Britain and Europe

Why out means out: the harsh politics of Brexit

16 June 2016

A Brexit vote next week will either cause the EU to close ranks or disintegrate

Roger Liddle

The cardinal error the Brexiteers make is in misunderstanding the EU politics of a British vote to leave. For them, the emotional excitement of recapturing the sovereignty they believe Britain has lost as a result of our EU membership outweighs any rational political calculation on their part of how our partners will react. In their eyes, any sense of bitterness on the continent at Britain’s rejection of the EU will be temporary. They ignore the inevitable sense of hurt that the lengths to which the EU has gone in order to accommodate British exceptionalism (our legally tight “opt-outs” from the euro and Schengen; the “special status” acknowledged in the Cameron renegotiation) have been spurned by the British people. They do not appreciate how a British vote to leave will send shock waves through the EU body politic, assailed as it presently is by populist minorities on its right and left.

Brexit poses an existential threat to the EU itself. It will force the rest of Europe either to close ranks or disintegrate. For some Brexiteers, this latter prospect is, in truth, the supreme prize. As Gove has implied, a British vote for exit would be a victory for democracy if it leads to the breakup of the EU. Presumably he imagines that the pre-1914 “concert of Europe” – a Europe of independent sovereign states without the encumbrance of any EU supranational arrangements – would be a more democratic settlement for Europe and lead to more harmony between the peoples and nations of Europe than what they see as the “the dictatorship of Brussels”.

All of Europe’s history since the second world war tells us that the political class on the continent totally reject this view and will fight to the last breath to keep Europe together. Unlike the British Brexiteers, they know that the real alternative to the EU is the centuries-old curse of European civilisation – nationalism. As the former French president, Francois Mitterrand, put it in 1995 in his magnificent farewell speech to the European parliament: “le nationalisme: c’est la guerre’’. In five simple words, that is the case for Europe.

In order to stem what our partners would interpret as the existential risk to Europe’s unity and peace that Brexit would be seen to pose, their natural reaction will be to demonstrate that leaving the EU is not a cost-free option for which any ten-a-penny rabble rouser can whip up support. If Britain turns its back on Europe on 23 June, there will be real sorrow across the continent, but it would be an error of historic proportions to mistake real sorrow for sympathy, special treatment and a free ride. Yet that is what our Brexit “prime minister in-waiting”, Boris Johnson, appears to think awaits him in the chancelleries of Europe.

The truth is that negotiating a smooth exit from the EU will prove much more difficult than defending Britain’s national interests within the EU. The EU is not a state with a single government that decides its policy on a rational calculation of the overall EU interest. Rather it is a partnership of 28 sovereign states (27 without the UK) who work together through a constant and complex process of institutionalised negotiation and bargaining. Inside the club the rights of each member state are properly respected. Brexiteers cannot bring themselves to recognise this, because they have a twisted view of what the EU is. The EU is not a federation, a United States of Europe under the domination of an unelected commission: this is an invention of Eurosceptic fantasy. The governing principle is of “equality between the member states”. While in terms of population size and economic and political importance, some member states are inevitably more equal than others – and this reflected in the EU’s voting rules – there is an unwritten convention that ever single member state’s interests have to be taken into account.

In the event of Brexit, Germany would undoubtedly not want to burn bridges with Britain. As the most important member state, it has great weight in the EU. But its position is by no means hegemonic. Cameron eventually showed that he understood this, in the enormous efforts he made in the British renegotiation to obtain the assent of every head of government. They listened to him then because Britain is a member – and he obtained more than some people (including this author) expected through his renegotiation for his reform agenda. But if Britain voted to leave, the respect accorded to the insider vanishes overnight. If we vote out, our EU partners will make sure we are in reality out.


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