Acest articol, disponibil în limba engleza, analizează evenimentele care au urmat referendumului pentru Brexit și argumentează că, din perspectiva istorică, relația Marii Britanii cu Uniunea Europeană a fost dominată mereu de tensiuni și negocieri dificile.
Thursday, the 23rd of June 2016, will go down in European history as one of its momentous days. This paper takes stock of the events immediately following the Referendum and argues that, from a historical point of view, Britain’s relationship with the EU has always been fraught with tensions and difficult negotiations. While it would be difficult to predict the future in the midst of rapidly changing events, Brexit can and should be seen as an opportunity to discuss the need for more political involvement and awareness of EU policies. The United Kingdom’s leaving the EU will inadvertently trigger a readjustment of the European budget and a re-allocation of quotas for, among others, structural funds. These changes do not have to be necessarily negative. Political turning points usually bring with them a new set of opportunities, and we should try to mold these new circumstances to our advantage.
Brexit has earned its symbolic place in Europe’s institutional legacy. For better or for worse, the unmistakable aftershocks of a historic turning point are there and have been felt across the world. Approximately 52% of British people, around 17 million, voted to Leave the EU, while 48% (16 million), cast their ballot in favour of the Remain campaign. Voter turnout was high at 71,8%, with more than 30 million participating in the referendum. Shortly after news broke out about Brexit, the sterling pound took a dramatic plunge and reached a 31-year low against the dollar at $1.3151[i]. Unrest in financial markets is still high, with major British banks like Barclays and The Royal Bank of Scotland losing in share value, while airlines such as EasyJet announced an anticipated sharp fall in profits. The Agency S&P lowered the UK’s credit rating to AA from AAA, while Moody downgraded its outlook on the UK’s banking sector to “negative”. Friday morning David Cameron resigned from his position as Britain’s Prime Minister during a press conference at 10 Downing Street. Scotland’s First Minister on the other hand, Nicola Sturgeon, immediately raised the possibility of a second referendum on Scottish independence[ii]. Scotland, Sturgeon emphasized, had voted for the EU and should not see its membership taken away against its will[iii]. The Labour MPs challenged openly their leader, Jeremy Corbyn, over his handling of the Remain campaign, while Liberal Democrats announced they would be preparing for elections on a pro-European ticket[iv]. Only hours after the results of the British vote were in, Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister called for joint sovereignty over Gilbraltar affirming, with some historical glee one might add, that “the Spanish flag on the Rock is much closer than before”[v]. Monday, June 27, Republican nominee hopeful Donald Trump predicted the break-up of the EU.[vi]
What has the British Referendum on the EU truly unleashed? Hatred against immigrants? Pent-up historical grievances? A new European vision? Perhaps all of these, and much more. With hindsight, one might argue that this loud “No” from the British public was to be expected. It is not so much the pros and cons of economic integration, as history itself which can help us understand what has happened. The United Kingdom has always had a difficult relationship with continental Europe. This is not the first time in history that the UK and the Common Market members disagree fundamentally about the European project. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Let us not forget that France under General De Gaulle vetoed two times Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community (EEC), and that two British Prime Ministers threatened the EEC with an exit referendum. The current British Rebate is Margaret Thatcher’s legacy. De Gaulle mistrusted Great Britain, which he perceived as America’s Trojan Horse and twice, in 1963 and 1967, used the French Veto to block negotiations, against the displeasure of all the other five EEC Members. The first enlargement took place only after his death, in 1973. Negotiations were opened with Denmark, Ireland, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Only three of these countries would become full members of the European Union. Norway has to this day rejected membership in the Union. Interestingly enough, some political commentators have already touted a Norway-style model for the UK’s new relationship with the EU.
It would be hard to say De Gaulle just got it wrong. Facing the displeasure of his five other EEC partners, the General argued on both occasions that Great Britain and Western Europe had unmatching economies. His private worries, that the UK will prove to be, politically, an American Trojan horse, and that free trade ideology would hamper the Common Agricultural Policy have proved themselves real. In 2003, British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined hands with American President George W. Bush and became a major Coalition of the Willing partner during the Second War in Iraq. A large number of European states opposed that decision, and its aftermath has proved long lasting. Iraq’s failing sovereign control over its territory has opened up new opportunities for plunder and exploitation. The Islamic State, the world’s number one international terrorist organization, is presumably run by former security officers in the Saddam Hussein administration. Some IS members have even successfully infiltrated migrants reaching the shores of Greece through the perilous Mediterranean seaway. Two of them were presumably involved in last year’s deadly attacks in Paris. Tony Blair in the meantime describes himself as an advocate of the European project. He has written an op-ed in The International New York Times on Brexit in which he claims that as a Prime Minister he “believed completely that Britain’s future lay in Europe” and that “Friday became a day of great personal, as well as political, sadness”[vii]. On the economic front, Britain has always been an uncomfortable negotiator of the EU budget, and a constant critic of the European Common Agricultural Policy.
Political scientists are generally weary of predictions. Despite utmost dedication in their scientific work to causality, none of these painstaking reconstructions of cause & effect processes will ever yield a clear statement on what is to come. The future is metaphorically speaking thorn country to them and, judging by the shock and dismay triggered by Brexit, also to policymakers. Still, I will risk one such statement and predict that lots of ink will be spilt in the future over the events of these last couple of days, about why Brexit happened and what political and economic changes this formidable referendum will trigger. Some commentators, hoping for a reversal of this situation, have already hinted that not much. Interestingly enough, leading Brexiteer and (former) Tory Prime Minister hopeful Boris Johnson himself appeared to steer away from the “getting our country back” slogans of his Leave campaign. In his first opinion piece in The Telegraph, two days after the referendum results were announced, Johnson said the result “was not entirely overwhelming” and assured the Remainers there would be “intense” and “intensifying” cooperation between the UK and the EU on arts, science and the environment as well as free movement for British citizens wanting to work in the 27-strong Union[viii]. Only Nigel Farage, United Kingdom Independence Party head celebrated victory and claimed, forgetting about the assassination of Labour MP Jo Cox: “We won without having to fire a single bullet.”[ix]
Leaving aside the uncertainties unleashed by this Referendum, what Brexit has clearly shown us, I would say, are the dangers of Populism. Ernesto Laclau, one of the most influential contemporary political thinkers who passed away last year, had warned Leftist parties as early as 1985 that a new political project was needed which could effectively appeal to peoples’ emotions. Laclau and his partner, political theorist Chantal Mouffe, argued that politics was about collective identities and identification, rather than rational decision-making. The word “populism” has often appeared in the international mass-media together with analyses pointing out the social class, education, and age divisions among the Remainers and the Leavers. Some of the major slogans of the Leave campaign have in the meantime been debunked as empty promises. There is a lot more left to analyze and write concerning the “why”s behind voters’ choice in the Brexit referendum. Laclau’s major breakthrough in his analysis of Populism was to show that this phenomenon is not an ideology in and by itself. Rather, it represents a set of strategies directed at evoking feelings of belonging and identification, i.e. of creating a symbolic community of “we” vs. “them”, which could be attached to any ideology, either on the Left, or on the Right. Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage appealed exactly to such emotions: to feelings of powerlessness, for which the Leave campaign blamed the EU; and to feelings of fear due to job loss and poverty, for which once again the EU laws on the freedom of movement and Eastern European migrant workers became the scapegoats. This unholy alliance between aspiring conservative politicians such as Johnson and Michael Gove, and the UKIP shows, like Tony Blair poignantly argues in his New York Times op-ed, that major parties can be overcome by populist movements. The situation is eerily similar to the internal disarray of the Republican Party in the US, against the rise of charismatic and popular Donald Trump. Forceful slogans like “freedom” and “sovereignty” can invoke into being a toxic mix of deep running emotions and sheer hatred, whether towards institutions, people or even forms of political organization such as democracy.
Not all is however a doom & gloom scenario. Britain’s exiting the EU could be seen as an overdue political decision, foreshadowed by the country’s difficult accession and continued special status among the Union’s member states. The British public was always divided in its allegiance to the European project. Positive outcomes of this Referendum could therefore be a much needed wake-up call for pro-European political parties and policymakers to defend our common project from Populist attacks. Europe, like German and French Foreign Ministers Steinmeier and Ayrault suggested in their joint paper, needs a new vision[x], one that could bring it closer to peoples’ hearts. The EU must reform internally and shed its bureaucratic image by reaching out to European citizens across age, class and educational barriers. Steinmeier and Ayrault’s idea of unity might be difficult to pursue at a time when news of further political unrest and economic recession crop up everywhere. The British Referendum has indeed revealed a fractured political and regional landscape. Not only do Scots vigorously pursue now a European membership even at the cost of their political union with the UK, but the Brexit itself seems to be, like a title run by the BBC, “the divorce of two nations”[xi]. During the emergency EU summit of Tuesday, Mario Draghi, the President of the European Central Bank, announced that growth in Europe will be cut by 0,3 to 0,5 points. He also indicated however that measures would be taken to stimulate recovery, which can only imply new money being poured into the economy[xii].
Uncertainty will undoubtedly continue to permeate our lives in the near future. Yet new opportunities could also arise. Romania will become the European Union’s 6th most populous state. The current Multiannual Financial Framework 2014-2020 represents 1,04% of the EU 28 Gross National Income. The European Commission recently published a paper in preparation of the 2017 Draft Budget, including provisions for the financial programming 2018-2020. The Statement takes stock of the 23 June British Referendum, but does not suggest any adjustments to the Union’s revenues and expenditures. Until the UK formerly exits the Union, “EU law continues to apply in full”[xiii]. There is little financial clarity about what happens when Brexit does take place. However, once the EU budget is adjusted, Romania might even experience a rise in structural funds. These long term gains could be initially offset by short term challenges. Romanian exports to the UK as well as Romanian migrant workers and students are potentially affected by this decision. The Government will have to step up its actions by protecting our interests and citizens abroad. Although Britain’s financial contribution should most likely be less than what it is at the moment, access to the Common Market, similar for example to Norway’s, will certainly entail payments to the EU. Moreover, Romania’s political stability can prove to be an invaluable asset in the following years. With a territory of almost 2/3 the size of Germany, a medium size population, and an economy that continues to grow, we are a stable democracy which much to offer in terms of labour and potential for economic expansion. Despite difficult readjustments, if Brexit does eventually happen, it could bring Romania a major economic opportunity!
[ii]BBC News. “Nicola Sturgeon says second Scottish independence vote 'highly likely'”. 24 June 2016. Retrieved at:http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-scotland-scotland-polit...
[iii]BBC News. “Sturgeon pledges to ‘protect’ Scottish EU interests”. 25 June 2016. Retrieved at: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-...
[iv]BBC News. “Lib Dems pledge to fight for UK re-entry to EU”. 26 June 2016. Retrieved at: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-...
[v]Gatehouse, Gabriel. “Brexit: Gibraltar in talks with Scotland to stay in EU”. BBC News, 27 June 2016. Retrieved at:http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36639770
[vi]Khomami, Nadia. “Donald Trump predicts breakup of EU”. The Guardian, 27 June 2016. Retrieved at:https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jun/27/do...
[viii]Johnson, Boris. “I cannot stress too much that Britain is part of Europe – and always will be”. The Telegraph, 26 June 2016. Retrieved at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/26/i-canno...
[ix]BBC News. “Nigel Farage says Leave win marks UK 'independence day'”. 24 June 2016. Retrieved at: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36613238.
[x]Ayrault, Jean-Marc and Frank-Walter Steinmeier. “A Strong Europe in a World of Uncertainties”. Document presented at the Press Conference held after Talks at Villa Borsig, Berlin, 25 June 2016.
[xi]BBC News. “A messy divorce between two Britains”, 24 June 2016. Retrieved at: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36622707
[xii]Der Spiegel. “EZB-Wachstumsprognose: Briten-Votum bremst Euro-Wirtschaft”. 28 Juni 2016. Internetseite:http://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/unternehmen/brexi...
[xiii]European Commission, “Statement of Estimates of the European Commission for the Financial Year 2017”, SEC(2016)280, 30 June 2016, §1.1.