People voted to ‘take back control’ from the EU, but won’t know what they voted for until the government negotiates a deal with the EU. If EU leaders are wise, they will let Britain vote again on the actual deal.
This month’s heavy rain is a reminder that climate change cannot be solved by one country alone. Nor can any one country cope with thousands of refugees, another global financial crisis, threats from terrorists, corporate tax avoidance and other transnational problems. We urgently need effective and accountable transnational political structures.
It takes crisis to create new political structures. The United States fought a civil war in which more people were killed than all other American wars since. The United Kingdom emerged from centuries of war and a debt crisis in Scotland. Likewise nations of Europe, the United Nations and the European Union itself. The crisis of Britain’s referendum is an opportunity to renew political structures on both sides of the channel, not a time for retreat.
Britain and the EU both need to strengthen their democracies, whether or not they remain in the same political structures. Europe faces powerful Eurosceptic forces in Austria, France, Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere. It is not fanciful to suggest that nationalistic forces could unravel the Union or even lead to war one day, as they did when the former Yugoslavia broke apart, in 1914, 1938 or the Ukraine today.
If Britain leaves we will still deal with European nations through the political structures of NATO, the WTO, UN, IMF, Climate Convention, Bank of International Settlements and thousands of institutions of global governance. None of these are as open, democratic or accountable as the EU, but they have at least as much influence over us the EU.
I say “If Britain leaves” because there is are political minefields between membership and exit – votes in Parliament, leadership contests, elections in France, Germany and a possibly the UK, not to mention endless negotiations with Brussels and other capitals. Meanwhile the balance of payments, budget deficit and financial markets will provide a raucous commentary louder than the referendum debate.
The people have spoken, what did they mean?
The referendum delivered a powerful message to elites in Britain and the EU about failures of the political system, particularly about not having a say and immigration, but also about low pay, public services and the quality of life. Lord Ashcroft Polls provided a fascinating analysis of How the United Kingdom voted and why, based on his survey of 12,369 people after they had voted: “Leaving the EU was thought more likely to bring about a better immigration system, improved border controls, a fairer welfare system, better quality of life, and the ability to control our own laws.” – see figure Who owned what?
A divided country, a divided continent
The poll also showed how divided Britain is. Not only was the electorate split 52 to 48 percent, a difference of 1,269,501 people, but 73% of young people (18-24) voted to remain and over 60% of older people (65+) voted to leave. A majority of people in work voted to remain, while most of those not working (retired, unemployed) voted to leave. Professionals and managers (social group AB) voted to remain by 57% while lower occupational groups (C2Des) voted to leave by 64%. Scotland and London voted to remain by over 60%, while England and Wales voted to leave by 53%.
These divisions will not go away if we leave. People on low incomes demand protection from the market forces that attracted migrants, brought zero-hours contracts and job-losses in steel and other industries. The NHS, social care and other public services will come under even more pressures if the tax base falls, inflation rises and migrants leave. The economy may falter due to a lack of skilled labour and investment. Scotland could vote to leave the UK.
The SNP, UKIP and new political parties are growing by giving voice to people who have not been heard. The divisions will grow deeper if they do not get power to address these problems.
Divisions in Europe are even greater, between rich and poor nations, rich and poor within nations, North and South, indigenous and immigrant, and the multitude of national groups, languages and cultures. This diversity also has a voice in political parties like the French Front National, Greek Syriza, Spanish Cuidanos and Podemos, Italian Five Star Movement and many others. It is one of Europe’s strengths, but also a major challenge.
Traditional political parties in both Britain and the rest of Europe have been slow, complacent or incompetent in their response to a succession of crises facing Europe – the break-up of Yugoslavia and Ukraine, the financial crash, Greece, unemployment, Syria, refugees and now Brexit.
Europe is still an oasis of stability and security. Many of its companies are highly productive, competitive and successful. Levels of wellbeing, social and environmental protection are high compared with most of the world, including the USA. It has enormous problems, but also the means of dealing with them.
What Europe lacks today is the political imagination and courage to create more inclusive political mechanisms to give people an effective voice. The EU is more open and democratic than most people realise, but only professional lobbyists know how to use these channels, while most of the national press, parliaments, MEPs and education institutions have been absolutely hopeless at telling people what’s happening and how to have a say.
Europe in denial
The President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz MEP, demonstrated the failure of the EU’s fledgling democracy, when he said Britain’s vote to leave “is not a crisis for the European Union”.
Britain leaving is a massive crisis for the EU. It will lose income, prestige and power. It will add an immense administrative and diplomatic burden on top of the crises of the Eurozone, Greece, refugees and unemployment. And it will set a precedent for Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Matteo Salvini of Italy’s Leaga Nord, Kristian Thulesen Dahl of the Danish People’s Party and other voices for the disaffected. They will demand referendums and are likely to get popular support. Herr Schulz, Sie irren. Die EU wird von innen bedroht. Mr Schulz. You are wrong. The EU is threatened from within. The UK is not alone.
Europe for Democracy
The EU needs to heed Mark Rutte, rotating president of the EU and prime minister of the Netherlands, who said that the Union “has to be more relevant, deliver added value to our lives”. Francois Hollande, president of France, said the referendum put the EU to the test: “To move forward, Europe cannot act as before.” The Austrian chancellor, Christian Kern, has called for a clear process of reform to boost economies, stem unemployment and improve working conditions. Matteo Renzi, Italian prime minister, tweeted “We must change it to make in more human and more just. But Europe is our home, it’s our future.”
Every home has its falling out, people storming off and threatening never to be back. But Britain will still be here. Over 17 million citizens voted to leave its political structures, but more than 16 million voted to remain. The argument is at a new stage, but is not over. Over two million people have signed a petition calling for a second referendum on EU membership if the remain or leave vote is less than 60% based a turnout less than 75% (which is was).
Europe urgently needs to deepen its democratic systems and respond better to citizens, particularly those who are poor, marginalised, unemployed and under pressure from globalisation. It needs to reach out and help neighbouring regions develop so that people don’t need to flee. It also needs to strengthen communication and understanding between citizens of different regions, social groups and countries, perhaps through a European citizens’ service for young people from different countries to work together on social projects for several months.
The very least the EU can do to demonstrate its democratic spirit is to let Britons vote again on the terms of departure.
Democracy in the UK
Britain also needs to renew its democracy. The government must respect the outcome of the referendum and negotiate the best deal possible with the rest of the EU, but it also needs to show that it has heard people’s demand for a say in decisions that affect their lives. This was not just about Europe, but having a say about the place where people live and work.
Over half of voters rejected the case made by the government, most MPs and the establishment. The referendum reflected widespread disaffection and a hunger for something better. It is possible that leaving the EU will meet that hunger, but no one knows until there is an actual deal for departure on the table. And when there is, people should be able to choose again.
Both Britain and the EU will have changed by then. It will be possible for citizens to see more clearly whether they can have more control over the forces of globalization by being part of a larger political structure or on their own. A second referendum would show that both Britain and the EU recognise that democracy is demanding, forcing governments to address the priorities of the people, who are sovereign.
Steps to second referendum
Parliament will decide when to trigger Article 50 to leave the EU. The Prime Minister has said he will leave the task when the Conservative Party has elected a successor. The front-runner, Boris Johnson, said at the start of the campaign that he favoured a second referendum. European Leaders want the UK to move fast. They could draw up the terms for a British departure, so that Britain is in no doubt about what deal they are likely to get. Parliament could appoint an inclusive negotiating team including representatives of the regions and nations of Britain, to set out options before trigger Article 50. While it may take years to negotiate the details, the broad terms of any deal could be done over a few months. Then when the options are clear the actual deal can be put before the British people in a second referendum.
Meanwhile, the political elites of both Britain and Europe need to engage with citizens and take a long hard look at their priorities and democratic system so that people themselves have an effective voice in the decisions that affect their lives.
We are living through a period of global transformation, in which authoritarian and even militaristic solutions may be increasingly attractive. We have a responsibility to show that democracy, messy and challenging as it is, can find a better way.
Titus Alexander is convenor of Democracy Matters. This is a personal view.