The separation of the UK from the EU is not a new phenomenon. Campaigns against joining and for separation have been going on for 60 years. A real piece of news would be if people eventually learn something from this all.
Since the summer of 2016, Brexit has been discussed more than enough, but did you know that the British had previously voted about leaving the EU? In 1975, advocated by the Labour Party, who were objecting to a complex transnational governing structure where capital dictates the rules.
At that point, 67% of the voters were in favour of remaining.
“The mutual history of Great Britain and the EU is full of suspicion and problems,” says Matti Roitto. “It is therefore an oversimplification to explain the result of the 2016 referendum just by the notion that uneducated people were fed with lies. The populist Vote Leave campaign was effective because it could tap into the earlier trend of anti-EU campaigns and identify already existing sore points.”
And there are indeed plenty of sore points in the British EU saga.
The UK applied for EC membership for the first time in 1961 and again in 1967. Both times they were turned down by France.
“President Charles de Gaulle plays the villain’s role in the British epic of Europe,” Roitto explains. “His reluctance was based not only on economic reasons but also on his fear of decreasing the prestige of France. Moreover, he was not pleased with the close relationship between the UK and the USA. De Gaulle did not want Americans operating in the background.”
Because Great Britain’s interests after WWII were directed towards the Commonwealth and the USA, in particular, and to improving conditions in the home country, Britain did not join the European Coal and Steel Community nor the European Economic and Atomic Energy Communities, which eventually laid the basis for the European Community and later on for the EU.
Roitto further explains the historic background: “When the UK finally received EC membership in 1973, the country had to accept the rules defined by the original members, and naturally those rules had not been designed in view of British interests. The EC policies were seen in exaggeration as a deal between two partners: France opened her market to German industry and in return Germany subsidized French agriculture via the EC. In Britain the strong position of France and Germany in the EC was also seen to some degree as a loss of prestige.”
Although this is not only about nostalgia, Britain’s long history as a leading world power and the centre of world trade has inevitably left its traces in the nation’s mentality. Especially when encountering problems with other plans, Britain would have liked to portray itself as the leading major power and guardian of interests in Europe. However, the country’s status had weakened along with the independence of its former colonies and the changing trends in the global economy, among other.
Against this backdrop is easy to understand why the Vote Leave campaign leading up to the 2016 referendum was so effective.
“The slogan ‘Take back control’ hit straight to the heart of British identity scarred by lost prestige,” Roitto says, “and it also reminded voters of an essential problem associated with the EU’s operation principle: decision-making power seems to move farther away from those subjected to the decisions. At the same time we should remember that for the EU, Brexit is in turn a major loss of prestige.”
Brexit will leave a trace, but of what kind?
In some ways, Brexit resembles the game of icken depicted in youth movies from the 1950s, a contest in which two cars approach each other at high speed down the centre of a road, the object being to force one’s opponent to veer, being thus the “chicken”.
After the seemingly endless Brexit stalemate, Parliament may appear as a frustratingly incapable and unwieldy administrative institution. Under such circumstances it is easy for populists to gain support. They present themselves as an agile and fresh alternative and promise to speed things up.
“For example, it is possible that Boris Johnson is engaged in the ultimate gamble,” Roitto says, “because he wants to force Parliament to take action. Theresa May failed because she offered different alternatives.” The gamble also includes new elections, which Johnson has proposed. This option can be tempting because at least it would give some technical additional time, and at best Johnson could replace his present minority Government with a majority one or press the opposition with the elections. However, there is a but:
“The conservatives are also afraid that their hard-liners might largely flee to other parties, such as to the ranks of the former UKIP leader Nigel Farage,” Roitto says. “Besides, there are also other political groups that can challenge the two traditional dominant parties. It isn’t totally impossible that the palette of parties represented in the British Parliament ight be reshaped.”
A special characteristic of Britain is that they have no written constitution. Governmental practices are based on precedent and tradition. This is also the case with Parliament, where procedural knowledge seems to have been disappearing for some time already. Knowing the appropriate procedures and utilizing them strategically, however, may bring influence and is therefore extremely important.
“Somebody on Boris Johnson’s team has done their homework really well,” Roitto says. “It’s not by chance that they find ways to curb Parliament, like extending the pause session so as to prevent Parliament from acting.”
Roitto predicts that there will be a long and hard debate over the constitution and the respective roles of Parliament and prime minister. Britain has shifted slowly towards presidentialization of the Premiership to operate more unilaterally and assume more power. Yet this trend may still change.
But is Brexit just a gigantic political catastrophe, or does it also have winners?
A silver lining would be if the EU finally takes its major, long-standing problems seriously and commits to solving them. Populist parties across Europe receive their fuel from the same supply: people feel that the EU’s operating culture is unhealthy; it is claimed to suppress sovereignty and stubbornly advocates going ahead full speed for integration and is doing nothing about its problems.
“The point that people’s concern has not been heard and taken seriously seems easily a token of the national and transnational elite’s arrogance, which offers an easy tool for populists,” Roitto states. “Perhaps Brexit is the bottom, the hitting of which will force policymakers to see what needs to be fixed. In that case there can be even much to gain, ultimately.”
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