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All is not lost, Europe

By Pablo Jiménez Lobeira - posted Wednesday, 13 July 2016

It was a gloomy day. It was disastrous indeed. Not for everybody. Nigel Farage declared 23 June “Independence Day” for the United Kingdom of Great Britain (UK or Britain). Jean-Marie Le Pen joyfully invited France to follow suit. Geert Wilders enthusiastically called for a “Nexit”. Outside Europe, other sympathetic voices from United States (US) and Russia were heard too.

A multi-faceted drama

Many Britons believed in good faith the Leave campaign’s promises. It was somehow possible to do away with the “ugly” bits (contributions to the union’s budget and free circulation of people) of the relation with the European Union (EU) while keeping the sweet ones (access to the single market, that gobbles half of Britain’s exports).


Others voted decidedly against, but are anyway facing the consequences of what the majority has chosen. Scotland and Northern Ireland are in this position, with the former debating, again,whether their union with England is worth keeping, and the latter wondering whether peace can be preserved in a UK outside the European Union.

The situation in England is uneasy too, with major protagonists of Brexit, stepping down from their leadership positions, while the two main political parties suffer from disarray and infighting. According to some, Britain may be facing its worst political crisis since the Second World War.

Brexit has sparked a deep exercise of introspection in the rest of Europe too. The UK was the EU’s second largest economy, one of two members with nuclear weapons, and a natural link between the EU and important allies like the US. Beyond the excited cries of far-right or far-left political parties, there is  real discontent among many European citizens who perceive that the costs outweigh the benefits of belonging to the EU.

Many of the problems that troubled the European polity before Brexit continue to be there and need a solution: from economic near stagnation and the consequent unemployment to lack of social integration; from the weakness of the banking system and the euro in general to the remarkable challenge of immigration from North Africa and the Middle East and social integration of minority groups.

Making sense of the non-sense

What went wrong? Many things, at the same time. First, an irresponsible set of promises from at least some in the Leave campaign, arguing for instance that the UK would be able to apply 350 million sterling pounds that were sent to Brussels weekly to the NHS instead; that voting for leaving the EU would somehow cut immigration (with the assumption of course that all immigration is bad for the country); and that another 5 million immigrants were likely by 2030 due to the accession of new countries to the EU (including Turkey).


Second, an underwhelming campaign from the Remain side. Rather than explaining why the Leave arguments were wrong, and highlighting the benefits that the UK was receiving from its membership, they focused on the dangers of leaving the EU. The leading Remain campaigner, David Cameron was, after all, the one who promised a referendum in the first place, and was never an enthusiast of Europe. Adding to this, Jeremy Corbyn’s support for the Remain campaign was tepid at best. This contrasted with the enthusiasm of the Brexiteers, even if what their arguments couldn’t stand to serious scrutiny, because voters are tired, and that leads us to the next idea.

The third reason is a phenomenon of social psychology around party politics in many Western countries, not only the UK. Voters are tired of a political party system that is lost in endless debate, with opposing views ever more polarised against each other, and little practical benefit for the voters themselves. Therefore they look for another option voting for the “outsider”, the “non-politician” who succeeds in elections is spreading all over Europe and beyond. Parties and politicians that used to be considered before on the fringe of the political spectrum are becoming more and more part of the mainstream landscape. The UK, Italy, France, the Netherlands, Austria, Spain and Greece are but a few examples. Centre-left and centre-right parties--traditionally the Social and the Christian Democrat--dominated the scene and built the post-war Europe until very recently. That old order is in tatters now.

Fourth, there seems to be a correlation between low social mobility and discontent with the political establishment perceived as backing Remain. Vote for Brexit was higher in those regions where social mobility is lower, i.e. where people perceive that there is little hope of change as things stand. This situation explains in part the phenomenon described in the preceding paragraph, and reveals a challenge that the usual party politics hasn’t been able to address.

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About the Author

Pablo Jiménez Lobeira is Adjunct Lecturer at the Institute for Ethics & Society,
University of Notre Dame, Australia.

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