Opinion
13.07.16

Fog in the channel

Brexit holds lessons for people on both sides of the English Channel, writes László Andor.

The relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom is going through a fundamental transformation. The coincidence of three major events in summer 2016 is accelerating this change. Brexit is of course the most significant, but the Chilcot Report on the UK entering the misguided Iraq war in 2003 is also important, as is the less-than-glorious performance of England in the EURO 2016 football tournament in France.

England’s humiliating exit from the EURO 2016 was the most innocuous of the three, and it is worth noting that the team has consistently underperformed in recent decades, even though the English Premier League is the highest profile and most expensive soccer business on Earth. But with EU migrants well represented among Premier League players and managers, football also helps raise the right questions about the impact of the EU single market on British society in general.

The fact that its benefits do not automatically trickle down to disadvantaged regions and social groups played a major role in the referendum result. English people outside metropolitan areas felt disenfranchised politically and economically, while the eurosceptic UKIP, reinforced by egocentric Tory politicians, ensured that their frustration was directed at Brussels instead of London and in particular Westminster.

How the EU functions is surely far from perfect and there is ample room for debate about how to repair it, especially the monetary union. However, the Leave campaign was not at all interested in a fair diagnosis and an appropriate cure. Instead, its proponents vastly exaggerated the EU’s flaws, painting it as an evil power Britain must escape from.

I personally took part in some discussions during the campaign, including the Festival of Ideas in York, where I found an open-minded audience eager to hear arguments from both sides. However, I also heard the representative of the Leave campaign say that the EU intends to take away the UK’s seat in the UN Security Council as well as in the IMF. Such claims were surely invented by someone experienced in political psychology and blessed with an unfettered imagination – and lacking elementary decency.

The referendum result suggests that the British people felt oppressed by Brussels. I believe this feeling is primarily due to a public discourse dominated by the tabloid press, which created and maintained the image of the Brussels monster. This made it hard to articulate positive arguments about the EU. And while the Remain side focused on the economic consequences of Brexit, the Leave side went well beyond the borders of reality in their presentation of the downside of EU membership.

With constant references to the EU as the “albatross around our neck”, people felt they had nothing to lose but chains, in exchange for the brave new world of Brexit. The quality publication Daily Telegraph presented the choice between hope and fear. Very few publications actually explained that within the EU the UK has had the most customised membership. Being in the single market but outside the eurozone and Schengen, the UK has enjoyed a good deal of autonomy. EU membership and policies ensured that Britain’s major comparative advantages like the financial services sector or higher education delivered their full potential.

Further examples demonstrate that London has had real influence over the Brussels agenda. For a long time, a “smart regulation” programme has prevented the unnecessary mushrooming of EU legislation and delivered some necessary updates and upgrades. The EU budget was cut to below 1 per cent of EU GDP, which is a policy many of us would disagree with, but demonstrated what David Cameron managed to achieve with a little help from his friends.

If British influence weakened in the EU in recent years, it was primarily due to a decision by David Cameron. In 2009, in order to please (or appease) EU-skeptics within his party, he moved the Conservatives out of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. This may sound like a formality, but in fact, coordination within political families is as an important channel of information and influence in all EU institutions.

UK nationals have also been underrepresented among EU staff, despite their fluency in one of the EU’s three working languages. This is not due to bias or discrimination, but at least partly a result of less-than-attractive salaries in Brussels, contrary to the popular “gravy train” mythology.

Cameron thought this diminished influence could be substituted by  a special relationship with Europe’s most powerful leader, Angela Merkel. The opportunity for that came when the German chancellor lost her complementary other half, Nicolas Sarkozy, in 2012.

David Cameron’s visit to Berlin in April 2013 and Angela Merkel’s visit to London in February 2014 signaled a new alliance. Cameron helped Merkel push a competitiveness agenda, which was used to delay and derail moves towards banking union and fiscal union in the eurozone. Merkel, on the other hand, helped Cameron develop an answer to the immigration challenge, although she managed to convince him not to question the right of free movement for EU citizens. Instead,  social benefits for EU migrants (and their families) were targeted.

With German support, Cameron included the adjustment of mobile workers’ benefits in the UK’s four key demands to avoid Brexit in 2015. Central European governments, whose citizens had the most to lose from such changes, eventually accepted the concessions as a quid pro quo for earlier UK support for eastward enlargement of the EU. However, the changes Cameron brought home from negotiations appeared insignificant as ever-louder Leave campaigners were banging the drums “to take back control”.

Fiddling with the benefits of mobile EU-workers neither resolved anything nor impressed anyone. Leave voters believed either that Cameron failed to reform the EU sufficiently, or failed to take the right direction. Or they just thought he lacked credibility, since until February his language on the EU was hardly distinguishable from eurosceptics, while during the campaign his pro-EU passion almost made his former deputy Nick Clegg blush.

Cameron’s gamble with the referendum now appears to have been a huge personal mistake, comparable to Tony Blair’s decision to accompany the US into the Iraq war without clear evidence of weapons of mass destruction. These developments not only weakened the UK’s standing in Europe, but also its ability to compensate for diminishing European influence through its status as a major military power and  its “special relationship” with US.

Lessons must be learned on both sides of the Channel, not only in political communications and management, but also in the area of political economy. There have been and will always be enemies of European integration, but they will only appeal to wider audiences if the EU fails to deliver economic growth and do it in an inclusive way. Therefore the Brussels debate in the current situation has to focus more on how to share prosperity. The EU needs to take a stronger and not weaker role on related social and regional policies, instead of leaving them to the member states.

This article originally appeared on esharp.eu.

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