Brexit exit – a trip down hindsight lane

CEO David Bell reflects on the essay by Oliver Hartwich called ‘Why Europe Failed’ in light of the recent Brexit vote to leave the EU. He also shares some lessons civil society can take from this event. 

“In the midst of war and crisis nothing is as clear or as certain as it appears in hindsight.”

Barbara Tuchman, Historian

I have only just read a remarkably insightful (in hindsight of course) essay called “Why Europe Failed” published in 2015 by Oliver Hartwich. I suspect if I had read it before the Brexit vote I might have understood why the 52% of Britons who voted to leave the European Union (EU), voted to do so (I hasten to add I still disagree with them, but that’s irrelevant of course as I live in Australia).

Instead I chose to listen to people who agreed with me that, surely, it was not possible for a rational people to turn their back on what has, by and large, proved to be a successful economic union boasting 28 members, and with others (like Scotland – if it becomes a nation state) wishing to join. I relied on my instincts and upbringing that the citizens of Winston Churchill’s Sceptred Isle would never ever actually bring themselves to undo one of the centrepieces of the post-World War 2 structural arrangements designed to prevent the ravages and turmoil that characterised late 19th century to mid 20th century Europe.

And yet they did to the surprise of even the leaders of the British Eurosceptic movement.

In the weeks, months and years to come when Britain painfully moves to exit the European Union and unscramble the EU omelette, there will be plenty of hyperbole and metaphors used to describe what has happened – ‘tectonic shifts’ and the like. But what will be just as interesting is to actually understand why it happened, and what it might mean for policy in liberal democracies like Australia.

A good place to start is the aforementioned Mr Hartwich. Hartwich provides a pen picture of Europe’s decline and says that while “… Europe is still one of the most prosperous, and most liveable places on earth … the cracks are clearly visible. It is a world region that made the past but will not make the future.”

Hartwich brands the European project of integration as an elitist undertaking, and cites evidence to show that it has always lacked popular support, and which continues to decline. This has been compounded (or caused) by a lack of interest by Europeans in EU affairs.

As an interesting sidelight – astonishingly – eight hours after the Brexit polls closed, Google reported that searches for “what happens if we leave the EU” had more than tripled in the UK.[1] 

Hartwich says that the only reason the European integration project has continued is because European politicians have kept, and keep on, pushing it. One of their tools has been to seek legitimacy through referenda – but, he says, if a referendum doesn’t achieve the ‘right’ result then people are given a second chance to come with a better or more correct result.   He cites the treaties of Rome, Maastricht, Nice and Lisbon as examples of this behaviour.

He also says that European elites are seemingly blind to this behaviour and, instead, choose to emphasise the fact that Europe is a democratic project – the European Parliament after all, is the second-largest electorate in the world after India.  Hartwich dismisses this argument with the riposte that “… the common European hardly takes any notice of it.”  This is problematic because it passes laws that affect the citizenry of nation-states who then have no capacity to deviate from them.

Not all of the EU is bad says Hartwich.  There has, for example, been an increase in the freedom of movement through the Schengen agreement which allows free cross-border movement for people.  (Interestingly, though, concerns with migration appear to have been one of the issues resting in Britons’ minds when they voted last week).

He goes on to say that these freedoms, however, have not been sufficient to overcome the inherent flaws in the EU.  There is a lack of a European people – people still identify with their home country first.  Without this sense of national identity (the totalitarian USSR state suffered from the same problem) Hartwich argues there can never be a true democracy –diversity in this instance is apparently running counter to the interests of the EU.

Hartwich also delves into a controversial contention that one of the ways in which Euro-politicians have been able to buy the public’s silence and acquiescence for the EU project was to establish a welfare state and increase welfare payments – a modern day version of the Roman bread and circuses approach.  The consequence has been high tax burdens for citizens and all the implications this has had for their economies.

So what are the broader lessons for civil society?

  • Elites can get it wrong. Just because you are elected or appointed to high office with a first-class education does not necessarily mean that you are always right.
  • Ignore grass roots views at your peril.  Brexit appears to be yet another example of political hubris blinding decision-makers to the fact that their decisions need to be grounded in popular support. Arguing that the leadership card will trump the opposition of the majority is a dangerous path to tread.
  • Don’t believe your own rhetoric. Most of us have done it. We’ve become so convinced that our own researched, honed and polished arguments have such authority that not only can they not be denied, but that we refuse to acknowledge the views of others.
  • Is globalisation necessarily a good thing? Unsurprisingly those (typically the elites) who have benefited argue yes. It has also become an accepted nostrum that global rules in such areas as the regulation of capital and trade are for the good. Of course those people who get left behind and don’t reap the dividends that globalisation brings, equally unsurprisingly, become resentful. How much of this was present in the Brexit vote will be interesting to analyse.
  • Is the expanding welfare state sustainable in the long-run? A difficult topic to cover given the politicised debate that inevitably follows. It is a vital question and one which our own country is facing into with an ageing population, expectations of comprehensive and affordable health services, and limited funds to pay for this demographic phenomenon.

The digital equivalent of vast forests will be consumed by the amount which will be written on Brexit and its consequences.  Mine is only an early contribution which will inevitably be outdated in due course.

[1] The British are frantically Googling what the E.U. is, hours after voting to leave it

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