Win or Lose, the Brexit Vote Shows How Hard It Is to Defend the EU

Even the “remain” camp couldn’t muster an argument in defense of Brussels-style democracy.

SHEFFIELD, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 22: A defaced UKIP poster showing the faces of Nigel Farage and David Cameron on May 22, 2014 in Sheffield, England. Voters across Europe are taking to the polls to vote in the elections for the European Parliament as well as local council elections in England and Northern Ireland. (Photo by )
SHEFFIELD, UNITED KINGDOM - MAY 22: A defaced UKIP poster showing the faces of Nigel Farage and David Cameron on May 22, 2014 in Sheffield, England. Voters across Europe are taking to the polls to vote in the elections for the European Parliament as well as local council elections in England and Northern Ireland. (Photo by )

When David Cameron decided to hold a national referendum on the United Kingdom’s continuing membership in the European Union, he must have thought that this would provide a relatively easy of way of settling a dispute within the Conservative Party that had simmered for decades, occasionally breaking out into open warfare. Although the EU was not exactly popular with the majority of the British public, most of them appreciated the material advantages it offered, such as freedom to travel and the possibility of spending your retirement years in places where the sun shone and the living was easy. Moreover, it was a well-established truth about referendums that in the face of uncertainty voters tended to support the status quo – witness the referendum on Scottish independence, and before that the even more decisive rejection of a change to the voting system for parliamentary elections.

But now that polling day has arrived, the outcome seems finely balanced, with several polls showing a small but significant majority in favor of Britain’s leaving the EU. So what has gone wrong with the Cameron plan? Why are so many people unconvinced by the chorus of previously respected figures, inside and outside the country, warning them of the dangers of voting Leave?

Part of the answer is the role that the issue of immigration has come to play in the campaign. Levels of immigration into Britain have been relatively high in recent years, with about half of all immigrants entering under the EU’s freedom-of-movement law, and this has caused social tensions in some places where migrants have clustered.

But it’s telling that these are not necessarily the places where opposition to the EU is strongest. In Britain, immigration has come to stand for something more than immigration itself. The British government’s inability to control (intra-European) migration is seen as emblematic of a wider loss of control. Many Britons feel that they are no longer in charge of their own destiny: “Take back our country” is a slogan that resonates along the campaign trail. Seen in this light, the Leave movement can be viewed as part of a much wider reaction against globalization that has taken different forms in different countries, but always calls for power to be seized from the political establishment — seen as being in cahoots with their international counterparts — and brought back to the people themselves.

The cross-party coalition trying to persuade the electorate to support Remain (i.e., to stay within the EU) faces a further difficulty. It has relied to a very large extent on highlighting the economic costs of an exit. Prognostications of the price that voters will pay if they choose to support Leave have become steadily more dire as polling day approaches. But this is rarely accompanied by any positive vision of the benefits of EU membership. Cameron’s presentation of the case for Remain has largely centered on the few small concessions and reassurances he was able to obtain in his negotiations before the referendum. There will be no requirement to join the Euro or to transfer further powers to Brussels; Turkey will not be invited to become a member for many decades ahead; and the EU will cut the U.K. a little slack on the payment of welfare benefits to migrant workers. In other words, we are safe for the foreseeable future from some of the impositions that the European Commission might otherwise attempt.

Taken together with the economic warnings, the whole approach of the Conservative Party Remainers to the referendum can be summed up in the concluding lines of G.K. Chesterton’s sorry tale of Jim, the boy who ran away and got eaten by a lion:

Always keep ahold of Nurse

For fear of finding something worse.

For the Labour Party, the problem is a little different. Their job is to convince their core voters, many of whom are inclined to support Leave, that the EU provides essential protection for workers’ rights and welfare state institutions that would otherwise come under threat from a Conservative government. But it is difficult to make this argument without sounding defeatist. Does Britain’s labor movement no longer have the strength and self-confidence to mount the defense on its own, without help from European bureaucrats? Is the Labour Party conceding that it is never going to govern Britain again? When Yvette Cooper, a leading figure in the party, argued the Remain case on television, she was gently reminded by her Conservative opponent, the son of Ghanaian immigrants, that the National Health Service and the other parts of the welfare state had been brought into existence single-handedly by Clement Attlee’s postwar Labour government, unaided by any European institutions. This is a painful reminder of the power that parliamentary sovereignty once gave to parties of the left as well as of the right.

The public position of the Labour leadership (there are some doubts about the private views of the present party leader, Jeremy Corbyn) is that Labour wants Britain to remain within “a reformed EU.” A reformed EU is presumably one that would promote Labour’s social democratic values. But nobody has suggested how this reform is going to be accomplished. It is, in fact, very difficult indeed to reform the EU. There are 28 member states, with very diverse economic interests and, at any one moment governments of sharply differing political complexions. A change to the rules on freedom of movement, for example, will be welcomed by some but bitterly opposed by others. Nobody in the Remain campaign is singing the praises of the European Parliament, or arguing, as some academics have done, that “European democracy” is a goal worth striving for. The EU is commended for what it delivers — economic stability according to the right, workers’ rights and environmental protection according to the left — but not for the manner in which it does so. The dystopian vision of Europe as a top-down bureaucratic machine thus goes unchallenged.

This offers the Leave side a strong democratic card to play, which it has used effectively. Its weak point is its inability even to sketch the kind of relationship that Britain would seek to create with the EU if the Brexit were to go ahead. At different times comparisons have been drawn with the arrangements made by Norway, Switzerland, and even Canada, but none of these precisely fits the position of the U.K. Those in the Remain camp are quick to point out that if Britain is to continue to be included in the single economic market, the price to pay is accepting freedom of movement within Europe – so the Brexit on those terms will do nothing to allay fears about uncontrolled immigration, and meanwhile the U.K. would lose whatever voice it has when the rules that govern the market are being debated.

So the outcome on Thursday will depend on whether the Leave campaign can instill enough optimism in the undecided voters to persuade them to take a leap in the dark, or whether the pessimistic warnings of the Remain side begin to ring true.

The question that will stay unresolved is whether there could be a future for Britain in Europe that keeps national democracy alive and well. Could the European Union actually come to practice what it preaches when it talks about subsidiarity, the principle that political decisions should be made only at a higher (in this case European) level when they cannot be made effectively at a lower (in this case national or regional) level?

Although Britain’s elites have failed to offer the public any reason to think highly of the existing EU, it should come as no surprise that some Britons have started to indulge in speculation about future European arrangements. Some have expressed the extraordinarily optimistic view, for instance, that a vote by the U.K. to leave might create such a political upheaval across Europe that the EU would be forced to reconstitute itself as a looser alliance among nations that no longer attempted to harmonize and regulate the internal affairs of its member states. National governments would take back powers deemed essential by their citizens, including the right to control borders. An EU like this would be one that most Britons would happily join — or rejoin, as it were, in a second referendum.

Photo credit: DAVE THOMPSON/Getty Images

David Miller is Official Fellow and Professor of Political Theory at Nuffield College, University of Oxford.

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