Brexit: A Crisis of Politics, Not of Europe

Whoever believes in the miraculous power of institutional reform of the European Union as an antidote to the ills of Europe, he completely misunderstands the lesson of Brexit. The key dispute today does not concern EU powers, but the model of society in which we live.

The decision of the British to leave the European Union sparked chaos on the markets and in the minds of politicians. As it turns out, neither the supporters of Brexit, nor the terrified EU leaders had any plan for such a contingency. Little wonder that Brexit revealed older divisions and created new ones in Europe. Some want to remove the British ulcer as soon as possible, others prefer a longer treatment. Some want to push integration forward, while the rest think it would be ridiculous. In any case, a large majority of confused Europeans seem to have one thing in common: they believe that the most important message of Brexit is the need for a fundamental change in the way the European Union functions. Otherwise the British nightmare will have its continuation on the continent. Only a greater integration and democratization of the European Union is capable of preventing the EU from drowning in the quagmire of nationalism, Euroskepticism, and populism, say the Euroenthusiasts. Only the renationalization of powers, restoring sovereignty to member states, limiting the role of the European Commission, and cutting down bureaucracy is the remedy for the evil of disintegration, respond their adversaries.

Calls for improving European Union’s functioning are always right. But even before Brexit it was obvious that we should reform the eurozone, stimulate the economy, find an answer to the migration crisis and many other problems— the British vote does not change anything here. The ever louder “it cannot go on like that in the EU” heard from all sides is therefore an expression of helplessness, cynicism, or confusion on the part of its proponents. Ironically, this call usually also reveals an unfounded optimism of those who believe that putting the European Commission aside (or turning it into a European government), “democratization of the EU” (through national parliaments or the European Parliament), and changes in the EU voting system (through more or less unanimity) would restore normality on the wobbling continent. Whoever believes in the miraculous power of institutional reform of the European Union as an antidote to the ills of Europe completely misunderstands the lesson of Brexit. Moreover, promoting such belief by the European elites (from both sides of the divide) may only deepen the current misery. Going back to the ancient disputes about more or less integration disguises a much more important fact that Brexit is not so much a warning about European Union’s weakness, but a symbol of something much more momentous: the end of a political mode in the Western world which has shaped our reality for at least several decades.

Douglas Alexander, former British minister for European affairs from Labour Party, said at the recent Congress of the European Council on Foreign Relations in The Hague that three issues had determined the result of the Brexit vote. First, it was the consequences of the economic crisis and the citizens’ feeling that they live in an economic system the mechanisms of which they do not understand. The crisis, sparked by high-risk operations of international financial institutions, hit at the “real” economy, reinforcing the negative effects of deindustrialization and bringing unemployment to many regions. Second, a sense of alienation in citizens who do not feel they are presented by politicians, whose impact on the course of events is diminishing. And third, seeking support and belonging, mostly in the sphere of identity in culture, in the world of globalization and migration—a world which destroys the existing certainties. All these factors have little to do with the European Union and its way of functioning. Moreover, only about 10% of the British who were asked a year ago to name the most important problems pointed at the European Union. Those voting for Brexit (“a disaster which could have been avoided,” according to Alexander) in fact protested not against this or other model of the European Union, but against uncertainty and opacity which they have to face on a daily basis. Such politicians as Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, or Michael Gove and a large section of the media manipulated them into believing that this uncertainty and opacity were the fault of the European Union. If the rest of us wants to avoid this trap, we must try to understand the true nature of the crisis in which we have found ourselves.

The key dispute in Europe today, of which the British referendum was part, does not concern the powers of the European Union, but the model of society in which we live. The slogan of the initiators of Brexit, “Regain control,” perfectly illustrates the cause and nature of this dispute. The poignant sense of losing control over forces which influence our lives, our jobs, our local community, and politics, is the sign of the times and the source of fears and anger for a large part of our citizens. Globalization pulled many societies out of poverty, but in Western countries it has also led to an increase in financial inequalities and to a sense of insecurity. The promise of globalization, intended to rest on the foundation of growing interdependence, was not only that it would make the world more equal and bring benefits to everyone, but also that it would be the best guarantee of peace. Both promises turned out to be a double-edged sword. As Mark Leonard writes in his “Connectivity Wars,” published recently by the ECFR, “what has brought us together, starts to bring us apart.” Trade, which served global integration, now more and more often serves such pressures as tariff wars and economic sanctions—they are effective only thanks to a dense network of connections between all countries. The same regards finances and the internet (cyber-war), as well as migration—control of the movement of people may be an effective instrument of influencers, as Turkey discovers today.

But global capitalism, and the lack of alternatives for it in which we believed for decades, has primarily changed the Western societies and their political paradigm. “A large constituency of the working-class voters feel that they were abandoned not only by the economy, but also by culture. That the sources of their dignity, dignity resulting from their work, have been subjected to erosion and exposed to ridicule through the development of globalization and finance. […] This trend was visible in the last generation. Much of the energy that fueled Brexit was born precisely from the failure of the elites, unable to devote sufficient attention to this problem,” said a prominent philosopher Michael Sandel in a recent interview for the New Statesman. This sense of losing influence and dignity forms the background of the most serious crisis now eroding the West: the crisis of trust in democracy as a project which allows us to control the forces governing our life. Marcin Król said during a recent conference organized by the Stefan Batory Foundation that the seven-decades-long period of democracy as we know it is coming to an end today—and we should be grateful that it has brought us such a long period of development and stability (at least for a part of today’s West).

What will the new era be? Democracy will not vanish, but the paradigm governing politics is rapidly changing. We got used to the fact that the main political divisions were determined by economic factors. Material status and class belonging determined the citizens’ choices, while parties defined themselves mostly through their economic platforms and their attitude to the market. “It’s the economy, stupid!”—we have heard this slogan for many years. Now it is probably a thing of the past. If we look for a category differentiating contemporary Western societies in political terms, we will see that culture is increasingly replacing economy here. The dilemma fueling the principal political conflict today is not so much affirming or rejecting the market, but the attitude to such values as identity, openness, nation, borders. Do we still place our trust in the liberal institutions constraining the power of the majority and in representative institutions, or do we want a “referendum-based” democracy and “people power?” Do we want open societies, also at the price of immigration and profound changes in our immediate surroundings, or do we want the return to traditional identities and national values? Do we still believe that we can prevent this “lack of control” through improved international cooperation and supranational institutions, or do we want a return to nation-states? Do we want to try and shape globalization, or to escape from it?

These questions increasingly define the political imagination and voting decisions of the citizens—and polarize societies to a degree unheard-of for many decades. And it should not come as a surprise. Politics based on questions of identity, rather than economy, is always more emotional, less capable of compromise, and productive of deeper social divisions. There are many indications that in the near future political life in Europe will not be organized by the traditional division into the left and the right, but by the division into “globalists” and “territorialists” defined by identity issues. The campaign on Brexit was the best example of that, and the dramatic internal conflicts produced in both major British parties (Labour and Tory) by the question of leaving the EU and the attitude to immigration may be regarded as a forerunner of such dilemmas also in other political parties on the continent. New lines of social divisions will create a new reality of party divisions beyond the left-right pattern.

This new rupture in Western societies is of fundamental importance from the point of view of the international order and especially the European Union. International and European institutions on which the Western order is based have relied on a certain structure of social values which is now becoming the subject of dispute and contestation. This is not just about more or less integration, but about a model of the world in which we live. That is the essential nature of these disputes and underlying divisions. In every European society a growing part of the citizens believe that a world built on the principle of cooperation, openness, and interdependence contains more dangers than opportunities. Most importantly, the center of this new conflict is formed by the European Union, as the institution closest to everyday concerns and symbolizing the philosophy of cooperation and interdependence. It is an important change. Until now the European Union was treated as something obvious, permanent, and unquestionable, but was also a project sparking emotions only in the most hardened nationalists and Euro-haters.

Contrary to what the Euroskeptics and enemies of the EU will now say, the partial “loss of control,” which is the main source of the change of social sentiments and the new political paradigm in Europe, has not meant the control shifting towards the European Union, but towards multinational corporations and financial markets. The alienation of the citizens has not been caused by European integration, but by such factors as subjecting many spheres of social life to market laws. The fact that immigration leads to social tensions is not the fault of the European Commission, but of nation-states, who have neglected the expansion of their health service, education system, or integration policy. The European Union was and remains, even in its today’s shape, the best existing protection against globalization, mainly because it creates mechanism for working out compromises and policy agreements, thus eliminating the threat that differences of interests will turn into violent conflicts. Another shield against globalization is provided by the tens of thousands of regulations, clauses, and rules, so much criticized and ridiculed, which protect the rights of citizens and consumers, hinder unfair competition, facilitate trade, and reduce the cost of living.

It is undisputed that this shield is insufficient and that the dysfunctionality of some EU policies (for example, the common currency) made the situation of many countries only worse, especially in the last years of the crisis. On the other hand, it is also true that in two key areas of integration bringing the greatest progress and huge benefits in recent decades, that is the eurozone and the Schengen Area, the EU member states and societies have treated these benefits as a kind of “free lunch.” Structural defects of both policies, which first deepened the crisis of the common currency and then the chaos brought about by the inflow of refugees, had resulted from the fact that the member states wanted to have the largest possible benefits from cooperation while bearing the least possible cost in terms of relinquishing part of their sovereignty. In other words, they wanted to eat the cake (open the borders, introduce the common currency) and have the cake (retain full powers in shaping their budgets and migration policies). Abandoning the common currency and open borders today would mean huge costs and risks—but there is no political will and determination to complete European integration in any of these spheres.

After Brexit we more and more often hear the call (also in Poland) for the European Union to become more flexible, diverse, allowing different levels of integration dependent on the will of particular member states. There are many indications that such a diversification will occur. But its advocates must remember that the times when you could eat your cake and have it will soon be gone. The price for Europe a la carte will be less solidarity of its members and a separation of those ready for closer cooperation in fiscal or immigration policy from the rest.

The German politician Norbert Röttgen is right when he says that for the first time since its inception at the end of World War II the EU project is truly threatened with collapse and those who care about it have to start fighting for its survival. Perhaps the first and unexpected expression of this were the thousands of young Britons demonstrating in front of Westminster for remaining in the European Union. Is the vision of losing the achievements of integration capable of mobilizing also its advocates in other countries? For the elites this fight for survival begins in the sphere of communication and language: it begins from the recognition that in this situation of a new political conflict in Europe, centered around integration as such, the popular strategy of blaming the EU for your own failures will produce really disastrous results.

The political elites must also beware another trap. Due to Brexit and the successes of rightwing populists in Europe the calls for a return to the nation-state, circumscribing the powers of Brussels, and the defense against foreigners have been recognized by many commentators as the “true” voice of the people, which should become a political beacon. Whether they are aware of it or not, adherents of this view fall into the trap set by the populists. For the populists make the exclusive claim to representing the nation—in opposition to the elites and the establishment. Such claim is an obvious usurpation, also in regard to the EU. It is in the nature of the new political division in Europe that the attitude towards the EU will increasingly polarize societies, but it absolutely does not mean that the majority of Europeans will inevitably desire a retreat from integration. That dispute about what kind of Union we need will continue, but it would be reprehensibly thoughtless to follow the voice of those who see the only salvation in the renationalization and weakening of EU institutions. And above all those politicians who tell their citizens today that such actions will allow them to restore control are deliberately misleading them. The result will be the deepening of frustrations, which will not only turn against the EU, but will first wipe away national elites feeding on illusions.

Piotr Buras

is the Head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). He studied international relations at the University of Warsaw and is an expert on European and German politics. Before joining ECFR he worked as author and correspondent of the Polish daily “Gazeta Wyborcza” in Berlin (2008-2013). 2018-2019 Piotr is a non-resident fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences working on the protection of rule of law in the EU.

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