BREXIT: The Rise of Nationalism and Exceptionalism

Cover Story By Dr. Maxime H. A. Larivé

In France, Austria, Poland, Greece and so forth, citizens are increasingly voting for populist parties, on the right and the left, as such parties promise a return to full sovereignty, greater control from the EU, and a fight against globalisation. As illustrated by the chart based on Pew’ survey on global attitudes, the trend throughout the European Union has principally been to return powers to national governments.

In the press conference ensuing the vote in favour of the departure of the United Kingdom (UK) from the European Union (EU) (known as Brexit), a reporter asked President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker, who had just concluded a brief speech, if it was the beginning of the end of the EU. President Juncker looked at her, paused, rolled his speech and simply left the podium wishing the audience a good afternoon. Since the referendum, the positions have been as follows: the EU is pushing for a quick divorce, the UK is trying to slow down the process, and the rest of world is observing.

After more than a year of campaign, the results are in and the United Kingdom (counting British, Northern Irish and Commonwealth citizens) has decided to leave the EU. The results saw 51.9 percent voting in favour of an exit, while 48.1 percent voted to remain in the EU. The results announced early morning on June 24 symbolised an unprecedented moment in contemporary European history shaking the core of the EU. Some experts are comparing the shock waves caused by the Brexit as important as the ones after the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989. “Brexit was a British decision,” wrote Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times, “but a global shock.”Brexit caused an unprecedented political earthquake.”

The debate on the future relationship between the UK and the EU symbolises an interesting shift in the 21st century politics regarding cooperation, solidarity, national sovereignty, globalisation and national exceptionalism. For such reasons, the question of the Brexit referendum regarding the status of the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union, is relevant to world affairs and reflects the general political mood in the West.

Power Dynamics: The Origins of the Brexit and British Politics

The debate in the UK and in the United States has been fierce as Britain identifies and calculates the costs and benefits associated to either future for the United Kingdom. The core of the campaign was debating multiple issues, including immigration and its welfare costs, financial contributions to EU budget, sovereignty, and influence of non-Eurozone member on Eurozone decisions. However, British Prime Minister David Cameron and the EU agreed in January about the implementation of a special status in case of the victory of the stay campaign. Overall, the debate in the UK is about regaining control and influence over the decision-making from Brussels to London. The debate is about the power relation between a national capital and the EU.

Prime Minister Cameron is the one that has pushed for such referendum. Back in 2013, in order to unite with the most conservative branch of his party, increasingly anti-EU, the Tories, he pledged that if re-elected at the 2015 general elections, he would put the EU membership on the table before a popular vote. During his first mandate, he used serious anti-EU language and rhetoric towards Brussels.

In 2014, PM Cameron was campaigning in favour of Scotland to remain inside the UK, while at the same time negotiating with Brussels a deal for the UK in case of a Bremain. Cameron was pro-union for the UK and anti-union for Brussels at the same time. The political bitterness started with the Scottish referendum.

Years later, he was the one struggling to advocate for a Bremain. The political landscape is divided into two camps: the pro-Brexit and the pro-Bremain. The pro-Brexit position in favour of secession was led by Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, and Nigel Farage, head of the nationalist party, UKIP. In the Bremain camp, Prime Minister Cameron, Chancellor of Exchequer, George Osborne, and Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, campaigned in favour of the stay campaign. But the Labour party played only a minimal campaigning role in the Bremain camp for party politics. For Farage, Brexit is a first step towards what he hopes will be the disintegration of the EU. In a recent interview with the Financial Times, he explains that he would like to see the emergence of “a European continent of individual, sovereign democratic states that trade with each other.”

This referendum is only the third UK-wide referendum. The 2016 referendum is the second one about the status of the UK in the Union. The first one took place two years after joining the EU in 1973. The 1975 referendum ultimately confirmed the decision to stay in the Union. As argued by Professor Tony Travers, Department of Government LSE London, in an interview with the New York Times, both referenda on the in-out status of the UK in the EU were called “for party reasons more than national ones.”

The UK is not a founding member of the EU and its position has always been based on a core understanding of the Union as a common market first. Throughout its history as an EU member, the UK has remained highly sceptical of the continuous push for furthering/deepening the integration process. Britain’s decisions to join the Union was in reaction with the global decline of the UK caused by the progressive loss of its empire and a stagnating economy. The economic card was the principal added-value of the EU membership. The pro-Brexit side appears to be deeply attracted by a feeling of nostalgia of the British Empire and the lost past grandeur.

Transatlantic Discussions and Interpretations of Risks

On the other side of the pond, the United States tried to remain distant from debate, framing this campaign as the domestic politics of a foreign country. Washington did not want to negatively impact the Cameron’s campaign, however, President Obama clearly expressed that the United States prefers the UK as an EU member. The American interests are directly aligned with a Bremain, as it allows Washington to be closely involved in the evolution of the European decision-making process through its decade long special relationship.

But since the UK exit, the question about the future of the special relationship between London and Washington is very much on the table and could be much less comprehensive than during the last decades. President Obama explained that in the event of a Brexit, the UK will not receive any preferential status on any sort of trade deal and other global deal. In addition to Ambassador Samantha Power and Secretary of State John Kerry speaking in favour of the stay campaign, Janet Yellen, Chairman of the Federal Reserve, warned that a departure of the UK from the EU could have serious global economic repercussions.

Since the results, President Obama expressed that the US would maintain its close relationship with London, as well as the EU. Secretary Kerry also made a last minute trip on 27th June, to London and Brussels in order to talk with European leadership.

For the EU, the risks of a Brexit are quite considerable, more politically than economically. Even though the UK represents a large share of the overall GDP of the EU and is one of the largest economies in Europe, the EU will have less problems surviving such shock represented by a Brexit than the UK. In early May, the Bank of England broke its silence and warned of several considerable risks for the UK in case of a Brexit, counting the decline in the value of the pound, delay spending of households and businesses, increase unemployment, hitting economic growth and stoking inflation. All these could lead to a recession. Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF, agreed with Mark Carney’s warnings of potential risks of recession. These warnings have been confirmed, at least in the short term, by the reactions of global financial markets and the collapse of the pound to a 31-year low. Large global financial institutions are reflecting, depending on the future status of the UK in the EU, on an eventual move to either Ireland or Frankfurt.

Foreign and Defence Policies – Britain, CSDP and the Atlantic Alliance

Questions about foreign and defence policies ought to be raised and reflected upon. Historically, the UK has been a global power with an excellent diplomatic corps backed up by substantial military power. The UK is a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and has always valued the role of the Atlantic alliance.

In the realm of European foreign policy and defence, the UK and France have been the pillars of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), a military and civilian instrument of the EU for foreign interventions. The CSDP was politically founded in 1998 after a bilateral agreement between French President Chirac and British Prime Minister Blair. The war in Balkans (Bosnian and then Kosovo wars) highlighted the inabilities of European powers to stabilise their neighbourhood without the assistance of the United States.

A departure of the UK would certainly affect the future of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), and harm European diplomacy. This sector has been led by the Franco-British partnership since the late 1990s. France would lose Britain as a viable partner in European defence from both a practical and strategic angle. In foreign affairs, British diplomats have held influential positions in the newly created European External Action Service (EEAS) and over the years at the Commission. The recent negotiations with Iran and Russia, indirectly Ukraine, have been meaningful in part because of the weight of London. A British exit would seriously undermine the diplomatic and political weight of the Union. Paris has been a powerful diplomatic actor, but Berlin still remains reticent to match its regional and global economic weight with a more robust diplomatic and military voice.

On this question of defence and security, NATO chief, Jens Stoltenberg, underlined that a Brexit could accelerate the fragmentation of the security apparatus in Europe. The UK is one of the largest military forces, a sizeable defence contributor to NATO and the CSDP, an overall considerable military budget. In addition, in tandem with Paris and Washington, London provides strong strategic and leadership to the promotion of national and European foreign and defence policies. The ongoing regional crises, from Ukraine, to Syria, Libya, and the Sahel region, require strong cooperation among the members of the transatlantic community.

But since the 2011 intervention in Libya, London has become less active and less willing to intervene in Syria and Iraq. France to some extend has become a more ‘reliable’ partner for the US in the different military interventions throughout the Middle East and Africa. However, a UK departure from the EU will most likely not translate into a split with NATO. On the contrary, London may want to remain closely involved in the transatlantic security architecture. The NATO summit in Warsaw in July will be an important moment for the future of alliance and European security.

If the Brexit debate was about regaining national sovereignty from Brussels, it demonstrates a clear contradictory approach. Several aspects embody national sovereignty to its maximum: border control, fiscal policies and defence. The UK has complete control of its border (not being a member of the Schengen area) and of its fiscal and monetary policies being out of the Eurozone. Now on defence, the UK is core member of the Atlantic Alliance, NATO. At no time in the debate, the Brexit campaign neither ‘demonised’ NATO for undermining the national sovereignty of the UK, nor complained about the sticky institutional web of the United Nations Security Council. The attacks against the EU symbolising an international organisation undermining national sovereignty lacked of overarching thinking and criticism against cooperation.

Consequences for the EU and Europe

Nigel Farage’s hopes that the EU’s political foundations will implode could occur incrementally. Ensuing the Brexit dialogue, it is probable that member states such as Denmark, France, Hungary, the Netherlands and Poland, all under greater populist pressure, could potentially put their respective EU membership to a popular vote. Regardless of conceivable departures, a core member state such as the UK, leaving the Union is a considerable blow to the prestige and reputation of the EU.

From London, a Brexit is perceived as an acceptable risk considering its international status through its high level past. The UK is a G7 member; its ambassador sits at the table of United Nations Security Council as one of the permanent five, and is a core member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OCDE) and International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, the direct consequences have already shaken up the British political forces and the unity of the United Kingdom. The debate in the United Kingdom was already very passionate but took a dramatic turn after the murder of British Labour MP Jo Cox on June 16th. The consent has been that MP Cox died because of her strong political views and position on the Bremain, but had very little impact on the results.

Politically, the first victim has been PM Cameron. Less than 24 hours after the results, PM Cameron announced his resignation and departure from office in October. The Tories is now a party in search of a new leadership and unity. The Labour party is as well dealing with some serious internal problems. British commissioner for Financial Markets, Jonathan Hill, stepped down leaving an important Directorate of the Commission open until the appointment of a new Commissioner.

Another political consequence of the Brexit is a potential disintegration of the United Kingdom. Based on the results at the referendum and the political responses, Scotland and Northern Ireland are not in favour of leaving the EU. Scotland voted at 62 percent for remain and Northern Ireland at 55.8 percent. Two year ago, Scotland decided to stay in the UK because of the membership in the EU. Now that the UK is seeking for an exit, Scotland is very much looking at a way to maintain its status within the EU. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon already mentioned the eventuality of a new Scottish referendum. The possibility of a Scottish exit for the UK is now a possibility.

In terms of an exit of the UK from the Union, the Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon offers the legal framework of such a move. Article 50 permits a member state to withdraw its membership in accordance with its constitutional requirements. The treaties and obligations of the membership terminates two years after the invocation of the Article, which can only be done by the exiting member state. The say in Brussels about Article 50 is the rule that “was designed never to be used.”

In terms of procedure, the member state has first to notify the European Council (or all the heads of state and government) invoking Article 50. The Commission will be negotiating the withdrawing agreement after receiving a mandate from EU ministers (so the Council). The agreement will then be concluded by EU governments, or the Council, acting by a qualified majority (or 72%), only after receiving consent from the European Parliament. So, the process involves almost all EU institutions. If the Council, composed of the 27 Member States (minus the withdrawing member), were to agree with the Commission on the terms of the agreement, the Parliament, representing EU citizens, could be a highly unpredictable actor.

One concept has been interesting to monitor since 24th June, the urgency of the process. As announced in his speech, President Juncker wants to start the negotiation process on the withdrawal agreement as quickly as possible. This will go through the triggering of the official exit mechanism under the Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon. The EU wants to go as fast as possible in order to get the UK out of the Union. Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, German, French and Italian leaders are all advocating for a ‘quick’ divorce. But from London, it seems that the feeling of urgency is not being shared. First of all, Prime Minister Cameron has announced that he will be resigning in October and that the next Prime Minister should be the one leading the Brexit talks with the EU. PM Cameron has promised to “steady the ship,” even though he will not be invocating article 50. He has repeated that what happens next is in the hands of his successor. A potential candidate for the position of Prime Minister, Boris Johnston expressed that there is no urgency in pushing for the official negotiations.

The EU is still quite shocked about the results and wants to avoid a lingering process. The discussions around either an official withdrawal agreement or a different short of exit agreement are quite central at this moment.

A Broader Picture – A Shared European Malaise

Despite a considerable degree of uncertainty, the Brexit exemplifies the ongoing malaise in Europe about the future of the Union and the support to European cooperation and construction. The European project has historically lacked popular support, but its leadership has been able to advocate in favour of cooperation, solidarity and integration. The degree of interdependence and interconnection among the 28 member states is incredible and often times misunderstood by European citizens and political elites. The fact that the UK and other EU member states cannot conceive a commitment to an “ever closer” union is a serious problem. Early 2016, Prime Minister Cameron was able to negotiate, in case of a Bremain, that the references of the founding treaties of an “ever closer” union would no longer apply to the UK.

The results of the referendum illustrate a larger malaise about the EU, globalisation, immigration, and openness to the world embodied in the rise of populist parties throughout the Euro-Atlantic community.

In France, Austria, Poland, Greece and so forth, citizens are increasingly voting for populist parties, on the right and the left, as such parties promise a return to full sovereignty, greater control from the EU, and a fight against globalisation. As illustrated by the chart based on Pew’ survey on global attitudes, the trend throughout the European Union has principally been to return powers to national governments. The most extremes were the three British parties, Spain’s Podemos (44%), the governing polish party Law and Justice (48%), People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) (50%), Greek governing party Syriza (68%) and the French right, les Republicans (43%). French and German largest political parties are the only two EU member states the most favourable towards greater transfer of power to the EU. Among the nine member states selected, the UK is the least favourable to an increase of power towards the EU, or even maintaining the current status. The UK conservative party, led by PM Cameron whom was leading the Bremain campaign, largely feels that powers should be returned to London (at 77%).

The EU is an enterprise based on solidarity, cooperation and diversity. The many recent crises such as the Greek debt crisis, the migration crisis, the rise of populism have highlighted a certain level of disconnect between European citizens and the EU. The talks about the EU have been overtaken by emotions at the expense of facts. The Brexit is a real wake-up call for Europe with serious political and economic consequences. What European history has proven to scholars is that the EU always ends up bouncing back by taking an unforeseen route. All the pieces seem to be present to surprise all of us once again.

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