Last week I was asked to write, for a German audience, a piece on Brexit that was short and “personal but also political”. This is what I delivered. The German version will be out in mid-April in Magazin Mitbestimmung.
As I write these words it is 1000 days since the 2016 referendum that is propelling the United Kingdom, after almost half a century of membership, out of the EU. It seems like an age. And it is just 10 days before the foreseen Brexit Day on March 29th. Yet confusion still reigns as to the outcome. Despite years of debate, all the options remain on the table: crashing out, leaving amicably with a deal and, after all, staying in.
Me and Brexit
The referendum result was a shock. A few days later I wrote a piece entitled “No good options for the UK”. I pointed out that British cherry-picking was not going to work and that a choice would need to be made between a politically unsatisfying “Brexit in name only” and an economically damaging hard Brexit. Once there was clarity about this choice, the British people would be entitled to be asked once again whether they wanted to leave. Sadly this assessment has so far proven correct, except that there has not yet been a clear resolution of the question of the direction of travel. The binding Withdrawal Agreement – notwithstanding all the sound and fury associated with it – is very limited in scope and has not yet been accepted, while the broader Political Declaration is vague and non-binding.
In the weeks following the referendum, I – born and raised in the UK, but having worked my whole professional life on the continent – made two personal decisions. I took German citizenship, a step that for decades had been an option but for which I saw no need – and now hold two passports. (Happily the process lived up to the cliché of German efficiency, which by no means always applies.) Whatever happens with Brexit, I will remain a citizen of the European Union. Like many of my compatriots I deeply resented the prospect of having that taken from me, against my will, as the result of a flawed referendum. Most Remain voters, of course, do not have a dual citizenship option. They will be deprived of a part of their citizenship if Brexit indeed goes ahead.
The second thing was that I got active in two citizens’ initiatives that, in different ways, seek to bring home to both ordinary people and politicians that the substantial achievements of European integration cannot be taken for granted. The debate about Europe cannot be left to vocal groups decrying in simplistic fashion real or imagined failings of the EU and offering only cheap slogans (“take back control”) and irresponsible solutions – up to an including dissolving the EU in its entirety. If anything good has come of Brexit (and of related developments like the election of Trump and the rise of authoritarian figures in other countries) it is a growing recognition that European values and achievements need to be actively promoted and resolutely defended. Politicians and commentators need to be called out when they blame “Brussels” for matters for which national policy failings are (more) to blame, or criticise poor outcomes but without pointing out viable alternatives.
The strange beast that is the EU
Of course this does not imply refraining from criticising the EU. On the contrary, there are surely reasons aplenty to do so. To name just three, the lessons of the euro crisis have still not been learnt and economic governance remains a crucial weakness; the inability to agree on a humane and effective migration policy is a stain on the continent from an ethical point of view and a source of internal political strife; and the response to the urgent need to address the climate crisis has been patchy and uncoordinated. What needs to be recognised is that what is called “the EU” is a polity in which different governance levels interact in highly complex ways: the nation-state and the EU are complements not opposites. And it is one which is developing piecemeal in historical time: modern states such as Germany or the USA, it is often forgotten, were also forged over an extended period in often bloody conflict. It follows that it is usually far from clear who the addressee of a criticism of “the EU” actually is, nor what the alternative to membership of the EU is; this is exactly what the Brexit saga has illustrated.
In a nutshell my view is that there are important benefits to having a single economic space for the exchange of goods, services and also labour and capital. But to work well, that space needs to be appropriately regulated. Some of this can still be done at local and national level; but in many cases regulation needs to be done at the same level as market integration, i.e. at EU level, if it is to be effective. And where this is the case, it should be so done. This is the proper meaning of the word subsidiarity.
What is odd is that many liberals view the EU as intrinsically socialist, many socialists see Europe as irredeemably neoliberal. In fact it is a multi-level structure in which political forces can mobilise and organize to realise their different visions. The ultimate outcome is a result of an ongoing struggle, one – importantly, and in contrast to historical experience – conducted by peaceful means. It is subject to constant revision, but past choices constrain present possibilities. In short, the direction and extent of such regulation is decided by politics, not least by the outcome of local, national and European elections.
Elections to the European Parliament are to be held at the end of May. Some 370 million voters will be asked to help determine the course of the EU over the next five years. At the time of writing it seems that the Brexit deadline will be extended, but, initially at least, not beyond the date of the European elections. British citizens will be deprived of the possibility of influencing the direction of travel in Europe, a continent to which, whatever happens, Britain will remain tightly linked. Holding the vote also in the UK, with the country half-in and half-out of the Union is not an attractive prospect.
My own view is that the Brexit debate has already absorbed too much political energy. Either the existing deal must be accepted, in which case Brexit can occur before the EP elections: during the transition period negotiations will be held on the really important issues of the future trading and other relations. If it is not, then the UK should be asked either to revoke Article 50 – which it can do unilaterally. In that case the UK will, of course, have to hold elections (possibly with a delay). Having learnt some lessons over a thousand days, it can reflect without time pressure and with full rights, but also obligations. Or it should leave – initially – without a deal. This will be highly damaging economically in the short run, especially in the UK. Negotiations will immediately have to restart. But they will do so with a clear premise that Britain is no longer a Member State. It has no obligations, but also no rights. It will, I believe, quickly seek a rapprochement, and quite possibly renewed accession.
My personal preference is clear: I have just signed a petition for revocation of Article 50.