I suppose in some infinitesimal part the referendum vote for Brexit is my fault too. In common with most of the Btitish Ã©lite or hangers-on, and all those who have worked for one European institution or another, I never took the threat of Brexit quite seriously. Surely the voters would in the end recognize the wishful thinking of an Ã la carte Europe, keeping the bits you like and not the ones you don’t. Surely the young, under-represented in telephone polling, would turn out en masse. But it’s the unlikely and incoherent alliance of elderly Little Englanders and the depressed Northern working class that turned out, and won.
The disaster is playing out at several speeds. The pound has already fallen sharply, anticipating the City’s loss of access to European financial markets. David Cameron has resigned; his first gamble with the constitution over Scottish independence was just saved for him by two Labour politicians, Alistair Darling with the numbers and Gordon Brown with the flag-waving. This time Jeremy Corbyn was as usual useless, and the gamble failed. In fact the strong Bremain vote in Scotland has opened up the case for a second Scottish referendum, so it may end up a double catastrophe for the Union.
The combination of a vague constitutional referendum and a parliamentary system has thrown the UK into a permanent crisis. The leavers are a minority of MPs, and they don’t like their marching orders. If Boris Johnson gets his ambition of 10 Downing Street, he will be living on a knife-edge. He has already suggested that there is no hurry, but Brussels is insisting on an early trigger of Article 50, the formal withdrawal mechanism that sets a two-year deadline for negotiations. Boris (or Gove or whoever) is about to find just how weak Britain’s cards are in this process. Norway and Switzerland have access to the single market, and Norway is even in the Schengen free-movement area. But both pay hefty contributions, nominally to the regional development and other structural funds. Britain’s interlocutors have no incentive to be nice.
Is id possible that the exit terms will be so awful that in the end the UK will swallow its pride and stay in? Just possible, but as in divorce a descent into rancour is far more likely than last-minute reconciliation.
Why did it all go wrong?
- I’ve already mentioned the failure of people like me to convince ordinary Britons that the European project was worthwhile, let alone noble. (I actually worked for the Council of Europe, not the EU, representing an older, Westphalian model of cooperation by consensus; but we tried to do good work even as the ship slowly sank.) It wasn’t for lack of good works: a European system of judicial enforcement of human rights (the Council of Europe’s main achievement), the single market, freedom of movement, common environmental standards: these are not trivial. The failure in the UK was to get this across, against a barrage of smears and lies.
- Outright racism and xenophobia. This is not just a British problem. But it clearly fuelled the Brexit campaign. Never mind that the 3m immigrants to the UK from the EU are white, young, and educated: they are a large net gain to British taxpayers, as well as public and private employers. Will Boris really throw them all out? I doubt it very much.
- The recent capture of key parts of European economic policymaking by doctrinaire neoliberals and ordoliberals. Since Britain wisely stayed out of the Euro, it could have adopted a quite different Keynesian policy, but Osborne and Cameron chose not to. This fuelled working-class suspicions that the EU is just part of the global neoliberal capitalist plot by the 1%. The picture is a travesty â€“ look at policy efforts against tax havens , systematically opposed by London – but the grain of truth has been damaging.
- Jean Monnet is also to blame. He created the technocratic model with the Coal and Steel Community, and reproduced it on a wider scale in the EEC. My reading is that his formative experience was his and Salter’s persuasion of the Allied powers in 1917 to hand over operational control of North Atlantic shipping to the two of them. The paradigm is: delegation of real executive powers(a) on specific issues(b) to meet a crisis(c). The European Commission still thinks the same way; it has less sense of the necessary limits to its powers than the satraps of John Company. It has gone on accumulating powers, in an ad hoc way such that even experts find it hard to grasp which rules and procedures apply to a given policy problem.
The system is incomprehensible by evolution rather than design. It does not even have the coherence imposed on say the Comintern or the IMF by a clear ideology, such as Marxism or free-market liberalism. Monnet, who never went to university, was a total pragmatist. Even the first EU initiatives represented a hodgepodge of entirely different conceptions of public policy: Fabian planning for coal and steel, Colbertian protectionism in agriculture, populism on antitrust, classical liberalism on trade. So if you don’t share the messianic belief in European integration as the sole long-term guarantee of peace on the continent, the institutions and policies look like an impenetrable tangle.
The way out of this is of course a proper confederal constitution. Giscard d’Estaing tried to write one, and the Irish rejected it in a referendum. Monnet would have banned the nuisancy things.
The above attempts a rational take on the event. What I feel today is Auden’s poem of grief.
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message He Is Dead,
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
* * * * *
Declaration of interest
I am personally deeply affected by this. As an EU citizen of British nationality, I have today a right to live anywhere in the EU, and have retired to Spain and France. My wife Lu is Brazilian, and has a derived right of residence as my spouse. Now since I enjoy a decent taxable pension and comprehensive private medical insurance for both of us from my former employer, it would make no practical sense to throw us out. But not all the 1.8 million British citizens living in Europe are so fortunate. If working, they will lose employment rights. If retired, the arrangements for portability of medical care will unravel.
My three adult children were born in France and are variously affected in even more complex ways. Two have non-British partners. In addition to the legal issues, they will face grave questions of identity. They have always thought of themselves as British and European; now they may be forced to choose.
Thanks to all you Brexit voters for the royal clusterf*ck.