On Friday morning I was shocked, probably just like everybody else. In the course of the day, that shock became anger. As such, I refrained from writing about Britain’s imminent quitting the European Union, fearing that it would only be a rant. Over the weekend, I have spoken with people about it, heard different opinions, read analyses, laughed about jokes and sorted my thoughts. This post might still be somewhat rant-ish, but very much less than if I had written it on Friday or Saturday (luckily I was busy otherwise). I will not deal with Brexit as such, there are already enough analyses about this disaster, but I will focus more on related thoughts about society, democracy and politics.
Let me begin with society. As an intellectual, I find it rather hard to wrap my head around the opinion of the average voter, but this is what we intellectuals have to do. We need to acknowledge that to the general electorate different things matter than to the “elites”. Things like nations and fear of immigration or more generally the loss of self-determination, be it to Brussels or some other foreign entity – absurd, of course, but still highly relevant. There is no force in the world that could eradicate such feelings, notions, fears from the mind of the average voter, and there will always be demagogues and populists playing these feelings for their own gain.
Educating people will only help so much. Sometimes, baffling to the brainy types like me, emotion trumps all ratio and all knowledge. As a society we need to be aware of that, design our institutions to be robust against demagoguery and populism and acknowledge the fact that not everybody is a statesman nor has to be one. The elite, to which I would daringly count myself, must care more about the average voter as to not lose her to populists. In the end, grand things like the European project are still possible, but they probably take a lot more time to be accomplished as people have to get used to the fact that things change. To make it easier, not too many things should change in too short a time. It is better to have snail-slow advancement than to try to do it fast and have a single referendum-gone-wrong blow it all to pieces and obliterate the work of decades. And sometimes it is necessary to rewind parts to save the whole (Germany’s Federalism Commissions that re-aligned the inner workings of the republic a decade ago may serve as an example), just as you cut brown branches from a plant.
The Brexit Paradox
Then there are severe democratic problems laid bare by the EU referendum. Beginning on Saturday and becoming stronger over Sunday and Monday, two new neologisms made the round. First there was Bregret, the notion of a post-referendum hang-over, and that people regret voting Leave, in the confidence that Remain would win anyway only to wake up to this disastrous Friday. A petition in Britain initiated by Bregretters, calling for a new referendum has already gathered more than four million signatures. Impressive, but probably unsuccessful and too late.
This explains the second neologism, Breccident, analogous to the feared accidental Greek departure from the Euro by missing a bond-payment. It seems that the Brexit vote, with a decent margin of roughly 1.3 million votes, was actually an accident as said petition has amassed already more than three times as much votes for repeating the referendum.
This illustrates a phenomenon which I would like to call the Brexit paradox: One the one hand, voters are fed up with distant elites in both Brussels and Westminster and would like to take matters in their own hands. On the other hand, said voters are not even able to vote properly on a really easy question. How can they expect to make the right decisions without some moderating “elite”? Recall that both Houses of Parliament are pro Remain by a large margin. The British referendum shows what we already know, namely that referendums about single political questions are dangerous, and that representative democracy (call it elitism if you want) is far superior to direct democracy – unless you are the Swiss, but they have centuries of experience of how to not wreck things. This brings me to the last point.
Finally politics. The Brexit vote itself was nothing extraordinary, only the latest instalment of two not-so-young trends. First the older phenomenon of hijacked referendums whose meaning is so twisted that the decision is no longer about the question at hand but about “giving the big wigs something to think about.”
The second trend is European voters’ lust for eurosceptic, nationalistic, sometimes xenophobic political powers that try to unravel the European project by sowing fear. The second-to-latest example would be the razor-thin defeat of Norbert Hofer as the Austrian Federal President by an all-colours coalition that supported “the other guy”, the Green Alexander Van Bellen, just to stop Mr Hofer from becoming president. Others include the success of Germany’s AfD party at the Landtagswahlen in March, Marine Le Pen’s high poll figures in France and the new-ish PiS-lead government in Poland. Even our friends across the great pond are not immune to far-right demagogues as the Republican Party shows by nominating Donald Trump for president. Together with the brisance of the actual question at the British EU referendum these two trends brought about the disaster of the Brexit-Friday.
Where to go now?
The only sensible way to go now, is to defuse these trends. I am not exactly sure how, but my suggestion would be to overhaul the European Union, while public support is high, after voters in the rest of Europe thought more about the virtues of the EU after Brexit.
It is my long-standing opinion that the EU should be a club based on subsidiarity. We do together what we cannot do alone, and do this properly. I would think of trade and commerce, infrastructure in energy and data networks, defence, big research projects and the like. The rest is business of the members themselves. Also elections to the European Parliament should no longer be national polls, but Europe-wide elections of European parties with European politicians. Further, EU-brass should at least explain themselves before the national parliaments, maybe even held accountable. In turn, we should grant commissioners and heads of state and governments permanent permission to speak before any national parliament to foster understanding of what our friends (family, actually) think.
The Brexit vote was an utter disaster, moreover an unnecessary and avoidable disaster, brought upon us all by amateurish national treatment of a European problem. Damage is done, but maybe there is a way out of the woods. Maybe there will be another referendum, maybe there will be snap elections in Britain and a new House of Commons just trashes the whole idea. Still, Europe (and Britain for that matter) will be permanently scarred by Friday’s disaster. Hopefully, the scars will in the future remind us of how we all worked to save the European project and not of how we lost it.