Britain and Europe

A problem shared is a problem doubled

30 June 2016

Spain may be pre-occupied with its own domestic political turmoil, but there are parallels with the UK’s Brexit vote

Following last week’s repeat elections, Spain is currently living in its own turmoil, with the collapse of a party system dominated by two main parties that we had since the restoration of democracy in 1977. Immersed in our acrimonious and polarizing political crisis, we have sadly missed much of the UK referendum campaign. It still amazes me how little European issues, foreign affairs or even dramas as the refugee crisis play a role in – at least – Spanish national debates and political campaigns. The word Europe was barely mentioned in the electoral debates, let alone in conversations or media coverage. In this campaign the media have covered current affairs in Venezuela in great detail (a lot of attention for a country whose trade with Spain represents less than 0.5 per cent of Spanish GDP), while the UK referendum was only mentioned in passing, although UK-Spain trade represents more than 10 per cent of Spanish GDP.

That is maybe why the Brexit result the morning of the 24th of June came as shock to many of us here. In the midst of confusion, the reaction of our political leaders was poor and endogamic, but perhaps understandable, considering that election day was only a few days ahead. President Rajoy and his government identified themselves with stability warning that outcomes like Brexit were typical of radical political parties like Podemos. Hours later, members of Rajoy’s government pandered the far right with a pathetic claim to re-take Gibraltar under some sort of dual sovereignty. Some things never change. A few hours later, the campaign resumed as usual, as if Brexit had not happened.

A lot about how we got to the leave victory has been written at this point. The sum of the far-right, anti-immigration electorate, the working-class losers of globalisation and those nostalgic of the ‘past greatness’ of the British Empire help explain the victory of the leave campaign. Pundits and political, economic and financial analysts have explored the consequences of Brexit. More than the intensity of the economic shock to the British economy and its financial institutions, it leaves a country cracked open by deep territorial, generational, cultural and class divides. The possibility of a collapse of the United Kingdom as we know it is indeed possible, with a referendum on Scottish independence gaining ground, and a re-opening of the Northern Ireland question, as well as doubts about Gibraltar and the Falklands. Even an area with special status in the London metropolitan area looks now possible. Finally, the referendum has gigantic implications for the British party system. The British PM resigned only a few hours after the result was known and both the Tory and Labour parties are in internal turmoil and face declining electorates. I am afraid that in this context it is Labour that is going to suffer the most, as the basis for social democracy is being eroded across Europe.

In my view, the worst consequence of Brexit is that the side that won the referendum does not really have a plan to manage UK’s society and economy outside the EU. Most of their economic and political claims were fantasy (money for the NHS, control over borders). They created the illusion that one can regain sovereignty just by proclaiming it. Their victory was based on the seduction of an angry, embittered electorate willing to punish the establishment. There is no real plan now, no one is in charge, as a result, the UK perhaps faces several years of political and economic paralysis. I did not like Thatcher at all, but she had a plan. The Brexit coalition is based only on rejection, and no one builds a significant political project out of that.

The outcome of the UK referendum should be a sign of alarm for all progressives and social democrats in Europe. We need to listen to the anger of electorates across Europe. Only by understanding and internalising the causes of that anger will we able to come up with a vision of a shared future and a plan to reach it. Sometimes, a trauma is the revulsion to make things change. This is the only potential positive side of Thursday’s result.

Photo credit: Laura Pl / Shutterstock.com