same holds true for more social legislation: it is nonsense to claim that the EU should be blamed for the poor conditions of working-class people if most of the relevant decisions are taken by Member States. Even social democratic parties “have failed to come up with ideas that are economically sound and politically popular, beyond ameliorative policies such as income transfers”.
The essence of democracy is respect for the voters’ will: we understand and sympathize with the bitterness and disappointment of the minority of UK voters and Europeans over Brexit. But we also respect the fact that a majority of British voters decided in favor of leaving. Although the Parliament rejected the petition backed by millions of voters for a repeated popular vote, this does not mean that the regulations of the referendum in the UK should remain untouchable: the safeguard of a double majority for constitutional matters, and also the clarification of the power-sharing between the direct and indirect forms of democracy seem inevitable. On the one hand, the double majority would provide (as in Switzerland) a higher standard with the requirement that the majority of voters and the (four) UK nations would have to vote for the changes. However, discussing the legal effects (binding? non-binding?) of the referendum for weeks may jeopardize not only the direct, but the indirect democratic institutions as well, because this opposition may undermine the legitimacy of both institutions.
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Elites must talk to the people: One interpretation regarding the success of populist leaders such as Trump, Orban, Farage or Le Pen is that all around the world people got into conflict with their own political establishment. Whether or not future referendums take place in other Member States, those citizens, intellectuals, academics, and politicians who are interested in a functioning EU and strong, effective European integration, must make their voices heard. European integration now seems to be an elite project again, as it looked like in the long decade of Europessimism in the 1970s: this must be changed.
If democrats and those favoring international cooperation among countries do not defend their values, offensive nationalistic populism will gain further strongholds. What we saw during the arguments over Brexit is that activists supporting Leave were easily more desperately and fiercely active in achieving their goals. A proper democracy is about arguing, cooperating, selecting goals and working towards them, and these groups use this side of democracy really well. All societies are built up by multiple forces and groups. If democratic forces do not lead a proactive campaign, if they accept racist clichés, if they do not work to make people understand why international cooperation is useful, if they lose hope in their own values, in sum: if they are not brave enough to represent their own values, in the present climate they can easily get defeated. Furthermore, all pro-Europe and federalist movements and parties must wake up and take part in those campaigns and other member state level actions where European integration is at risk. If we take a European perspective, we see the trend: Dutch voters in April, UK voters in June sent a strong message to the leaders and elites of the Member States and of the EU. The next, third run will be the highly controversial Hungarian plebiscite on the asylum quota system. This vote can be a test case whether the pro-integration part of the EU, including parties, social movements and politicians, is able to defend its values and way of cooperating or a new wave of nefarious nationalism slowly but surely takes over.
Tamas Dezso Ziegler is a senior lecturer at the Institute for Political and International Studies, Faculty of Social Sciences, Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE), Budapest, Hungary. Anna Unger is a political scientist, assistant lecturer at the Institute for Political and International Studies at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE).